Is There a Downside to Giving On Impulse?

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Contributions continue to pour in for relief efforts in Haiti. Eight days after the massive earthquake struck, donors have contributed more than $305-million to 32 U.S. nonprofit groups.

The pace of giving for Haiti is running ahead of the amount donated in the same period after the Asian tsunamis in 2004, but slower than the outpouring of gifts after the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.”

The corporate world has also stepped up to the plate, donating cash as well as medicines and other basic products.

Clearly their is much need in Haiti: for food, water, medicine and yes, even mattresses. But are we giving effectively and efficiently, or only on impulse?

The New York Times is asking this morning if we are really thinking through our donations. Stephanie Strom writes, “Don’t send shoes, send money. Don’t send baby formula, send money. Don’t send old coats, send money.

Nonprofit groups rarely look a gift horse in the mouth, and the relief effort in Haiti is desperate for resources. But the experience of wasteful giving in the past, coupled with the ease of speaking out via blogs, Facebook and Twitter, have led to an unprecedented effort to teach Americans what not to give.”

Ah, wasteful giving. While touting their latest figures, these are two words donors and nonprofits clearly do not want to hear.

A lot of noise is being generated through the media, and the nonprofit world, about the very real devastation in Haiti. The world is clearly responding generously. But, are we focusing properly?

Are nonprofits communicating effectively to their donors? Are they remaining true to mission?

Needs in Haiti today, as they were in New Orleans following Katrina, are different from what they will be next month and six months from now. Today we need to be focusing on impact and concerning ourselves a bit less with overhead ratios. After all, is any organization actually capable, without creative accounting, of stating “100% of your money goes to program cost!”

With search and rescue for survivors winding down, the main emphasis for the next few weeks will be on basic survival needs: clean water, food, shelter, and emergency medical care. Who best to handle these needs? Organizations with both expertise and a proven track record dealing with disaster response. And organizations currently on the ground in Haiti. The needs, and perhaps the key players, will change with each phase of relief.

For now, we need to be especially thoughtful to ensure all our donations are utilized to the fullest and we need to answer these three questions (at every stage of the process):

  1. What are the most critical needs on the ground?
  2. What capabilities are needed to address them effectively?
  3. Which nonprofits have those capabilities?

Only then will we have “a shot at getting it right”.