The GiveWell Blog

Giving to support the relief effort for the Nepal earthquake

GiveWell aims to find giving opportunities that allow donors to do as much good as possible with their donations, and our research efforts focus on that goal.

We have not researched giving opportunities related to the relief effort for the Nepal earthquake, specifically. Below, we share our 6 tips on disaster relief giving, a post we first made in November 2013.


6 tips on disaster relief giving

Our general advice on disaster relief giving:

1. Give cash, not clothes (or other goods). Giving away unwanted items makes donors feel good, and relief agencies can be under substantial pressure to accept their gifts-in-kind. But shipping and sorting these gifts can be a substantial expense and hassle, and such gifts can literally get in the way. If you have items you don’t want, consider selling them and donating the proceeds. Gifts-in-kind burden relief organizations with figuring out how to use what they have; cash allows them to quickly get what they need. More

2. Support an organization that will help or get out of the way. Logistics can be a major challenge in disaster situations. For example, when we followed up on the Haiti earthquake relief effort a year after the incident, we found that much of the disaster relief money had still not been spent, and that ~80%+ of the rubble had still not been cleared. A highly professional, experienced organization with a pre-existing presence in the affected country will likely help where it can, and stay out of the way where it can’t. But a less professional organization could easily detract from the relief effort.

3. Give proactively, not reactively. Don’t give to a charity just because it calls you on the phone, advertises on your Google search or otherwise connects with you first. That rewards the most aggressive organizations instead of the most competent and responsible ones. Instead, give not just money but thoughtfulness – take the time to find the best giving option you can.

4. Allow your funds to be used where most needed – even if that means they’re not used during this disaster. Disasters attract a great deal of media attention and money, yet in many cases the biggest challenge is logistics. The result can be that money isn’t the limiting factor in the immediate relief effort. We found evidence of this both for the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Japan tsunami.

That doesn’t mean money isn’t needed. The rebuilding effort can be very expensive. Beyond that, there are many disasters – and cases of everyday suffering – that aid organizations struggle to address, without being able to raise nearly as much funding for them as they can for a media-dominating disaster. It’s common for charities to use a disaster as an opportunity to raise funds for their other work.

We recommend giving to an organization that does outstanding work around the world (not just in the affected area), with no strings attached.

5. Give to organizations that are transparent and accountable. In general, we’ve found that relief organizations disclose very little about what activities they undertake and how they spend relief funds (more at our reports on the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Japan tsunami). In general, when a disaster strikes, the first organizations we turn to are:

  • Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has distinguished itself with well-above-average transparency in both of the cases listed above. In the case of the 2011 Japan tsunami, it straightforwardly disclosed that it was not seeking more funding for use in the relief effort, and was one of the only organizations to do so. We believe it’s worth rewarding MSF for its unusual transparency, and if it doesn’t use your money on this disaster, it will likely use it to address a less-publicized crisis.
  • The local Red Cross. The Red Cross generally takes a leading role in a relief effort and (it seems to us) is assigned credit/blame for how the overall effort goes, to a greater degree than other nonprofits. The American Red Cross will often redirect donations to the local Red Cross, minus a sometimes-substantial fee.

We wrote more about these two options when we made recommendations about how to respond to the 2011 Japan earthquake/tsunami.

Added July 2015: we briefly addressed a 2015 ProPublica report on the Red Cross in this comment.

6. Think about less-publicized suffering. Every day, people die from preventable and curable diseases, in many cases because they lack access to proven life-savers such as insecticide-treated nets. Their day-to-day suffering isn’t well-suited to making headlines, and they generally don’t attract the attention and dollars that disaster relief victims do – yet we believe that donations targeting these populations do more good than disaster relief donations.

If a recent disaster has given you a strengthened desire to reduce suffering and help others, consider asking whether you might be able to broaden this desire and make it part of your everyday life. Consider joining the community of effective altruists seeking to make their hours and their dollars go as far as possible toward making the world a better place. GiveWell’s role in that community is to put thousands of hours of research into identifying the best giving opportunities possible – not the ones that make the news, but the ones that will make your dollars go the farthest.

For more advice, see:

Comments

  • So glad they are being helped. It’s great to see how many people and groups are helping the rescue efforts — the support is overwhelming. Times of need bring out the best in people.

  • Laila Atallah on April 30, 2015 at 2:16 am said:

    Can you tell us some of the best ways to find good, smaller organizations that are already based in Nepal (perhaps even Nepali-run), have excellent local contacts, and a strong record of doing great work? Thanks.

  • James on May 1, 2015 at 4:01 pm said:

    This is really a trying time for the people of Nepal but they would really come out stronger. Thanks for all those that have sent relief materials

  • Liz on May 4, 2015 at 4:31 pm said:

    Laila Atallah – check out Nepal Youth Foundation. The founder is an amazing, now 90 you woman, who founded NYF 25 or so years ago and has since rescued over 12,000 young women from indentured servitude and done so much more. Google the foundation and see what you think. Olga Murray, the founder, was one of the people interviewed by CNN shortly after the quake hit.

  • Tom Stocker on May 5, 2015 at 8:47 am said:

    Possible health / Nyaya health a good bet here re: nepali run orgs that could do with money and are likely to use it well over the short and medium term? http://www.givewell.org/international/charities/Nyaya-Health

  • Blaber Blogger on July 8, 2015 at 5:05 am said:

    Nepal is safe now and its time to help Nepal recover and that’s by visiting Nepal. Its time you take a visit to this beautiful paradise in the Himalayas. Check 10 Reasons Why You Can Visit Nepal Even After The Earthquake: Help Nepal By Visiting
    http://www.blaberblogger.com/2015/05/10-reasons-why-you-can-visit-nepal-even.html

  • Holden on July 24, 2015 at 10:04 am said:

    A 2015 ProPublica investigation raises good questions about the Red Cross effort in Haiti, and by extension our recommendation for supporting the Red Cross generally. We feel the ProPublica report may be more indicative of the issues with disaster relief as a whole than with the Red Cross, specifically, and the existence of this article supports the idea that there will typically be more scrutiny of the Red Cross’s work than that of other large international organizations.

    I note that:

    • Our Red Cross recommendation is a general one. For most specific disasters, there will be an organization that is a better choice than the Red Cross—but in giving general advice to low-information donors who want to fund relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we need to recommend an organization that will be relevant in almost any case, which means a large international organization. In other words, recommending the Red Cross and MSF seems like the most useful recommendation we can make without detailed knowledge of the specific disaster. (That said, this is a good reminder of one of the challenges with disaster relief giving: it is usually not practical to get a strong understanding of the situation reasonably quickly.)
    • The fact that ProPublica chose to focus on the Red Cross provides some support of our view that, due to the leading role in relief efforts it often takes, the Red Cross is generally more likely to be held accountable than other large organizations. One year after the Haiti earthquake, we conducted an examination of 30 organizations that participated in relief efforts and found generally poor transparency and evidence of impact. We haven’t seen a similarly detailed journalistic investigation of other organizations that operated in Haiti, and I am skeptical they would have fared better than the Red Cross under comparable scrutiny. The ProPublica article may be more indicative of the challenges of providing disaster relief than evidence the Red Cross performed worse than other organizations working in Haiti—and suggests its impact is likely to be more closely monitored, which we see as broadly a good thing.
    • There are two places where the ProPublica report says or implies that other organizations outperformed the Red Cross; in both cases it seems worth noting that there isn’t clear evidence for its claims. It’s definitely possible that both claims would hold up to investigation (which I haven’t done), but neither is compelling to me as presented.
      • Its claim that other organizations built 9,000 homes (compared to 6 for the Red Cross) does not have a link or citation, and I would guess that the two figures (9,000 and 6) refer to different things: other parts of the article discuss ambiguities in the definition of homes provided.
      • The ProPublica report also states that other groups were more successful than the Red Cross in containing cholera, but the link for this claim goes to an article focused on the overall failure to contain the cholera outbreak. While the Red Cross is mentioned (as having spent less on containing cholera than Doctors Without Borders), the article does not clearly support the claim.
    • The major themes of the ProPublica report are (a) a small number of homes built; (b) the fact that the Red Cross regranted substantial funds to other organizations, which led to multiple layers of “overhead”; (c) a lack of transparency on the part of the Red Cross. (a) seems to have at least partly stemmed from land title challenges that I would guess affected other organizations, as well. (b) seems highly likely to apply to any major organization aiming to disburse a large amount of money. (c) strongly appears to be true of other international aid organizations, as we found in our Jan. 2011 review. I find the other ProPublica critiques to be suggestive but not damning.

    Bottom line: if one is intent on directly supporting the relief effort, and looking for a quick general recommendation that doesn’t require specific knowledge of the situation, it still seems to me that the Red Cross is the right choice. With that said, I believe other options are a more effective way to make use of the motivation to give in the aftermath of a disaster—giving to MSF (which would likely result in effectively supporting relief work for a less-publicized disaster), or giving to charities addressing everyday suffering.

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