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5 Tips For Donating After Disasters

Earlier this month we published an investigation with NPR into the American Red Cross' failures in Haiti. We've gotten a lot of questions from readers (including on Reddit) wondering what to do next time a big disaster hits.

What should you do if you want to help? To whom should you send money?

There's no simple answer. And there is no one-stop shop that can answer those questions.

But if you're willing to put in a bit of time, you can be a more informed donor and increase the chances that your money will reach those in need.

Here are a few tips, based on conversations with experts and reporting in Haiti:

Research before you give. Take the time to read up on your group - this can be as simple as a few Google searches and checking out information compiled by various charity watchdogs. Have there been any issues with management? Has the group performed well in the past? Has it had problems? The answers to these questions can inform your choices.

If you do give, you can demand meaningful transparency. Nonprofit organizations are generally required to make only broad disclosures about their finances. (The American Red Cross' annual tax return, for example, doesn't reveal anything at all about its Haiti program.) But as a donor, you can ask the organization you're giving to to make public, detailed disclosures about their spending. As Haiti aid expert Jake Johnston pointed out in our Reddit AMA discussion, you can also ask elected officials to exercise their own oversight of charities that raise money after disasters.

Local groups or those that have deep local ties can be the best option. One issue that came up again and again in our Haiti reporting is that the American Red Cross did not have significant experience working in Haiti, hindering its efforts to operate in the country. We also heard about groups - some large, some small - that had been in the country for decades and employed Haitians in top positions. They tended to be more successful. As Francois Pierre-Louis, a political science professor and former community organizer in Haiti added on Reddit, donors can "work with local organizations that are connected with the population. Too often these groups are not even recognized." So if you're considering giving to a group, it's worth doing a bit of research to see what kind of experience it has in the country in question.

There are options beyond traditional charities. While the idea remains the subject of much debate, some in the aid world are now advocating simply giving money to those in need.

Think beyond the next disaster. Jonathan Katz, a reporter who wrote the book on the troubled post-earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, argues that it's the time between disasters when the most important work has to be done. From his book: "Poverty and a lack of local institutions create the shoddy conditions that make disasters deadlier than they have to be . . . Supporting efforts to give aid directly to local governments, and the goal of building local institutions that operate independently of foreign control, will go exponentially further than cargo planes of tarps and bottled water. It's true that we don't always know what locals will do with that assistance, but that's the point. It's up to them."

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Comments welcome.


Posted on June 23, 2015

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