Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

February 1, 2010

Haiti relief underscores deeper needs

By Todd Cohen

While Americans quickly dug deep to support relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, the outpouring of generosity also serves as a troubling reminder of our ongoing failure to better address social and global needs that are urgent, persistent and deeply rooted.

Just as they did after 9/11, Katrina and the Asian tsunamis, individuals, companies and foundations after the Haiti quake have done what Americans do best in times of crisis: They got involved and gave.

What we often seem to forget, however, is that we face a perpetual crisis, one the recession simply has deepened.

At home and abroad, millions are hungry, homeless, in poor health, impoverished, illiterate, and subjected to violence and intolerance.

The giving sector exists in large part to address the problems vulnerable populations face.

But among the nearly one million charities in the U.S., many struggle with limited resources and big operating challenges.

Individuals, foundations and companies in the U.S. give over $300 billion a year to support charities, and often give more after horrific events like the quake in Haiti.

But the charitable marketplace has changed dramatically in recent years in the wake of financial and ethical scandals and the collapse of the economy.

Many foundations and corporations have narrowed the focus of their giving, and are demanding more business-like operations from charities seeking support.

Those funders want nonprofits to be more strategic, set measurable goals, create clear metrics to gauge their impact and effectiveness, and make their staffs and boards more diverse and inclusive.

These all are important goals: To address critical needs, nonprofits must be able to sustain themselves financially and engage the thinking and know-how of the full spectrum of people and institutions with a stake in making our communities better places to live and work.

But in placing greater demands on charities and ratcheting up expectations for how they perform, many funders seem to be in denial about the investment charities need to meet those demands and expectations.

Most charities are small, community-based groups with limited resources.
Their employees are overworked and underpaid and often lack the skills or know-how they need to keep their shops financially afloat.

Their boards often are not willing to raise money or set a vision and direction for the organization, and typically are not even aware those are key responsibilities of their board role.

The recession has increased demand for services from charities and reduced the dollars available to them in what has become a fiercely competitive charitable marketplace.

And foundations and corporations typically will not support charitable operations, preferring to fund special projects and address particular needs in sync with their mission or business goals.

So while they expect charities to be more enterprising, efficient, effective and strategic, funders are not willing to make the significant investment charities need to improve the way they do business.

After the Haiti earthquake, savvy charities used social-media strategies like text-messaging to raise a lot of money quickly.

Aiding that effort was massive coverage by mass media that used the power of images and technology to communicate both the intimacy and the massive scale of devastation in a nation long ground down by poverty.

Yet while they are quick to provide wall-to-wall coverage of horrific disasters in their immediate wake, the media fail to tell the ongoing story of the relentless toll poverty takes throughout America and the world.

And while nonprofits serve on the front lines in the fight against poverty, their limited resources make it tough for them to more effectively tell their story to the mass audience mass media can reach.

Nonprofits need all the help they can get, including greater understanding and flexibility among foundations and corporations that control charitable resources nonprofits can use to do a better job running their organizations, serving people in need, and telling their stories to engage more people in their cause.


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