What We Learned from Haiti

Crisis Giving

The Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Sri Lanka tsunami. Hurricane Katrina. The Haiti earthquake.

When tragedies of epic proportions strike, hearts are touched, and goodwill is inspired at levels just as epic. We are rapt by dispatched reporters on the ground telling stories of heartbreak. We are riddled by the visuals of massive devastation and destruction. We see some of our favorite celebrities, dignitaries and politicians taking a stand for giving back to the most affected. We are reminded by our faith communities of the call to be of personal service.

In circumstances like these, as people are moved from multiple vantage points in the aftermath of a major catastrophe, it’s no wonder that charitable giving can soar to incredible heights.

The Haiti Earthquake and Billions in Fundraising: Five Years Later

It’s been five years since a disastrous 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti – killing at least 160,000 people and displacing 1.5 million. This milestone presents an opportune time to reflect on giving and generosity, as the Haiti earthquake can serve as a cautionary tale about what can happen when nonprofit fundraising and individual incentive mix.

In the months and years after millions came pouring in for those affected by the Haiti earthquake, everyday people on blogs, social media and daily conversations, in addition to credible news organizations, like National Public Radio, began asking, ‘What happened to the money?’ A national U.S. telethon, numerous local campaigns and various international initiatives closed ranks around the Haiti effort, calling upon people to give and demonstrate their generosity by supporting assorted national and international organizations in their repair, restoration and rebuilding efforts.

Local Change Agents Overshadowed by Powerful Organizations

According to New Internationalist Magazine, more than $10 billion in donations for Haiti came from individual donors, foreign governments and other international givers. But not nearly as much reached the nation, even months after the earthquake: “One of the biggest problems was that much of the money failed to reach Haiti. Only 40 per cent of the $5.6 billion pledged by foreign governments to be used in the first 18 months had been dispersed by September 2011,” according to the report.

Moreover, New Internationalist Magazine reported that only 2.3 percent of reconstruction aid went to Haitian firms. Plus, the biggest organizations with the greatest name recognition received the largest swath of donations, with smaller organizations receiving substantially less, though they were reportedly sometimes better positioned to make a direct impact on the ground.

What Motivates Crisis Giving?

A 2013 Ars Technica article explored an enterprising study on giving patterns in the aftermath of a disaster. Researchers Ioannis Evangelidis and Bram Van den Bergh found that “people tend to base their donation-related decisions on the number of fatalities caused by a natural disaster rather than the number of surviving people who may need help.”

The two terms pose distinct definitions with distinct results. “Those affected” is a nebulous phrase that refers to survivors who need immediate assistance. Those numbers can be hard to pin down and report in the hazy aftermath of a major disaster when recovery and rescue efforts are still ongoing. Fatality figures perhaps elicit a more visceral, emotional reaction, but refer to those who cannot be helped, because they have died.

Ars Technica wrote: “In 381 natural disasters that occurred between 2001 and 2011—including floods, landslides, tropical and winter storms, earthquakes, avalanches, and wildfires—the total amount of financial donations was highly correlated with the number of fatalities reported. [tweet bird=yes] For each additional person killed in these disasters, donors gave more than $9,000 in aid.” [/tweet]

Be Aware, Give Smart

Five years after the Haiti earthquake, the country is still a work in progress as reconstruction and redevelopment efforts continue. The April 2015 Nepal earthquake, which claimed more than 8,000 lives, is reminiscent of the news coverage and fundraising fervor of Haiti. Tallies from various international fundraising efforts by individuals (from more than $70,000 raised by a local survivor) and organizations such as the British Disasters Emergency Committee corralling more than $33 million in donations are still being counted, as pledges and dollars roll in.

Each natural disaster provides an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from prior humanitarian crises. From a fundraising and charitable giving perspective, these challenges also provide a timely reason to assess the most viable ways to help and have an impact. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers tips for donors to consider when it comes to post-disaster giving.

Perhaps the most important FEMA advisory on charitable giving is this: “Be patient. Recovery lasts a lot longer than the media attention. There will be volunteer needs for many months, often years, after the disaster – especially when the community enters the long-term recovery period.”

What do you think can be done to make donors feel more at ease with how donations are dispersed? Tell us on our Wakeman Agency Facebook page, where the conversation continues.

Leave a Comment