Philanthropy’s Role in Haiti

Key Points

  • It is important to figure out why you want to donate to Haiti and what you hope your donation will accomplish.
  • Donors should consider supporting long term development in Haiti or disaster preparedness as a worthy alternative to short term disaster relief.
  • Donors who want to support disaster relief efforts should consider donating to Partners in Health.

I’ve been asked by many people how they can best provide support in the wake of the Haitian earthquake. However, picking nonprofits on behalf of our clients is really not what we get hired to do. As our website says, “It is not our job to tell you where to give. Instead, we work to empower our clients with the knowledge and expertise they need to make the best decisions about their philanthropy.”

While which nonprofit you fund has important implications, figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish in the first place is critical. So let’s look at how a donor might think about the role they want to play.

First off, we need to understand that while the Haitian earthquake has its own unique issues, it is a disaster relief scenario which means we can learn from other similar situations. Tim Ogden had this advice in the the Harvard Business Review:

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.

I don’t mean to suggest that donors should not send cash now to help in the relief effort. But it is important for donors to realize that doing so is not the only option. The fact is, the Haitian earthquake is just as much a poverty issue as it is a natural disaster as David Brooks pointed out in the New York Times:

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died (Note: Estimated deaths now at 200,000)

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.

What this suggests is that donors should consider whether providing support for long term rebuilding in Haiti (or other areas) makes sense for them or whether they might look at disaster preparedness as a cause they want to support. The point here is that the Haitian earthquake is not a simple story. There are many underlying issues and donors should give some thought to what it is about the event that moves them to give.

The charity evaluation group GiveWell wrote a post over a year ago title The Case Against Disaster Relief in which they looked at how disaster relief is not a particularly cost-effective use of a donor’s gift and why disaster preparedness might be better. But even if this is true, the world needs high performing disaster relief organizations. So donors who want to support the urgent relief efforts would be well served to make an unrestricted gift to an organization that can use the funds now in Haiti and also use them to grow and improve their organization so they are ready to help when the next disaster strikes.

While there are a number of organizations that are viable options for a donor who wants to support disaster relief, we would recommend that donors consider Partners in Health (PIH). PIH is a community-based health care provider that works with poor people in developing countries. Their flagship project is located in Haiti and is one of the largest nongovernmental health care providers in the country. Partners in Health has received large grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is recommended by GiveWell and The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania (as well as many other reputable sources). PIH was co-founded by Paul Farmer, a bit of a rock star in the development world, was widely expected to be nominated to run USAID and many people thought was the best pick for the job.

One of the advantages of supporting PIH is that they are on the ground in Haiti now and can deploy your donation towards near tern relief work and for the long term support of health care needs in Haiti and other poverty stricken, developing nations. While donor’s hearts may go out to Haiti today, when an earthquake next strikes an impoverished nation it is critical that groups like Partners for Health are in top operating condition and ready to help.

We believe that good philanthropy is a product of having a good plan in place and fully understanding what you are trying to achieve. Which nonprofits you support is of course important, but that question can only be answered once you realize what you are trying to accomplish.


  1. Absolutely correct, Sean. Sadly, disasters follow the same cycles and have the same needs. Money first for rescue, then relief, and then very importantly, for reconstruction. And as you note, when looking for where to give for the long haul, find organizations with both a presence on the ground and a history and record of successful rebuilding.

  2. Thanks Bruce. I hate to dissuade people from positively reacting to the emotional urge to give after seeing photos from the disaster, but I hope they can channel that emotion to making a smart, impactful gift.

  3. Rick Cohen says:

    Excellent post, Sean. ‘There are other lessons embedded in your post, however: The experience regarding the Southeast Asian tsunami showed that some of the best relief assistance was delivered by groups that were already on the ground and working with the nations affected. That’s one of the reasons why PIH is a good choice, if i’m correct that PIH was in Haiti prior to the earthquake; its existing network and connections mean that it has the ability to understand local culture, politics, and more, rather than coming in without those understandings. Also, in the reconstruction/redevelopment phase, it seems that a lesson of both Katrina and the tsunami is that manmade elements of the disaster have to be addressed. The social inequities and the lack of governmental infrastructure must be recognized and charitable donations should therefore also build local capacity. But also in both Katrina and Haiti, there’s clearly the ecological elements of the disaster, suggesting that some “green” reconstruction has to occur as well (just compare the deforestation of Haiti with the relatively ecologically healthier Dominican Republic, and some elements of the impact of the earthquake become even clearer). Please keep up a dialogue that gets your readers to remember and apply lessons from Katrina, the tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, and more.

  4. Thanks Rick. Yes, PIH was on the ground prior to the earthquake. Since 1985. It seems to me that agencies that work with local people are almost always better than outside entities that try to insert themselves into a situation. That appears to be true domestically as well as in international aid.

  5. Nicki ffrench says:

    Fonkoze is Haiti’s Alternative Bank for the Organized Poor.

    As a regular supporter I am a strong believer in the effectiveness of Fonkoze as well as the values on which their work is based. In the context of this conversation, the long-term nature of donating to Fonkze seems particularly relevant. I’m interested to know had you come across them Sean?

    from Nicki in Cork, Ireland

  6. We haven’t looked at Fonkoze.

  7. Nicki ffrench says:

    Would love to hear your thoughts Sean if you get a chance to…

  8. These are excellent points, ones that we at GuideStar agree with completely. In fact, during the Katrina crisis we began reminding reporters and donors that the problems of New Orleans existed long before the hurricane and that taking your time with a wise giving decision was better than a rushed donation to an ineffective organization. Since the Haiti crisis broke, we have been telling donors much the same and to consider long-term as well as short-term giving. As I noted in my blog (, “’Disaster relief’ is a long-term process, as we’ve seen in the aftermath of the December 26, 2004, tsunamis and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

    Another issue is restricted versus unrestricted gifts. We recommend that in times of disaster a donor consider giving to a well-experienced organization’s general disaster-relief fund, rather than earmarking the gift for Haiti. Remember that relief organizations can’t wait until donations start coming in to respond to a disaster—they have to get to the scene as quickly as possible. By giving to a general relief fund, you give the organization the ability to use your donation where and when it is most needed. Perhaps that will be in Haiti today. Perhaps it will be at some other location in the future. But your gift to a nonprofit’s general relief fund will make a difference.

  9. Gina H. says:

    Schooling the children to deflect juvenile delinquency and hopelessness is our job at Grassroots organizations on the ground in Haiti for many years should also be considered. Smaller does not mean inefficient.
    Thank you.

  10. Couldn’t agree with you more , it often means far nore efficient – is there a history of any network or any collective action between the different grassroots organisations there Gina do you know?



  11. Gina H. says:

    I do not know of such a network but the time has come for it to exist since we are truly the ones who hang in there even when there is nothing more to hang on to. I’ll tell you this, with respect to larger organizations, in 2006, World Vision got up and left the children in the south low and dry and we received a letter from the school director in the city of Les Cayes, I’ll be posting these letters on soon, requesting that our mission supports them. Imagine this, World Vision, richly funded World Vision got up and left… well, we were the ones who said yes to them, even if it meant only sending 200 US dollars a month, but we still said yes. My point is most tell you they give to the Red Cross and World Vision and those larger ones, not knowing when they cannot afford a big salary for the Country Director or he or she gets tired of being in that country, they just leave…we stay, even with zero funding from anyone, we stay.