Haiti: “Cutting Through the Noise” – Effective donor help during the immediate relief phase

In our first blog post last Thursday, Haiti: How Can I Help?, we listed the two types of nonprofit organizations best equipped to have impact in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. We also listed examples of each and underscored the need for cash donations vs. donations of supplies or in-person volunteer help. (See our comments in last week’s BusinessWeek and Chicago Tribune.)

The devastation in Haiti has been matched by an outpouring of generosity. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of news reports and charitable solicitations mean that many people who wish to help are having a hard time cutting through the noise.

Here’s what to focus on: impact not overhead.

Donors report nonprofit solicitations touting low overhead ratios (“100% of your money goes to program cost!”) But even suppliers of these ratios have warned that they are poor proxies for what donors really care about (see link to press release, The Worst (and Best) Way to Pick a Charity This Year)– impact.

To have impact – particularly in the chaotic first phase of disaster relief – donors need answers to the following questions:

  1. What are the most critical needs on the ground?
  2. What capabilities are needed to address them effectively?
  3. Which nonprofits have those capabilities?

1.  Critical needs on the ground

With search and rescue for survivors winding down, the main emphasis for the next few weeks will be on basic survival needs: clean water, food, shelter, and emergency medical care. Safety and security are also critical, but are mainly supported by police, UN groups, and international armed forces, not by NPOs/NGOs.

2.  Nonprofit capabilities needed to have impact

  • Expertise and track record in specific disaster response efforts such as:
    • Clean water – e.g., water delivery, large scale water purification systems, water purification tablets for those with access to some type of water, ready mixed oral rehydration solution for those with dehydration but no access to water.
    • Food – e.g., child survival messages regarding exclusive breastfeeding for babies, “plumpy’ nut” prepackaged food for children, and meals-ready-to-eat. Since water is not yet available, emphasis is on food that does not require water.
    • Shelter – e.g., distribution of plastic sheeting, establishment of tent camps
    • Emergency medical care – e.g., trauma care, surgery under “battleground” type conditions, orthopedists, etc.
  • Organizations with know-how and teams in Haiti able to quickly mobilize staff and supplies.

3.  Organizations with the necessary capabilities

Here are examples of organizations currently addressing key survival needs in Haiti. All have teams on the ground and experience and personnel in Haiti.


Oxfam International – They are working collaboratively with UNICEF to deliver water to key distribution points.  Water bladders are in place that can hold 10,000 litres and, though delivery efforts were hampered by fuel shortages, water is being distributed.  Oxfam is also working with UNICEF to address sanitation concerns including building latrines and distributing shelter and hygiene supplies.  If you want to donate, you can visit the American site at https://www.oxfamamerica.org/


World Food Programme – Charged with coordinating food distribution, they already have 10 million ready-to-eat meals prepared for airlift to Haiti.  They estimate that they will need to provide enough ready-to-eat meals to feed 2 million people for a month.  They are also working with UNICEF to provide targeted nutrition to affected children. World Food Programme Logistics is providing the coordination for transport and logistical needs, including air, road, and sea transport and the housing of humanitarian aid workers.  They have just signed a contract with Shell in Santo Domingo to provide 10,000 gallons of fuel per day that will be available to all humanitarian operations.

Emergency medical care

Medecines San Frontieres (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders – Focusing on trauma surgeries and emergency medicine (urgent C-sections for pregnant women and tetanus vaccinations), they have been able to quickly set up field hospitals to treat thousands critically injured in the earthquake and aftermath.  As of yesterday they had seen over 3,000 people and performed 600 surgeries.


International Rescue Committee (IRC) – Experienced emergency response team on the ground in Haiti includes experts in health, shelter, and children’s welfare.  They are working alongside local aid groups and organizations that have had a long-term presence in Haiti.  They are veteran first responders with over 75 years of experience in disaster relief.  They are also working to support Haitian refugee communities around the globe.  Immediate focus is on the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living outdoors with little or no shelter.  They will help organize temporary shelters and safe spaces, as well as provide psychological help to traumatized women and children.  They are now accepting donations through their website and via text message by texting HAITI to 25383. For more on text donations, see last week’s post on High Impact Technology for Disaster Relief Giving.

This post focused on the immediate relief phase. At each phase of the recovery process, new priorities will emerge. In future posts, we’ll discuss how donors can ensure resources are in place for meeting these emerging needs. We’ll also provide more details on how key nonprofit organizations are translating philanthropic support into impact.