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Aid for Haiti: Beware of donor scams

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Stacy Palmer
Editor and Founder, The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Friday, January 15, 2010; 12:00 PM

New and easier ways to contribute have helped propel donations for Haiti earthquake relief efforts despite a weak economy, according to officials at a number of aid organizations, some of whom marveled at the volume of donations tweeted and texted from cellphones.

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But the FBI has urged people to use extreme caution when sending money to Haiti and that they should "apply a critical eye and do their due diligence before responding to requests," especially online.

Stacy Palmer, founder and editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, was online Friday, Jan. 15, at Noon ET to discuss the best ways to contribute to the relief effort in Haiti.

The Chronicle is an independent biweekly online newspaper that covers all aspects of charitable giving and nonprofit management. .

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Stacy Palmer: Hello. Thank you for joining the discussion today about how to give effectively to help the people of Haiti. The Chronicle of Philanthropy is an independent newspaper that covers the nonprofit world, and in our more than two decades of publishing, we have covered many disasters. I have several of my colleagues on hand who have covered these disasters in the past and are working on our Haiti stories now. We're all eager to help answer your questions.

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Arlington, Va.: My middle school son would like to organize some sort of a collection (clothes, pharmacy items, soap, or something else). While he can collect the items, he needs to find a reputable agency that can receive the items and deliver them to Haiti. How can he avoid a scam and find out which agency is collecting what and how he can work with them so the items actually get to the victims? Thank you in advance for you help.

Stacy Palmer: Great to hear your son wants to take this action and I hope you will encourage it. I would urge you to ask him to collect cash and not goods like clothes and soap. Those items would be terrific to take to a local homeless shelter than can use them, but the cost of sending them to Haiti is enormous and once they arrive, they would have to be distributed -- another cost, plus a lot of energy. Giving cash allows the charity to get relief supplies quickly to the people who need them.

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D.C.: Even apart from scams, there's the issue of the direct marketing bite.

When you receive an appeal even from a legitimate charity (either e-mail or snail mail), it's usually generated not by the charity itself, but by a direct mail firm that contracts with the charity to raise funds. Typically, the direct mail firm's compensation is a percentage of the response. So when you click on that link or put a check in that pre-addressed envelope, some percentage (often more than you think) is going to direct mail marketers.

The better way to make sure your money goes straight to the charity is, instead of clicking on the e-mail they send you, open a browser on your own, go straight to their Web site, and donate there. Or get the charity's address online (not from the mailing you received), get out your own envelope, and mail your check yourself. That way your donation is direct, and not processed through an unseen marketer that takes an unseen slice.

Stacy Palmer: Great suggestions on using online donations as a way to make it easier for you and to help the charity save money. Do be careful about clicking on links unless you are sure the appeal is legitimate. It is best to use a search engine with the exact name of the charity and make sure you have found a legitimate site. Or use aggegators like Network for Good or GlobalGiving, which have verified the charities and where the money is going.

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Washington, D.C.: Donating to well-known charities that already have a presence in Haiti, such as Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health, is not only more effective, since those organizations will be able to provide assistance more quickly, but also avoids the risk of being taken in by a scam.

The FBI's tips to avoid being scammed are here: Haitian Earthquake Relief Fraud Alert (FBI, Jan. 13)

Stacy Palmer: Excellent suggestion. Look at an organization's track record in working in Haiti and make sure they have good relationships of working collaboratively with neighborhood groups there. Organizations that have Haitian staff members and know the community well will be most effective.

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Washington, D.C.: A man wearing a "Save the Children" jacket and ID has been going door-to-door on Cap. Hill asking for donations. A call to Save the Children revealed that it does not send people door-to-door. Have others experienced this?

Stacy Palmer: One of the sad things about tragedies like this is that some people will take advantage of Americans' generosity so you do need to be alert for scams. Very few charities solicit cash donations door to door, so I would indeed be suspicious of anyone seeking a cash gift at this point.

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Winnipeg, Canada: While the news from Haiti is heartbreaking, I wonder if in some ways the Haitian people are better off witohut a functioning government. I say that because the existing government was so corrupt that ironically more aid might make it to those in need, and less might find itself un unscrupulous pockets.

Stacy Palmer: Please do not let such concerns get in the way of your generosity and your willingness to help these victims. Private charities are experienced in providing aid, and giving to one of them, to the extent you are able to afford it, will do a lot of good.

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Washington, D.C.: Any idea how much money has been donated by individuals for Haiti so far?

Stacy Palmer: More than $68-million has been donated by Americans so far. By comparison, in the first three days after the tsunamis, just $30-million had been raised.

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Stacy Palmer: Just to give you more perspective on how much has been given by text message, in the first 36 hours, text donations exceeded $7-million.

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Former Aid Worker: Hi Stacy,

While I know people want to get their money and resources to the people of Haiti as fast as possible. Can you explain some of the logistical challenges getting useful funding to the area? Just because the aid isn't there now, doesn't mean it's not mobilizing, or setting up to go.

Stacy Palmer: You're absolutely right. People will be very frustrated now to see that aid is not there immediately, but a lot of organizations are doing the work of mobilizing donations to get to Haiti. Catholic Relief Services, for example, tried to fly in its aid and could not get in so they are now trucking their aid in from the Dominican Republic, but the roads are very bad and this is vrey hard. Doctors Without Borders had seven planes loaded yesterday and was only able to land one because of the difficulties Haiti has with airport traffic.

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Bristow, Va.: If possible, give your donation in-person to the poor. If not, give to the church of your choice and pray that they receive the most bang for the buck...

Stacy Palmer: While giving in person to local churches working on relief collections is a great idea, it is safe and wise now to give to the charities on the ground in Haiti who are now providing food, water, shelter, medical care and other services. If you do your research, you can give safely with credit cards online to speed your donation to a charity that will use your money wisely.

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Tsumani vs. Earthquake relief efforts: Do you think the fact that more has been raised for Haitian relief than for the tsunamis is due to the fact that organizations have gotten better at using texting, tweets, Facebook, and email to both solicit and receive donations?

Stacy Palmer: My colleagues Nicole Wallace and Caroline Preston note that in 2008, the Red Cross raised just $200,000 all year for relief by text message. By comparison, since the Haiti earthquake, it has raised $5.6-million. This is indeed a sign that charities are doing a much better job of promoting this type of solicitation -- and what is important is that so many supporters are sending messages to friends, relatives and colleagues. All those links and tweets are adding up to a lot of money.

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Logan Circle, D.C.: I just sent a donation to Doctors without Borders and used my credit card. It kind of bums me out that Mastercard is going to take 3 percent of this, but honestly, if I tried to remember to write a check, I'd never send anything. My question is... do Mastercard/VISA drop or reduce their fees in these situations, or make some donation on their own to offset the fees?

Stacy Palmer: The credit card issuers do indeed drop their fees in these kinds of cases. They did it after Katrina, and many are doing it now.

Stacy Palmer: Visa and Mastercard have both announced that the are dropping their fees when you give to select groups. For example, Visa is dropping fees on groups like CARE and Unicef. Check with your credit card company if you want to know which groups are covered by the offer to drop the fee.

My colleague Ian Wilhelm says that it's wise to think of the cost savings to the charity of using the credit card compared with the work it has to do to process and cash your check or take your cash.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: What Haiti has seemed to lack more than anything in the past has been jobs. Will any of the money donated to charity go to paying Haitians to help clean up from the earthquake and rebuild? Any specific charity you could name?

Stacy Palmer: Organizations that were working in Haiti before the disaster usually have all Haitian nationals working for them. They are bringing in specialists from outside now, but most of the groups that have long been on the ground give jobs to Haitians. Check out the history of a group before giving and you will know how long they have been workign there. You also raise a key point: After the relief effort, which will be very tough, there will be a very long recovery period and that will require a huge amount of money and other resources to help Haitians rebuild their lives and their livilihoods. I hope people will think about reserving some of their donations -- or holding fund raisers now -- to finance some of those efforts, because the need will be vast.

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Washington, D.C.: How long do you think the recovery of Haiti will take?

Stacy Palmer: As my colleague Ian Wilhelm points out, we just passed the five-year anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsumamis and a lot of rebuilding and recovery work is still under way. Many of the recovery donations from the US and elsewhere are making a huge difference today for the tsunami victims. We can expect the Haitian effort to take far longer, given how much need the country had before the earthquake.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is texting safe? How do we know that the company won't keep withdrawing $10 after my donation?

Stacy Palmer: As long as you are dealing with a reputable charity, you do not need to worry at all about texting. It is a very safe way to give.

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Stacy Palmer: Thank you so much for your excellent questions. We will keep our site, http://philanthropy.com, updated with news about giving and volunteering to help the people of Haiti and encourage you to send any other questions you have to me at editor@philanthropy.com.

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washingtonpost.com: The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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