The Rise of Smart Giving

Key Point

  • The Haitian Earthquake marks a turning point in American philanthropy where donors are now expected to “give smart,” not just give.

Something fascinating is happening in philanthropy in the wake of the Haitian Earthquake. After most disasters, the public responds to a steady drumbeat from the mainstream media and prominent leaders to support those in need. But this time, the message is different in an important way. The new message to the American public is to give smart.

The first indication of the new trend came from former president George W. Bush, when during the press conference announcing the his partnership with former president Bill Clinton to raise money for Haiti, one of the first things he did was to urge people to not make in-kind donations.

From the New York Times:

“I know a lot of people want to send blankets or water,” Mr. Bush said. But he reiterated what the relief organizations have been saying for days. “Just send your cash.” He promised that he and Mr. Clinton would “make sure your money is spent wisely.”

This small remark might have been an interesting footnote if it were not for the sustained message from the mainstream media that donors need to do more than just “support Haiti.” They need to be smart donors.


  • The New York Times article Teaching Americans What Haiti Needs: Money, begins: “Don’t send shoes, send money. Don’t send baby formula, send money. Don’t send old coats, send money. Nonprofit groups rarely look a gift horse in the mouth, and the relief effort in Haiti is desperate for resources. But the experience of wasteful giving in the past, coupled with the ease of speaking out via blogs,Facebook and Twitter, have led to an unprecedented effort to teach Americans what not to give.” The article goes on to quote international aid bloggers Saundra Schimmelpfennig and Alanna Shaikh on the problems with in-kind gifts.
  • The New York Times article Three Steps to Making Smart Haiti Donations, took a more positive approach and offered donors tips on smart giving. The article pointed to top-rated organizations operating in Haiti (including Partners in Health, which we had recommend in our Haiti post), and pointed readers to GiveWell, GreatNonprofit, Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, GuideStar and other sources of information on smart giving. The article also pointed to Charity Navigator, but warned readers that relying on a charity’s overhead expense ratio was a “rookie mistake.”
  • The Miami Herald ran a feature on vetting charities, which quoted me and the director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy. The article accompanied a database of charities to consider, which included overhead expense ratio data, but warned donors that the information needed to be considered in context. The database also indicates whether each organization has previous experience in Haiti.
  • The Financial Times article Efforts to channel Haiti donations pay off, examined the changes in corporate philanthropy since the Indian Ocean Tsunami. The article highlighted the better coordination of resources going to Haiti and efforts to educate corporate and individual donors about the problems with in-kind donations.
  • The New York Daily News featured the advice of their financial columnist in an article titled How to make donations to Haiti wisely, which reminded donors that disaster relief was not the only need. Haiti will need extensive assistance to rebuild.
  • Investment News looked at the role of advisors to donors in structuring effective support for Haiti and reminded donors that ongoing long term support was needed. The article examined the role of donor advised funds and highlighted the advice of Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors.

The importance to all these stories is captured in Stephanie Strom’s article in the New York Times where she pointed out the rarity of nonprofits “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” Historically, American culture has been loath to do anything other than pat people on the back for trying to do good. But in the wake of the Haitian Earthquake, we’re seeing an unprecedented move towards asking that donors do more than just give. Donors are now expected to give smart.


  1. Rich Polt says:

    For better or worse, a spate of recent global catastrophes have helped Americans develop their “best practices guide” for emergency relief funding. This guide has been honed by way of the various publicly bungled relief efforts of the last decade (most notably Katrina). Everyone wants to get it right this time. And it seems that – for a change – the media is not just pointing fingers, but actively helping to advance the relief effort itself (whether by design or not). It’s a refreshing dynamic.

  2. I think that’s right Rich. What is promising to me is that the media message is direct at what donors can do rather than simply the problems that government/nonprofits have.

  3. Sean, I’ve been reading your blog for a while and appreciate your identification of key trends. I would add to the “give smart” trend another perhaps more powerful trend that I have observed during the Haiti crisis. The for-profit business sector has turned this situation into a marketing opportunity more quickly than any other disaster in the past. That is, they are using the Haiti situation to draw potential donors to their products, services and websites to a degree and at a speed that is quicker than for any prior disaster. While some good giving will come from this, the line between philanthropy/ charity and commercial marketing/ sales for the business sector are now blurred more than ever.
    Patricia Angus
    Angus Advisory Group LLC
    Philanthropy and Family Governance Consulting

  4. Interesting point Patricia. I guess your point is another example of the increasing sophistication around charitable giving, but maybe not an outcome that we should celebrate,

  5. Sara says:

    Rich, I agree as well – it’s refreshing to see solutions proposed instead of finger pointing. It is also refreshing to see a culture of people who are taking an interest in where their money goes and the kind of impact it can have.

  6. Emily Gerth says:

    There is a part of me that wonders if these two trends (giving smart and increased corporate tie-ins with giving) are somewhat linked.

    I feel like I’ve been bombarded with messages about opportunities to give in a way I didn’t used to be. I can give at the grocery store (Safeway is channeling donations through the Safeway Foundation). I can give on the website for the database I use at work ( matched $500,000 in donations). I can give while watching TV on a Friday night. I can give while on Facebook with my friends recommending causes related to Haiti and while on an I-phone on the bus. With options for donating quite literally everywhere you turn, I think the average donor might be more inclined to say, “how do I pick?”

    That said, a lot of the focus in the media seems to be coming more from nonprofits saying what they do/don’t want (cash versus in-kind) rather than from donors asking what they should do. So the two trends aren’t necessarily linked, but there might be a connection.

  7. Both trends are definitely coincident indicators of the maturing of the philanthropic sector as an important element of mainstream American culture.