Elkhorn River aerial

Flood damage from the Elkhorn River.

A rash of social media fundraisers started by ordinary people popped up after this month’s historic flooding, urging monetary donations for Nebraskans and Iowans in need.

Some have garnered more cash than others. Some have larger goals of helping many. Others sought donations to help one displaced family.

While such fundraisers can directly help people in need, experts caution donors to be wary of personal fundraisers and vet the sources before giving.

“Following a disaster, there’s that immediate reaction. You see it and it’s horrible, and you want to do something about it. Hit pause and do a little digging,” said Ashley Post, the communications manager for Charity Navigator. The website assesses and rates nonprofit organizations based on how effective, transparent, accountable and trustworthy they are. “The gut check is still the best: Does it feel legitimate?” Post said. “Does it feel right?”

A search of “Nebraska flood” on the GoFundMe crowdfunding site reveals 340 results, many directed to help local families and other funds based in other states asking to help flood victims. “Iowa flood” brings up more than 230 results.

Post said if donors trust the person who’s collecting the money, that’s great. But if it’s a stranger, beware.

Social media campaigns can put a face on a crisis and encourage young people to donate, she said.

“It empowers younger generations to give. Usually, the gifts are smaller,” she said. “These campaigns become really shareable.”

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The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office advises donors to give to organizations with familiar reputations, to avoid cash donations, to be wary of charities with names similar to well-known nonprofits, and to be cautious about social media fundraisers that lack ties to an established group.

Attorney General Doug Peterson said Friday that his office’s Consumer Protection Division hasn’t received any complaints about flood-related fundraising scams, but he anticipates that more will unfold as photos of the devastation circulate.

Reputable organizations have more accountability than a single person collecting money, Peterson said.

“Registered nonprofits fall under our consumer protection laws here in Nebraska,” he said. “It’s difficult for possible donors to really know (the accountability of an individual) unless they have a personal friendship with the person. It’s difficult to know how well they will manage the donations and how they will distribute them.”

The Attorney General’s Office has been in contact with two large fundraisers that garnered more than a combined $300,000 over social media. Officials advised the two of safeguards they should employ when distributing the money.

“Our main purpose was to reach out to them and let them know we’re apprised of what they’re doing,” Peterson said.

Alex Stepanek hoped to raise $5,000 for flood relief, but as of Friday had collected more than $230,000 via Facebook. Stepanek told donors Friday that the nonprofit Loup City Entrepreneur’s Club will handle the fund distribution with little or no administrative costs.

Stepanek and a co-founder decided that $75,000 will be given to the Nebraska Farm Bureau, then $20,000 each to five counties, another $10,000 each to an additional five counties and toward funeral costs for the three confirmed fatalities from the floods.

Wyn Wiley, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and photographer, started a fundraiser that caught fire on Instagram after he urged others to match his initial $250 donation toward flood relief. By Friday, the fund had grown to more than $75,000, with a goal of $100,000.

All the donations have been sent to his personal Venmo and Paypal accounts, but Wiley has said the money will be forwarded to organizations without touching his bank accounts.

Wiley said on Instagram on Friday that he won’t take a personal or business income tax deduction for the donation. Because of Venmo restrictions, he said, he will distribute about $18,760 to one organization per week for the next four weeks. The first recipient, he said, will be the Santee Nation Disbursement Fund.

Wiley did not respond to two attempts to reach him Friday.

Wiley is good friends with Peterson’s son, Peterson said, but Peterson doesn’t endorse Wiley’s fundraiser.

On Friday, Peterson’s office sent Stepanek and Wiley letters and emails. The letter requests that they keep the Attorney General’s Office informed of their efforts “by providing the undersigned investigator with an itemization of all receipts and disbursements related to your fundraising activity.” The information should be provided no later than April 8 and at 30-day intervals after that, the letter said.

The letter went on cite Nebraska statutes noting that “it is considered a deceptive trade practice to obtain ‘money or property by knowingly false or fraudulent pretenses, representations or promises.’ ”

Peterson said his office is “encouraging everyone when they give to make sure they give to a known entity that they can hold accountable with their donation,” Peterson said. “Everyone needs to recognize that those charitable groups that have an established track record of using the funds appropriately will give you a greater degree of confidence that your money’s going to the right place.”

Even various nonprofits spend their money differently, which is why Charity Navigator provides ratings of organizations. After the floods, the website created a list of the top-rated charities that are helping relief and recovery efforts.

The Nebraska Broadcasters Association held a telethon on Friday that would direct money to the American Red Cross. As of 11 p.m. Friday, the event raised almost $406,000.

Charity Navigator gives the Red Cross three out of four stars and says 89 percent of donations go toward its programs and services, while the rest goes to administrative and fundraising expenses.

Post said that donors should be aware of how a charity spends its money but that donating is a personal decision and is different for everyone.

“A charity does need to fundraise and pay bills and keep their lights on,” Post said. “We encourage donors to do their due diligence in the midst of a disaster.”

Josh Murray, a local Red Cross spokesman, said money — like the $28,000 taken up at the Husker basketball game on Wednesday — is immediately distributed toward shelters, food, cleanup kits and other efforts.

“We’ve put that to work right away,” he said.