In the first 24 hours after the earthquake in Haiti on Tuesday, Americans gave $1.2 million to relief efforts in text message donations alone.
And that's not even what Americans gave via checks sent snail mail, cash tossed in at pass-the-hat collections and corporate donations.
The generosity of this country never ceases to amaze and humble me. As Haiti begins its recovery, American giving to it, too, is in its infancy. So as we all look around and ask ourselves, "What else can I do?" here are a few things to keep in mind.
If Your Mother Forwards You An Email, Check It Out
Most people I know consider themselves skeptical and sophisticated when it comes to appeals for money. And yet, many of those same smart people have sent me that "Bill Gates Will Donate a Penny to Charity Every Time You Forward This" email. If someone asks you to donate to a charity you don't already know, take 30 seconds and check it out.
At Charity Navigator, you can see how much nonprofits spend on actually helping people. HOPE Worldwide, for example, set up a Haiti response donation page on Wednesday. A quick check at Charity Navigator will show you that this is indeed a legitimate charity, but because it's been spending less and less on its programs in recent years, it only gets two stars, for "Needs Improvement."
In the comments, you'll learn that HOPE Worldwide was founded by the controversial International Churches of Christ (not the same as the United Church of Christ). The ICoC has come under fire for many of its practices, such as assigning new members a "discipler" -- basically the human equivalent of an ankle monitor. It's also been banned from 39 college campuses for recruiting methods that border on harassment. The ICoC's former leader Kip McKean appointed HOPE Worldwide's first directors, Robert and Patricia Gempel, who are still on HOPE's board.
Now compare that to the International Rescue Committee - It gets a four-star rating, for "Excellent," and in the news section, you'll learn that the Forbes Investment Guide once named it one of its Ten Gold Star Charities.
Which one will you donate to now?
You can also check out fundraising emails and pleas at About.com's Urban Legends page, which has already debunked a couple of Haiti earthquake-related rumors and potential frauds.
Sometimes, Writing A Check Is Not Enough
Believe me, I get that. After September 11th, my sister and I stood under scaffolding on 96th Street and Broadway with a bunch of our neighbors, collecting whatever the rescue workers needed - clean t-shirts, rain gear, shovels, granola bars. After three days, the parking lot of the Javits Convention Center was full of stuff collected by well-meaning volunteers like us. Right now, Haiti doesn't need stuff, (though it may call for t-shirts and shovels later). Right now, what Haiti needs, is cash.
If you feel the urge to do more than write a check, think for a minute. Instead of collecting supplies at your church or a local grocery story parking lot, try organizing a pancake breakfast or spaghetti dinner to raise money instead. Put a jar on your desk to collect change. Have your kids' scout troop brainstorm a fundraiser of their own.
And if you're eager to get down there and chip in, call your local chapters of one of the charities responding to the disaster (The American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity are three possibilities) and sign up. Right now, the country can only accept help from the most highly trained first responders. But your turn will come. The Salvation Army still had a response program running in Oklahoma City six years after the bombing of the Murrah Building. Several New York City charities maintained their post-September 11 programs for five years after the disaster. And four years after Hurricane Katrina, you can still help rebuild homes in New Orleans.
Reach Out and Touch Someone
Catastrophe makes us want to reach out to those we love, but if the person you're longing to speak to in Haiti isn't a member of your innermost circle, resist the urge to call every 15 minutes until you get through. Rescuers need the limited communications capacity to coordinate their efforts.
Every New Yorker (myself included) has a story about getting a call on September 11th from an ex they hadn't spoken to in years, a distant relative they met once when they were 7, a former coworker they were pretty sure didn't even like them. With limited phone service and the police and fire radio systems down, these calls weren't merely irritating, they hampered the rescue.
If you've got family in Haiti, of course you've got to find them. But if several people here in the states are all looking for the same family members, maybe you can coordinate your calling efforts, so six, or ten, or a dozen, people aren't all trying to call the same number at once. And setting up a phone tree here will help spread news, when there is some, among loved ones here in the U.S.
The U.S. State Department has a hotline for tracking down family members in Haiti: 1-888-407-4747.
The New York Times has set up a message board for people looking for loved ones in Haiti, and for people in Haiti wanting to let people know where they are.
And if you don't have a loved one in Haiti, but you know someone who does, don't be shy about reaching out to them. The waiting and dread are a terrible burden no one should have to shoulder alone.
Get Yourself Prepared
Let's say, God forbid, that it's your city or town that is abruptly, violently, reduced to rubble. Your cellphone is splintered into 100 pieces under something heavy, and it wouldn't work anyway because most of the cell towers are lying on their sides. Utility poles are listing like twigs in a swamp. Your car is in a tree, and the roads are clogged with debris. Your loved ones are scattered at five or ten different points throughout the area. How will you find each other? How will you tell the people who love you that you are safe?
Ever since taking office last May, FEMA chief Craig Fugate has been urging Americans to sit down and answer those questions. In many of his speeches, whether to professional emergency responders or the general public, Fugate has repeatedly said that while FEMA must respond to disaster effectively, the public has a responsibility, too. And that is: Be prepared.
Fugate's such an evangelist about this that on Twitter, 29 of his 136 tweets have been variants of "Does your family have a plan?" or "Are you prepared?" He urges people to check out FEMA's website and its simple checklist for making a plan with your family. It recommends common sense things like choosing one person out of town who everyone will call if you find yourselves spread out and disconnected after a disaster. (Sometimes, after disasters, it's easier to get a call out of the area than within it.)
Fugate's giving us all good advice. One of my clients at the Salvation Army's World Trade Center Disaster Relief program was a woman who got separated from her husband on the morning of September 11th. She evacuated to New Jersey; he walked to Brooklyn. He heard from a friend that she was in a shelter in Jersey and he hitched a ride there to find her; meanwhile, she heard he might be at a different shelter in Jersey. They circled around the state looking for but not finding each other for three days.
As we watch people both in Haiti and around the world scramble to locate and contact their loved ones, maybe now is a good time to heed Fugate's suggestion. Download the checklist, get your family together, and make a plan.
Here's hoping you never need to use it.