Key Points

• It is important to figure out why you want to donate to Haiti and what you hope your donation will accomplish.
• Donors should consider supporting long term development in Haiti or disaster preparedness as a worthy alternative to short term disaster relief.
• Donors who want to support disaster relief efforts should consider donating to Partners in Health.


I’ve been asked by many people how they can best provide support in the wake of the Haitian earthquake. However, picking nonprofits on behalf of our clients is really not what we get hired to do. As our website says, “It is not our job to tell you where to give. Instead, we work to empower our clients with the knowledge and expertise they need to make the best decisions about their philanthropy.”

While which nonprofit you fund has important implications, figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish in the first place is critical. So let’s look at how a donor might think about the role they want to play.

First off, we need to understand that while the Haitian earthquake has its own unique issues, it is a disaster relief scenario which means we can learn from other similar situations. Tim Ogden had this advice in the Harvard Business Review:

Take a look back at the responses to other recent disasters. There is a discernable pattern, and not a good one:
1. Donations spike in the immediate aftermath.
2. A huge portion of the funds donated are spent on setting up disaster-relief operations that are no longer the primary need.
3. A flood of cash and materials cause a logistics nightmare leading to waste and ineffectiveness, if not corruption.
4. Six months later, reconstruction stalls because the world’s attention has moved elsewhere.
5. And, finally, a series of reports bemoan the fact that too many funds are devoted to disaster relief and not enough to disaster preparedness and reconstruction.

I don’t mean to suggest that donors should not send cash now to help in the relief effort. But it is important for donors to realize that doing so is not the only option. The fact is, the Haitian earthquake is just as much a poverty issue as it is a natural disaster as David Brooks pointed out in the New York Times:

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died (Note:Estimated deaths now at 200,000)
This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.

What this suggests is that donors should consider whether providing support for long term rebuilding in Haiti (or other areas) makes sense for them or whether they might look at disaster preparedness as a cause they want to support. The point here is that the Haitian earthquake is not a simple story. There are many underlying issues and donors should give some thought to what it is about the event that moves them to give.

The charity evaluation group GiveWell wrote a post over a year ago title The Case Against Disaster Relief  in which they looked at how disaster relief is not a particularly cost-effective use of a donor’s gift and why disaster preparedness might be better. But even if this is true, the world needs high performing disaster relief organizations. So donors who want to support the urgent relief efforts would be well served to make an unrestricted gift to an organization that can use the funds now in Haiti and also use them to grow and improve their organization so they are ready to help when the next disaster strikes.

While there are a number of organizations that are viable options for a donor who wants to support disaster relief, we would recommend that donors consider Partners in Health (PIH). PIH is a community-based health care provider that works with poor people in developing countries. Their flagship project is located in Haiti and is one of the largest nongovernmental health care providers in the country. Partners in Health has received large grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is recommended by GiveWell and The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania (as well as many other reputable sources). PIH was co-founded by Paul Farmer, a bit of a rock star in the development world, was widely expected to be nominated to run USAID and many people thought was the best pick for the job.

One of the advantages of supporting PIH is that they are on the ground in Haiti now and can deploy your donation towards near tern relief work and for the long term support of health care needs in Haiti and other poverty stricken, developing nations. While donor’s hearts may go out to Haiti today, when an earthquake next strikes an impoverished nation it is critical that groups like Partners for Health are in top operating condition and ready to help.

We believe that good philanthropy is a product of having a good plan in place and fully understanding what you are trying to achieve. Which nonprofits you support is of course important, but that question can only be answered once you realize what you are trying to accomplish.

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