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Are Haiti Donations Going To The Right Place?


According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Americans have donated more than $275 million to Haiti for earthquake relief.

But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, it's possible that money may not end up where it should.

PAM FESSLER: President Obama visited American Red Cross offices in Washington Monday and noted that the group had already raised an unprecedented $21 million through a highly publicized text messaging campaign. As photographers' cameras clicked nearby, the president said it was a testimony to American generosity.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is - it's also a testimony, though, to the confidence people have in the Red Cross and ability of using that money wisely, so...

FESSLER: And using the money wisely is something donors need to think about, say those who monitor charitable giving. Ken Berger is president and CEO of the online service Charity Navigator, which analyzes and rates nonprofits.

Mr. KEN BERGER (President & CEO, Charity Navigator): You need to use your head as well as your heart. Your heart motivates you, oftentimes to give in these terrible situations like this, but you've got to use your head so that you don't get ripped off.

FESSLER: His advice? Give only to charities with a proven track record and those willing to show you exactly what they're doing with the money.

Mr. BERGER: Go to their Web site. You have a clear picture of how the money's being used. You want open organizations that are responsive to donors, as well as to the people that they serve.

FESSLER: He recommends that donors give to two kinds of groups: those with strong ties to Haiti, that know the country's needs and have Haitians on staff; and those larger nonprofits with the know-how and infrastructure to carry out a major relief effort, organizations such as the American Red Cross.

But even the Red Cross comes with baggage. It was widely criticized for its handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina and its diversion of donations for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to other programs. Spokesman Roger Lowe says those problems are now fixed.

Mr. ROGER LOWE (Spokesman, American Red Cross): When somebody makes a donation to us, the first thing we do is to check the donor's intent. If the donor says that they want this to go to Haiti, that's where it goes. Before any funds are spent, we establish financial controls and an audit trail so that we can track every single dollar as it moves through the system.

FESSLER: He says his bigger concern for donors is charitable scams. He's heard there are people in the streets collecting money they say is for the Red Cross.

Mr. LOWE: I hope they are. We'd be grateful if they are, and God love them if they are, but it's I'm not sure that I personally would hand some money to somebody standing on a street corner, saying they're collecting for the Red Cross.

FESSLER: Most experts recommend only giving to a charity directly or through a known middleman. Nonprofits know that what happens to donors' funds is key to maintaining the public's trust. Sam Worthington is president and CEO of InterAction, a coalition of the biggest humanitarian aid groups now in Haiti. He says every coalition member has to be certified annually to make sure they meet certain standards.

Mr. SAM WORTHINGTON (President & CEO, InterAction): It ensures that they have the systems in place to manage resources, the people and the program capacity to engage in a disaster like this one.

FESSLER: And that's important, he says, because these groups will be working in Haiti well after the giving public has stopped paying so much attention.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.