Photo source: Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Making Your Donations Really Count

Headlines about disasters often serve as a call to action, prompting huge outpourings from sympathetic and concerned observers. But in the well-intentioned rush to help, the results of this impetuous generosity often miss out on solving the intended problem in the most efficient manner. As the New York Times’ Alina Tugend has written, the results of a widespread urge to give sometimes, unfortunately, counteracts the actual needs of those receiving the misguided but well-meaning help. With the recent surge of aid for victims of disasters in Houston, Florida, and the Caribbean, the need to be sure our efforts are actually helping is as relevant as ever.

The positive emotional benefits of philanthropy are well-documented, but unfortunately, some organizations prey on that noble desire to give and accept credulous donations which end up funding dishonest operations. Checking the ratings of organizations with groups like Charity Watch and Charity Navigator is a great starting point for ensuring that a charitable group does its due diligence. Users of these websites can choose from the most trustworthy organizations in a variety of categories and become familiar with their processes. The Justice Department’s Center for Disaster Fraud is another great resource, carrying a highly pertinent warning to avoid unscrupulous groups that crop up in the wake of natural disasters.

As Tugend mentions, your gifts might not have the desired impact if you’re squeezing out local merchants. By trusting organizations closer to the disaster than you are, you’ve got a better base of knowledge from which to allocate your gifts. Alana Shaikh states in the article: “only the people on the ground know what’s actually necessary; those of us in the rest of the world can only guess.” Truly helping requires us to make real connections with those on the ground, or at least share our resources with those who do.

Primarily, philanthropy requires a measured assessment of our intended end result. It has to be more than a simple need to help — identifying concrete goals at the outset will best guide the giving. John Hanc makes this point in a more recent Times article. Dr. Craig Granowitz, a pharmaceutical executive, was compelled to help after Puerto Rico was stricken by Hurricane Maria. He reached out to a local religious leader, who put him in touch with a colleague on the ground in the devastated island, providing help to affected families. From there, he was able to keep close tabs on exactly how his money resulted in food and supplies for citizens in need.

From Dr. Granowitz’ experience, the importance of close attention is clear. The helpful results the doctor was able to see from his donation were a direct outcome of his thoughtful, direct communication. By using personal connections, he created a relationship beneficial to the cause, as opposed to merely signing a check and forgetting about it. When a thoughtful approach is used, we can be assured that our money is going toward the real, concrete changes or solutions that we hope to generate.

Many active philanthropists have some kind of business background enabling them to employ the measured, informed strategies used to build successful companies and apply them towards charitable giving. There are strong parallels in driving the success or failure of a business or philanthropic organization as both are designed to drive value for the end users, be it a consumer or a beneficiary. The dedication provided to your charitable efforts deserves just as much care and diligence as professional endeavors, and gaining as much knowledge as possible before donating is the essential step towards doing so.

With this knowledge, we can allocate our giving most efficiently by looking into exactly what our money is buying. Tugend’s article quotes Malcolm Frouman of the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Hunger Task Force, whose food bank holds canned food drives more for publicity and engagement than for the canned goods that are supplied. The truth is that the organization’s funds, as far as stocking up on food for their bank, are better put towards buying these cans wholesale, but they gain the awareness benefit when they hold the community drives. The importance of knowing all the available options for a particular charity, and looking for efficiencies the way a business does, will maximize donations and create the greatest good for those who need it.

In Hanc’s piece, Dr. Janowitz’ efforts got him into direct contact with the Rabbi whose organization was on the ground in Puerto Rico. Going above and beyond, Rabbi Zarchi even followed up with pictures and details about how exactly the charitable money was being spent. As we pay close attention to our business expenditures and the results we get from them, we can do the same with charity. Savvy philanthropists have come to expect an explanation of what exactly their money is being spent on.

With an estimated economic loss of $290 billion and counting, the 2017 hurricane season is likely to generate massive amounts of charitable donations. While that’s great news for those who need the help, those of us on the other side who are sharing our time and efforts must be ever vigilant to optimize our donations and ensure they never go to waste. In order to provide the intended help, we have to do that little bit of work that ensures our donations really count.