Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 14, 2010 11:56 AM
The news and images from Haiti are heartbreaking. Many individuals and companies are reaching for their wallets; others are wondering what they can do to help. But the best advice for corporate givers trying to figure out how best to respond is the old adage: "Don't just do something, stand there." To understand why, 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.
Companies are in the perfect position to break this cycle: They have the ability (and the obligation) to be thoughtful and strategic about how they handle their charitable giving. Here are a few ways businesses can help—and some principles everyone can apply to post-disaster giving:
Don't earmark your donations for Haiti. Funds for disaster relief are absolutely necessary in the short term—but immediate relief efforts are just one part of a long recovery process. By the time money earmarked for disaster relief arrives in charities' bank accounts for a particular disaster, recovery workers have already moved on to the much harder, much more expensive rebuilding phase. Rather than earmark a gift for Haitian disaster relief, direct your donations toward replenishing the cash and materials that disaster-relief agencies will expend in the next few weeks in Haiti, so they will be ready to respond immediately to the next disaster.
Go with experience. If you feel that you must give to disaster relief in Haiti, make sure you are giving to an organization that has extensive experience in Haiti and people already on the ground. They will be much more effective because of their existing knowledge of communities, cultural norms, and power dynamics.
Give money. Gifts-in-kind may seem like an appealing and useful way to contribute but they tend to cause huge logistical problems that dramatically undermine their value. Money gives those responding to the disaster the ability to act flexibly, according to the needs at hand. If you do have materials you are convinced will be useful (construction supplies, computers, and so on) ask the charity your working with whether it can effectively use what you can give. (And be prepared to hear that they'd rather have the cash.)
Look ahead. Long after their immediate health and safety needs are taken care of and the media spotlight has moved on, Haitians will still benefit from your organization's help in rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. One way to do this—and engage employees and customers—is to match the dollars they contribute for immediate relief with a corporate gift for reconstruction, to be given in six or eight months. By that time it will be clear which areas of the rebuilding effort are underfunded. You'll also have time to thoroughly vet agencies, projects, and so forth, to ensure that your donations will do the most good.