Tips for Haiti earthquake relief: How to find the right charity for donations

It’s impossible to watch coverage of the immense suffering in Haiti and not want to help. But many charitable groups seem to have sprung up since the disaster, and it’s tough to know which ones will be most effective at getting your donation to those most in need.

To try to sort out the difference between the major aid groups, I asked Haitian-American community organizers, as well as physicians I know who frequently volunteer in Haiti, for their impressions. I also reviewed the reports posted on the Web sites of Charity Navigator and the American Institute of Philanthropy, two well-regarded independent nonprofit charity evaluators.

Below is what I’ve learned about some of the major charities operating in Haiti. I’m biased toward groups that have been on the ground in the country for some time and know how to work with Haitians to get things done. I’m also inclined to support groups with relatively low overhead that don’t pay their executives big salaries (and not all of the groups on this list meet that last criteria). This is in no way a comprehensive list; there are many other good groups that do life-saving work.

If you are considering making a donation, I suggest looking at the two charity evaluation Web sites mentioned above as you weigh your decision. Also -– and this is important -– make sure you go directly to the aid group’s Web site to make the donation. Don’t believe emails or telephone calls soliciting your help. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), one of the groups listed below, has received reports of fraudulent solicitation emails using names of some of their staff.

Partners in Health (PIH). This group has been in Haiti for more than 20 years, and has teamed up with Haitians to create an infrastructure of local community health workers who provide a wide range of primary care services to the poor. My colleague Art Fournier, a family medicine physician who has been volunteering in Haiti for three decades, describes PIH as “a grassroots group that works from the bottom up as opposed to a large international organization that works from the top down.” They’ve also done groundbreaking work treating HIV and multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis in various countries around the world. Because they are based outside the capital, their operations weren’t as impaired by the earthquake as some of the larger, better known groups. Charity navigator gives them four stars (their top designation).

Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF). MSF is well known for providing direct medical care to people in war, during natural and man-made disasters, and in poverty. They received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. Their hospital in Port-au-Prince was badly damaged, and some of their staff members are missing. But they report that they have been able to set up tents for treatment, and are being inundated with patients. According to Romuald Blanchard, a Haitian American who has been active in setting up clinics in the Carrefour and Mont L’Hospital neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, MSF is well established in Haiti. “They go to rough neighborhoods, places regular doctors won’t go,” he said. Charity Navigator gives them four stars.

Yele Haiti. This group has been getting a lot of media attention; it was founded by music star Wyclef Jean and has a program where you text message “Yele” to 501501 to donate $5. Because they are small and relatively new, they aren’t listed on the Charity Navigator site. Personally, I’m always skeptical of any organization set up by a celebrity. But according to Romuald Blanchard, prior to the earthquake, Yele Haiti had established itself as a group that did good work in some of Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighborhoods. “They were involved in a wide array of activities, including food distribution, cleaning the streets, setting up Internet service,” he said. “It’s a recent group, but (Wyclef Jean) has been pretty involved both in the U.S. and Haiti.”

American Red Cross. The ARC is prominently present at major disasters, and it has committed more than $10 million in aid to Haiti. The ARC is working with the Haitian Red Cross and is providing tarps, tents, and cooking and hygiene materials. They don’t do as well as PIH and MSF on the Charity Navigator site, which gives them three out of four stars. Charity Navigator also reports that their CEO earned $565,000 in the 2008 fiscal year, compared with $93,000 and $115,000 to the highest paid executives at PIH and MSF respectively. Nonetheless, the ARC is well known in Haiti. “They’ve been there forever,” Romuald Blanchard reports.

CARE. CARE is one of the world’s largest private humanitarian groups, and their staff is working with other international organizations to provide food, hygiene kits, water, and emergency medical services. “Even before I came to this country, I knew about CARE,” said Romuald Blanchard, who has lived in the United States for 20 years. “They’ve been providing support in rough neighborhoods and have been a constant presence (in Haiti), supporting clinics and orphanages.” CARE gets four stars from Charity Navigator, although Charity Navigator reports that CARE’s top-paid executive earned $431,000 in fiscal year 2008.

Erin Marcus is an internal medicine physician and writes at New America Media.

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