The GiveWell Blog

Assessing disaster relief organizations

Over the past year, we have been examining disaster relief organizations, with particular attention to the quality of the information they provide on their work in the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

We don’t think disaster relief is the best cause for impact-oriented donors and we are unable (details below) to apply our standard international aid criteria to disaster relief organizations. However, we think there is a lot of room for improvement in the information currently available for disaster relief donors, and a lot of room to improve incentives for the major disaster relief organizations to be as transparent and accountable as possible.

Questions we’ve focused on

In examining charities’ information, we’ve focused on the following questions:

  1. Financials. Did organizations clearly and frequently disclose how much they were seeking, what they’d do if they raised more than they sought, how much they’d raised and how much they’d spent?
  2. Transparency on activities. Did charities provide specific and comprehensive accounts of their activities in the affected areas? Could someone on the ground verify or refute their claims about how its money was spent?
  3. Results. Did charities publish substantive information on their successes and shortcomings?
  4. Everyday work. Do charities publish clear and substantive information about their non-disaster relief work? We’ve argued before that donations intended for disaster relief may effectively fund charities’ everyday operations instead (even if they are formally earmarked for and allocated to disaster relief). Therefore, we think the quality of (and transparency around) a charity’s everyday work ought to carry a heavy weight in donors’ decisions.

What we’ve found

  1. Financials. Most major organizations have disclosed how much they’ve raised and (less frequently) how much they’ve spent. No organizations have been consistent and clear about how much money they were seeking. In cases where we have been able to find posted amounts sought, the charities posting them generally quickly raised more than they were seeking. In one case the appeal was constantly revised upwards. Despite raising much more than they sought (and than they’ve spent), we’ve only seen two groups that stopped taking donations for the disaster.
  2. Transparency on activities. Few organizations are clear about what they’re doing on the ground. Most give examples and very broad budgets. But with a few exceptions, charities have not given specific enough accounts to givea sense of how they spent their money.
  3. Results. No evaluations seem to be posted yet for Haiti relief. Many have been posted for work on the Asian tsunami; we haven’t yet had time to evaluate these evaluations (and don’t expect to have done so by next week).
  4. Everyday work. Few of the large organizations we examined are clear about how their overall budget breaks down and what they do around the world. There are some groups that are clearer than others.

How we chose organizations to examine

We are unable to predict the location and nature of the next disaster, so it wouldn’t make sense for us to look for an organization with specific ongoing, outstanding, underfunded work (as we usually do). Instead, we wish to focus on the large, global organizations that will probably attract the lion’s share of donor attention and funding whenever, wherever and however the next disaster strikes. To create a list of these organizations, we referred to:

  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s tally of which charities had raised how much for Haiti relief as of July 2010. The biggest numbers on this list are likely the biggest money-raisers overall; charities absent from the list likely didn’t raise enough to be of interest, or didn’t share their tallies with the Chronicle (and we feel the latter would be a significantly bad sign for accountability).
  • A list we had made in the weeks immediately following the Haiti earthquake, noting which charities were advertising via Google Adwords for earthquake-related searches. This is a simple heuristic for finding charities that are likely to rely upon, and solicit, donations from the public at large.

Specifically, we rated and ranked any charity that either (a) appeared in the Chronicle tally and advertised via Google Adwords; or (b) was among the 10 biggest money-raisers in the Chronicle tally, regardless of whether we saw its ads on Google Adwords. These criteria produced a list of 19 prominent charities; we added a few more at our discretion.

More information forthcoming

Next week we will be publishing:

  • Detailed writeups on each charity we examined and the information we could find on the above questions.
  • A summary table showing the strength of different charities’ answers to our questions, and noting the charities we think stand out for their superior transparency so far.
  • Full details of our process for creating these pages.


  • Bob Marlowe on August 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm said:

    I am interested in info you have developed since January 2011 on what monies have been given to the Haiti earthquake relief cause and how it is being spent. I continue to get requests for donations and I have stopped reponding until I have gotten some confidence in how the money is being used.
    Bob Marlowe

Comments are closed.