Posted by: justawriter | February 15, 2010

Far Afield – When you give, keep it simple

Once more Americans are opening their hearts by opening their wallets.
The earthquake that has rocked Haiti has prompted an outpouring of aid to assist the relief effort to rescue the trapped and feed, clothe and house the dispossessed. It is one of those times where tragedy brings out our better natures.
It also brings out some of the dark underbelly of America as well. A certain rotund radio host has proclaimed that our simple humane gesture of sending troops to help in the recovery efforts was really about the president securing the black vote. A television preacher and activist dragged up an awful legend that Haiti brought this on themselves by making a deal with the devil to defeat France and gain independence more the 200 years ago. Fortunately, America is made of better stuff than that and those buffoons were largely ignored.
By and large, as a country we are a giving people. Whether the crisis is a medical emergency or a school trip or rescuing abused animals, there are always people willing to give their time and money to help others in need. That is one of the reasons the United States is a great country.
The fly in the ointment is that we often let our own prejudices and self-interest overrule our generosity. One example is a requirement I understand is attached to some federal food aid grants that the cash can only be used to buy American commodities. This puts a burden on charities who could buy more food from local sources and not have to waste thousands of dollars shipping it halfway across the world. This practice also steals customers from those local farmers and processors, actually taking away jobs from those we are trying to help.
In-kind donations are another sort of double edged sword. There are times when it is appropriate, such as sending construction equipment to Haiti to help dig out trapped people and clean up the devastation. But some manufacturers have used charities to clear unsaleable merchandise from their inventories and get a tax break to boot.
I remember reading about a charity in Somalia opening a crate from a manufacturer and finding it was full of women’s high-heel shoes. Not the most practical gift in the midst of a famine. Other gifts are useless because of ignorance of other countries. Following the devastating Christmas tsunami of 2004, winter coats were sent to Indonesia, a country that almost defines the word tropical.
We also have a tendency to only want to help the “deserving.” There is no way to kill a useful program or charity than to claim to have seen one of its recipients eating steak or driving a fancy car. Certainly there should be efforts to prevent widespread fraud against charities. But these measures can be taken to the point where help is denied to hundreds in order to stop one from getting a few undeserved dollars, not to mention all the resources need to investigate and account for each penny that could have gone to helping hundreds more.
The best donations possible are money, followed closely by time. With a few exceptions of charities specifically geared to handle them – such as food banks, blankets, clothing, and food – are more trouble than they are worth to charities. The clothing has to be cleaned. All of it needs to be sorted and warehoused and then transported to where it is needed. All that has significant costs for the charities involved. Sometimes the donations are sold for pennies or just thrown away because they are not worth the trouble.
Money, on the other had, spends everywhere. It can be moved around the world electronically at the speed of light. Charities can buy the material they need close to where the crisis is occurring, which also helps prop up the economy of the people they are trying to help. It also is much easier to keep track of and simplifies the accounting (what is the value of a $600 spike heel designer shoe in a famine?).
The same goes for volunteers. Doctors, nurses and people with construction skills are badly needed in Haiti and thousands of generous and brave people are in the country or are headed there. Others, like newspaper editors for example, would most likely just get in the way and should be content with sending money.
The American Institute of Philanthropy has a list of its most highly ranked charities working in Haiti. To receive a top ranking from that group, a charity should spend at least 75 percent of its budget on program services and spend no more than $25 to raise $100. The list can be found at


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