We’ve been researching the cause of disaster relief, with the goal of doing a better job than we have in the past serving the donors who come to us for help in the wake of a crisis. At this point our research is still in progress, but we can offer some basic advice to donors interested in helping as effectively as possible:
- Give money; don’t give anything else. This has been one of the strongest and most agreed-upon recommendations of the “smart giving” community in general, and we join the broad consensus. Money enables organizations to provide what’s most needed. By contrast, “in-kind donations” need to be transported overseas; then agencies need to sort what’s useful from what isn’t; finally, they need to deal with non-useful supplies. This can worsen already-formidable logistical challenges, and in the end the costs of transportation and allocation can be greater than the value of the goods themselves.
For more, see our argument against in-kind donations from earlier this year (including a citation of USAID’s statement that in-kind donations are “most often inappropriate”), Alanna Shaikh’s discussion of in-kind donations on Aid Watch, and Saundra Schimmelpfenig’s 32 posts on the topic.
- Don’t give to an organization you’ve never heard of or an organization that calls you on the phone. This is common sense, a matter of being proactive with your giving (seeking to do as much good as possible) rather than reactive (giving to whoever approaches you and thus making yourself an easy potential victim for scams). We think it is especially risky to give over the phone, or in direct response to a mailing.
- Consider the following key issues for an organization you’re donating to: (a) transparency and accountability – giving details on how much they seek, how much they’ve raised, how much they’ve spent, plans for any excess funds, and as much detail as possible on how they’ve spent funds and what they’ve done; (b) response capacity – having significant staff on the ground in relevant areas prior to the disaster striking; (c) quality of response – doing competent work that is well-matched to local needs; (d) quality of everyday activities – since your donation may effectively fund non-disaster-relief efforts, we think it’s important that an organization disclose information about what its other activities are and how they are evaluated.
- Consider that disaster relief may not be the best use of your donation. We have argued before that disaster relief may be less cost-effective than everyday international aid, especially when the disaster in question is a heavily publicized one (and thus one that may have money pouring in past the point of diminishing returns). Preliminarily, it appears that the Pakistan effort has been much less well-funded than the Haiti effort, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the numbers, and it’s always worth considering giving to an outstanding organization that is helping people in need on a day-to-day basis, without the media coverage that comes with a disaster.
Our recommended organizations
Our key questions for organizations are listed above. Generally, we’ve found that most large, reputable organizations score fairly well on two of our criteria: they are fairly strong on the transparency/accountability front, and they often have existing field presences in at-risk regions. The level of disclosure about non-disaster-relief activities varies widely but is often weak; we have not yet found a good way of determining the quality of aid. With that in mind, the organizations that have stood out to us so far (very much subject to change) are:
- Population Services International (PSI). PSI is one of our top charities for its everyday work; its level of transparency about its activities and the evaluation of them is outstanding. (See our review for details.) It has been in Pakistan for over 20 years (source).
- Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). We have been impressed with MSF’s past transparency about its limited need for funds, something we haven’t seen in any other organization. Its activity reports give a fairly clear picture of its activities around the world, and we are impressed with its public site publishing field research, something we’ve seen from few other large/diverse international aid organizations (PSI and CARE are others). We find its field news to be more detailed and specific than the press releases of most other organizations (a notable exception is the Red Cross, discussed immediately below).
- Red Cross. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies seems to freely provide the most specifics on exactly how much money it has sought and has spent and exactly what it has done. See its country list for links to all of its many past reports. Donating to the Red Cross (whether the American Red Cross or the Red Cross in another country) may be an “obvious” choice, but we think it is also a very defensible one; the Red Cross probably receives more scrutiny, and pressure to be clear about what it is doing, than anyone else, and because of its size and name recognition it may also be particularly well-positioned to carry out a lot of relief while staying coordinated with the government.
These are only preliminary impressions – much more is coming on the topic, and we may change our conclusions about which organizations are best to give to – but as there is a disaster unfolding now, we thought we’d share what we’re thinking.