Fundraising In Haiti: Where Does The Money Go?

05/14/2010 02:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Andrew MacCalla Director of International Programs and Emergency Response for Direct Relief


The Chronicle of Philanthropy announced May 12th that over $1.1 billion has been donated to support relief efforts in Haiti. The largest recipients include the American Red Cross ($444 million), Catholic Relief Services ($135.7 million) and Oxfam International (over $100 million). This outpouring of generosity on the part of the world community is unprecedented and should be applauded and (hopefully) repeated. And for the most part, from what is possible to observe in Haiti, these organizations have been good stewards of this money, doing as much as they can as efficiently as possible to assist those who have been affected by the earthquake.

However, all of this money that has been raised on behalf of the Haitian people begs the question of whether or how the Haitian people will actually benefit from it. Of course, the money is being spent on Haitians' behalf by the NGOs that received it, but that's different from allowing them to spend it themselves. How much do their voices count in allocating this money or even giving it to them to empower their communities, rebuild their schools and hospitals, or provide education to their children? How much of the money will actually remain in Haiti for the decades that it will take to rebuild?

A few months ago, the students at the University of California at Santa Barbara held a fundraiser for Haiti and decided to donate the $25,000 they raised to Direct Relief International, the organization I work for that has been providing medication and medical supplies to hospitals in Haiti since 1964.

Among the speakers that evening was Professor Claudine Michel, a dynamic accomplished member of the Haitian Diaspora who edits the only peer-reviewed Journal of Haitian Studies in the world. Another speaker was Dr. Nadege Cilatandre, also Haitian, a brilliant young scholar who engaged in post-doc studies as a University of California post-doc Fellow. Nadege provided a rich retrospective on Haitian history and also showed the 600 attendees photographs of a community center, complete with a library and computer lab, in Carrefour-Feuilles that she personally had helped create with small-scale contributions and volunteer labor though Haiti Soleil, a small nonprofit she had established. The center was destroyed in the earthquake but the staff had self-organized and begun providing emergency help to the families and community that it serves. They lost nearly everything, spent what little financial cushion existed to help pull the community together, and continue doing this work as the months tick by.

Direct Relief's CEO, Thomas Tighe, was at the meeting too. He told me he afterwards he was both humbled and puzzled after hearing these presentations that the funds collected from UCSB's students would come to Direct Relief instead of Haiti Soleil to rebuild the library. But it gave him the idea to have Direct Relief serve as a conduit for channeling funds to well run, local, Haitian-run NGOs that have been working in their communities for many years and simply do not have access to funds that the international NGO community has.

The hallmark of Direct Relief's approach is that we look for the local leaders who invariably do all the important work where the rubber hits the road. We look for the people who are plugged in, deeply committed, very smart, and with credibility and trust earned over many years. In any community (think of who you'd want to hear from in a local emergency in your own town) these are the people whose ear to the ground and ability to make things happen is essential.

But, as we've learned over many years (and is clear to me again after the past several months in Haiti), these great local leaders are often so busy doing great work for the people in poverty areas that they they're invisible to individual donors and the large funding streams. For whatever reasons, funding tends to find its way only to large groups steeped in the arcane bureaucracies of government funding or have world-class, rapid-response marketing that can galvanize attention and resources when a high-profile emergency occurs and people are inspired to give.
Since then, Direct Relief has allocated an initial $500,000 from the Haiti contributions received to serve as a 'community grant fund' that offers local groups the ability to access grants for up to $25,000. So far, we've received over 40 requests and have provided $125,000 to five local groups to: begin rebuilding the library and community center in Carrerfour-Feuilles, keep free medical services open at a community hospital for three more months, re-open a medical clinic in Delmas, provide psychosocial support to youths who have left Port au Prince for the northern district, and start a feeding and therapeutic support program in the devastated Carrefour-Feuilles area. Those funds will be spent in, and reinvested in Haiti, directly. We're hoping that our support, and listing these groups on our website, may give them some profile and help them attract other resources, including directly from others who might learn about them in this way.

All of these groups that we are fortunate enough to be able to provide grants to have been working in Haiti long before many of the rest of us came in to help and have a great sense of what their communities need. No one has a bigger stake in making sure these resources make a difference. We just don't always think to give them the resources to do it.