Monday, February 8, 2010

Charitable Thoughts

Camp Connell, CA - Calamity in Haiti brought the actions of charities to the front pages of many newspapers and to the forefront of many people's minds.
As almost always happens when such disasters strike, the immediate human response was to want to help. And many did, as witnessed by the millions of dollars raised almost instantly by the relatively new idea of using your cell phone.
And then there were those people who who felt badly for the injured, homeless and dying, and then went back to watching TV, grumbling that charities don't do a good job and they don't trust them with their money.

It is easy to pretend nothing can be done, and even easier to just look the other way and avoid personal responsibility.

But in fact quite a lot can and is being done to help suffering people all over the world. And as part of the human family we all need to be part of that.

As a journalist I covered and watched numerous major disasters over the years. I've had a chance to see how charity works in a disaster, and many of them work very efficiently.

I recall standing in the wreckage of Gulfport, Mississippi, in the 1960s watching people with almost nothing left helping those who had absolutely nothing. I watched men and women and children whose only supply of drinking water was from Coke cans, filled with fresh water by a willing bottler, and delivered by the Red Cross ( the day after disaster struck. And I saw how devastated people depended upon that help.
And yet I heard folks back home say they would never donate money to the Red Cross because they heard they sold donuts to GIs during "the war" (probably the Civil War, but they were not specific).
The Red Cross is the largest and probably most efficient emergency-response charity in the world, with a budget in the Billions, almost every penny donated and well-managed. They led the way to help Katrina victims, and were among the first to react in Haiti. They manage money so well that 90% of every dollar goes into emergency relief, and less than 6% goes to administrative costs. That's an astonishing record of fiscal efficiency, usually ignored by the charity's critics who worry about those donut rumors.
My advice to rumor believers: Get over it and give.

Charities that put 80% or more into relief or programs are considered reasonably efficient by rating organizations.

For the record, here are a few other charities I have experience with as a journalist, as a witness to their activity, as a donor who checked their performance, or all three.

The Salvation Army ( if you look close into any urban area you will find the Salvation Army feeding and clothing and helping the poor, and doing it well. Some people are turned off by the fact these are "religious" people, but I found no religious test for aid, just caring efficient people working hard to alleviate misery. In Fort Myers, Florida, where I lived and worked, I discovered that with the help of volunteer nutritionists and money managers, the Sally folks designed the cheapest nutritious meal possible, and put those packaged into the hands of anyone who needed it.
Think about them when you walk by the kettle next Christmas.

Heifer International, ( whose goal is to "end world hunger and protect the earth" is doing a good job. They teach people how to take care of themselves and provide the seeds or animals to get them started, and then require recipients to pass along the benefits. There's no way to measure the long-term benefits of a calf or pig or goat given to a poor village family, but those pigs and goats and cows just keep producing and spreading and generating healthier happier families and communities.
Think about them when you watch CNN reporting on hunger in Africa, or anywhere else.

Habitat for Humanity International,( and its many local affiliates help people find homes. They build, renovate, encourage, finance, and require sweat equity. They generate pride and safety and accomplishment in the form of a home for people who would not otherwise see the possibilities. Think about Jimmy Carter with a hammer in his hand helping a family create their first real home.

Compassion International ( an organization that helps children all over the world. We learned about it from a singer/songwriter more than 20 years ago. Randy Stonehill was performing in Modesto and outside the concert hall on the folding table along with his CDs for sale was a brochure about the work Compassion does. We make small monthly donations to support a boy named Vincent who lives in the Phillipines. We've had a great relationship with Vincent for almost ten years, despite some barriers of language and culture, and have loved watching him grow and learn and change.
Think about all the other little boys and girls who could use your help to stay in school, or have a warm meal.

Each of these charities are efficiently run, accountable for what they do and keep us posted on their needs and accomplishments. I like that.

But as a journalist I am skeptical enough to check once in awhile at an independent organization that rates charities to make sure they stay efficient. You can do the same for almost any charity at or any other sites that do the same service.

Many other wonderful organizations are ready to help the less fortunate in society. Your local church, or its national denomination headquarters, is probably one. And there are plenty of non-religious charities that you can help if you are one of the many turned off by organized religion.

Almost every town has a Food Bank or a Clothes Closet. Doctors Without Borders and other medical groups ease suffering wherever they go.

And you can go with them.

Just don't tell me about donuts being sold to GIs. That's an excuse to avoid our responsibility to each other.

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