Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where Was God on 12 January 2010?

For the last two months I have been thinking about this question and the question: Where is everybody now that the cameras are gone? These questions, or some form of them, have appeared in the news reports and in my discussions with people involved in the relief work in Haiti, and more recently in Chile after the horrible earthquake there. Both of these questions are relevant to my consideration of the role of the nonprofit sector in those countries.

First, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, in 1981 after his son, Aaron, died at the age of 14 of progeria, a premature aging disease. He wrote in his introduction that this was not an abstract book about God and theology. Rather, it was a very personal book written by someone who believes in God and in the goodness of His world. He repeated over and over in his mind, “This can’t be happening. It is not how the world is supposed to work.” He went on to say in the first chapter that almost every conversation he has with people on the subject of God and religion has either started with that question or with the problem of evil and pain and suffering.

In my post of 21 February 2010, Haiti Earthquake 2010 and Challenges to Recovery, I raised a number of questions with respect to the relationship of moral principles to the responses to the catastrophe in Haiti and responsibilities of governments and individuals to act to alleviate the suffering of the people of Haiti. As I was writing that, and also thinking about this statement by Rabbi Kushner, I was thinking about some of the writings of Peter Singer.

Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University, a well-known Australian philosopher and ethicist, advanced the utilitarian ideal that “the greatest good of the greatest number” is the only measurement of good or ethical behavior. While it is not my purpose to discuss the views of Peter Singer here, it is sufficient to say that he is one of the most influential philosophers in the world today, and that his writings have gone far to shape contemporary thinking in animal rights movements, bioethics, and human rights generally. But, it is no accident that he is one of the most controversial thinkers today either.

Singer falls squarely within the utilitarian side of the philosophical divide, with its major philosophical competitor, “deontology,” a duty-oriented theory in which the consequences of an action are irrelevant. Thus, for Singer, ethics is rooted in the quality of life rather than some “hypothetical suppositions” about the “sanctity” of life, on real issues of pain and pleasure, rather than on abstract principles of duty and obedience. Whereas the generally accepted standard belief that human life is sacred, a deontological notion that each person has an innate value and that it is the inviolable duty of other to respect this value, Singer would focus on the quality of life based on its capacity to experience pleasure, happiness, and self-fulfillment. He distinguishes between human life and personhood, between persons and nonpersons, not between humans and nonhumans as some who would assign different values or rights on the basis of species membership, or speciesism.

In his book, How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, he wrote:

There are people who are hungry, malnourished, lacking shelter, or basic health care: and there are voluntary organizations that raise money to help these people. True, the problem is so big that one individual cannot make much impact on it; and no doubt some of the money will be swallowed up in administration, or will get stolen, or for some other reason will not reach the people who need it most. Despite these inevitable problems, the discrepancy between wealth of the developed world and the poverty of the poorest people in developing countries is so great that if only a small fraction of what you give reaches the people who need it, that fraction will make far greater difference to the people it reaches than the full amount you give could make to your own life. That you as an individual cannot make an impact on the entire problem seems scarcely relevant, since you can make an impact on the lives of particular families. So will you get involved with one of these organizations? Will you yourself give, not just spare change when a tin is rattled under your nose, but substantial amounts that will reduce your ability to live a luxurious lifestyle?

Singer urges us to ask ourselves: What place does ethics have in my daily life? What do I think of as a good life? As he wrote, “the psychological need for ethical justification, no matter how weak that justification may be, is remarkable pervasive.” The problem with much of Singer’s thinking, or at least as it is popularly understood, is that the more we are able to declassify people based on their inability to experience pleasure or happiness or self-fulfillment, or to be sentient, we thereby disqualify victims from “personhood.” If, abortion and infanticide, and euthanasia of people with brain damage, Alzheimer’s, or some other “abnormality” are permitted, and indeed may even be ethically compelled, and there is no inherent and inviolable sanctity of life, can there be justification for providing relief to the victims of the Haiti earthquake where poverty is widespread due to the history and corruption of Haitian society, where debilitating and deadly diseases are rampant, where hunger and starvation and lack of water are precursors to early death, where injuries and psychological trauma are the common everywhere, and where there is little or no hope that the international community will be able to provide timely relief or that a Haitian government may be functioning well enough to alleviate the effects of the earthquake on its people?

Just a short time after the earthquake hit Haiti with such devastating power, another earthquake, much stronger with a magnitude of 8.8 hit Chile setting off a tsunami that traveled across the Pacific Ocean.

Why the difference in the degree of devastation between the earthquake in Haiti and the earthquake in Chili? If God is good and is fair and is all-powerful, how could so much damage and loss of life occur in Haiti, and almost no loss by comparison occur in Chile notwithstanding the force of the earthquake there?

Rabbi Kushner wrote another book that seems to address that question from a slightly different perspective that gives some hint as to why that question matters to people as individuals and matters to much of the charity sector involved in Haiti. It is something that I would like to explore in this post and the next post. But, first, what Rabbi Kushner wrote sheds some light on the reason many charitable organizations exist and work in places, such as Haiti, and Chile, and how they are able to maintain authentic accountability and transparency. He said:

Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make the difference.

As Rabbi Kushner wrote, there are events in all of our lives that we don’t want to have to face alone; frightening things like war or storms or natural disasters. Moreover, he wrote that social psychologists who have treated families after devastating natural disasters have found that their gravest problem was not the loss of home or property, but the loss of their sense that the world was a safe place.

Some 25 years ago, Neil Postman wrote a prescient account of much of what we see around us today that seemed somewhat appropriate to my continuing consideration of the Haiti earthquake of 12 January 2010. He noted in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, that even then, 25 years ago now, “Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even popular notice. The result is that we are a people amusing ourselves to death.”

The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.

And this was before widespread availability of cable and satellite television, widespread use of the Internet, of blogs and twitter, and of online donations through Internet portals where impulse giving is essentially encouraged. It is often difficult to distinguish between news and reality television programming. Charity driven telethons, while often effective for raising large sums of money, frequently appear to be no different than celebrity rock concerts that are also broadcast on television, at least as replays.

In writing his Forward, Neil Postman spoke about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. According to Postman, what Huxley feared was that we would be given so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism, and that we would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. What Huxley feared as he wrote in Brave New World Revisited, was that civil libertarians and rationalists who are always on the alert to oppose tyranny, “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

I have been thinking about these things in connection with the relief and reconstruction efforts in Haiti, and now in Chile, although there may be a bit of charity burnout now in connection with the fundraising for emergency relief in Chile. Focusing on Haiti, which I am using as an example of some of the issues regarding the role of charity and the civil society sector in cases of natural disasters, I was interested in a recent report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Daily Update, 16 March 2010,

American Charities Raise Close to $1-Billion for Haiti, Chronicle Tally Finds

Nine weeks after the devastating earthquake in Haiti donors have contributed nearly $980-million to support relief efforts.

Donors gave approximately $66-million of that total in response to a star-studded telethon that was broadcast on major television networks in January. Organizers awarded $35-million in grants on February 5.

Among the results:

*ActionAid has raised more than $419,000 as of March 2.
*Action Against Hunger has raised more than $2.8-million as of March 2.
*Adventist Development and Relief Agency had raised $5.8-million as of March 16.
*The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had raised more than $6.1-million as of March 16.
*American Jewish World Service had raised more than $5-million as of March 2 for its Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund.
*American Red Cross had raised approximately $369-million as of March 16, including $6-million from the Hope for Haiti telethon. More than $32-million was pledged to the Red Cross via text message.
*AmeriCares had raised more than $12.5-million as of March 16.
*Brother’s Brother Foundation had raised $676,000 as of March 16.
*CARE USA had raised approximately $15.6-million as of March 16.
*Catholic Medical Mission Board had raised $1.3-million in cash as of February 3. The *organization has also received donations of medicines and medical supplies worth $10.6-million.
*Catholic Relief Services had raised $106.7-million as of March 16.
*ChildFund International had raised $450,767 as of February 16.
*The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund had raised more than $37-million as of March 16.
*The William J. Clinton Foundation had received more than $14.5-million as of March 16.
*Concern Worldwide US had raised $2.8-million as of March 16.
*Cross International had raised $4.6-million as of March 16.
*Direct Relief International had raised $4.8-million in cash as of February 12.
*The Doctors Without Borders U.S. operations had raised $50.2-million for work in Haiti as of *February 17. The organization had also received $16.2-million for its general Emergency Relief *Fund.
*Feed the Children had raised $1-million as of March 2.
*Fonkoze USA had raised $1.7-million as of March 2.
*Friends of the World Food Program had raised $10.3-million, including $6-million from the *Hope for Haiti Now telethon, as of February 17.
*Habitat for Humanity had raised more than $2.6-million as of March 16.
*The Humane Society of the United States/Humane Society International had raised more than $1-million as of February 2.
*International Medical Corps had raised more than $5-million as of February 17
*The International Rescue Committee had raised $5.8-million as of March 12.
*Internews Network, a nonprofit group that promotes journalism abroad, received $200,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to help the news media in Haiti recover from the disaster and broadcast critical information about the relief efforts.
*Islamic Relief USA had raised more than $2.1-million as of March 2.
*The Lions Clubs International Foundation had raised $2.4-million as of March 16.
*Lutheran World Relief had raised more than $5.7-million as of March 16.
*Medical Teams International had raised $2.5-million as of February 3.
*Mennonite Central Committee had raised $4.5-million from donors in the United States as of *March 12. The group had raised another $7.6-million in Canada.
*Mercy Corps had received $14-million as of March 10.
*Operation USA had raised $910,000 in cash as of February 12.
*Oxfam America had received $22.5-million as of March 16, $8-million of which came from the *Hope for Haiti Now telethon. Internationally, Oxfam has raised more than $100-million, an amount the organization says will be sufficient to carry out its five-year recovery program.
*The Pan American Development Foundation had raised more than $1.61-million as of February 23.
*Partners in Health had received donations totaling $66-million as of March 16, including $8-million from the Hope for Haiti Now telethon.
*Plan USA had raised $1.3-million as of February 12. The group’s international affiliates had raised $29.3-million.
*Population Services International had raised more than $171,000 as of March 2.
*Project HOPE had raised $1.4-million in cash and pledges as of March 2.
*Relief International had raised more than $376,000 as of February 3.
*The Salvation Army had raised $14.8-million as of March 16.
*Save the Children USA had raised $21.3-million as of March 16. The organization’s international affiliates had raised an additional $35.1-million.
*The U.N. Foundation had raised more than $3.4-million as of February 12.
*The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had raised more than $1.68-million as of March 12 for four grassroots charities in Haiti.
*The United Methodist Committee on Relief had raised $14.5-million as of March 11.
*The University of Miami had received $4.4-million as of March 2 for its relief efforts in Haiti. *The university runs a community health program and other projects in Haiti, and more than 100 of its doctors, nurses, and other staff members have traveled to Haiti since the earthquake.
*The U.S. Fund for Unicef had received $56.5-million in cash and pledges as of March 16. That figure includes $6-million contributed as part of the Hope for Haiti Now telethon.
*World Vision’s U.S. operations had received $32.5-million as of March 9.
*Yele Haiti Foundation has received $9.1-million, which includes $1-million from the Hope for Haiti Now telethon.
*Food for the Poor and Operation Blessing declined to share information on their fund-raising results.

Carolyn Preston, Nicole Wallace, and Ian Wilhelm compiled this list.

This list is obviously not exhaustive, but it does reflect some of the larger groups. I make only several observations about this list and some of the charities on the list.

The first is that it is remarkable that these charities, many of them U.S. affiliates of international NGOs, which are represented in the INGO Charter of which I spoke in an earlier post (1 October 2009,Global NGOs and International Assessments) raised close to $1-billion for relief in Haiti. But that tells only part of the story. While the numbers for official U.S. aid to Haiti for the earthquake relief efforts are imprecise, especially since much of it may have been represented by the presence of the American military in Haiti during the early stages of the humanitarian efforts, recent figures indicate that approximately $700 million have been pledged in disaster aid.

We expect that when the international conference to be convened the end of March in New York, we will have a better idea of the pledges by the States in response to Haiti’s request for $15 billion from the international community to turn the rubble of Port-au-Prince into a thriving modern city. While the UN and member States have pledged various sums and considered debt relief, the NGOs remain to be the significant sources of rescue, relief, and development assistance to the people of Haiti.

There is one issue regarding the funding of charitable activities through the government, and how the NGO community has been increasingly marginalized that is important. This was discussed in the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships recent report to the President (see, A New Era of Partnerships: Report of Recommendations to the President), which I will discuss in a future post.

The second is that most of these NGOs listed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy Update have been accredited or recognized by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, or ECFA, or all three, as having complied with the Standards of Financial Accountability issued by those bodies. Although there is generally no final accounting for funds raised for Haiti relief for the allocation of funds to mission objectives and to administrative and fundraising expenses, my sense is that most of these organizations have met the accreditation standards of, and are monitored by independent monitoring organizations. As a result, my guess is that donations made to many of these listed charities will probably be used for the purposes for which given, subject to several words of caution, especially since I have not personally verified all the information relative to all of the organizations listed by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Hence, donors would be advised to perform their own due diligence.

Third, with all the constant television coverage of the damage, the injury and death, the bodies piled in the streets, people crying out for help, for food, for water, for shelter, with all the pictures about the rescue and relief operations, we become transfixed by the images on television, and like so much on television, on video games and computer screens. Moreover, a number of the NGOs listed in the article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy received funds through celebrity fundraising shows, and with the solicitations on television showing the pictures of the damage, particularly injured and sick children with online donation opportunities or donations through mobile text messages, we, the viewers were part of the show.

Fourth, almost all of the organizations listed here by The Chronicle of Philanthropy provide for direct donations through their website links. While this provides for rapid response to the call for funds and needs identified and serviced by the respective organizations, it also promotes impulse giving that does not lend itself to reasoned and intelligent giving, assuming that there is some interest in the transparency and accountability of charitable organization, and the allocation of the donated monies to the mission or program goals for which the funds were solicited, and to the administrative and fundraising expenses. In other words, there is little room for due diligence, and maybe that is not what donors want as they seek to meet the urgent needs for which the funds are solicited.

There were two organizations on the list that I would like to address. The first is the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross is accredited by BBB Wise Giving Alliance. According to the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, the American Red Cross has satisfied all of the 20 Wise Giving Alliance Standards of Accountability which address: board governance and oversight; measurement of effectiveness; finances and the allocation of program, administrative, and fundraising expenses; the completeness, accuracy and currency of fundraising appeals and materials; and disclosures and complaint procedures.

Charity Navigator rated the American Red Cross with an overall rating of three stars out of a total possible rating of four stars. Such a rating signifies that the American Red Cross exceeds or meets industry standards and performs as well or better than most charities in its cause. But let’s face it, by Charity Navigator standards, this was not a great rating. Admittedly, it was based on a prior year and had nothing to do with the efforts of the American Red Cross in its Haiti relief efforts.

One thing that I think may explain the lower rating for American Red Cross was the posting of all the comments on the Charity Navigator website. In a recent review I did of Charity Navigator’s evaluation report on the American Red Cross, I found 52 posted comments, most of which were critical of the Red Cross. The most repeated criticism was the compensation for the Chief Executive Officer, and other senior officers. However, there were also criticisms of the allocation of income to program expenses and administrative and fundraising expenses, the inefficiency in the delivery of services, and the sale of blood which had been donated. While none of these comments related directly to actions of the American Red Cross in Haiti or in seeking donations for Haiti relief, there was a certain common trend in these comments based on experiences people had with the American Red Cross in connection with the attacks on “9/11,” relief actions with respect to the Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast of the U.S., and the tsunami in South Central Asia.

While it is still too early to have a complete accounting of the funds raised and distributed to meet the causes for which they were raised, there have been some concerns about the lag time between the solicitation and perhaps receipt of funds, and their distribution or use in Haiti relief. There was also the problem, according to the American Red Cross with the receipting and accounting for funds that were not specifically designated for Haiti relief. I think that this is being cleared up.

The case of Yéle Haiti is a little different. According to the report in The Chronicle of Philanthropy Daily Update for 16 March 2010, the Yéle Haiti Foundation raised $9.1 million for Haiti relief, which amount included $1.0 million from the Hope for Haiti Now telethon. The Yéle Haiti Foundation or Wyclef Jean Foundation Inc, is based in New York City and, according to its filings, works with a sister organization in Haiti, together they are known as Yéle. Yéle Haiti and its predecessor Wyclef Jean Foundation, have had legal problems for failure to file state disclosure reports, and its informational tax forms have been filed late.

According to published reports, and indeed its own blog, Yéle Haiti Foundation has had problems with respect to the how the money has been spent in the past, with its administrative expenses that appear to be higher than comparable charities, and payments to Wyclef Jean and to business he owns and that are owned by a board member. Notwithstanding the fact that Yele Haiti Foundation had been in existence for 12 years, it was not until August 2009 that it filed its first information tax returns covering calendar years 2005, 2006, and 2007. It is beyond the scope of this post to provide further analysis of the tax returns and where much of the money went during those tax years. These issues are simply noted here to provide some context to the issues raised by The Smoking Gun website, Charity Navigator, major newspapers, and Dean Zerbe.

Dean Zerbe, former tax counsel to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and currently the national managing director of Alliant Group, said: “It seems clear that a significant amount of the monies that the charity raises go for costs other than providing benefits to Haitians in need.”

Although Charity Navigator does not rate the Yéle Haiti Foundation, it did analyze the informational tax returns and audited financial statements, determining that the group spent 69 percent of its budget on program expenses, most of which were provided in grants to its affiliate organization in Haiti. Concluding that at the end of the day, this charity would bring in “a ton of money” because of the star power of Wyclef Jean and the celebrities with whom he is able to work to raise money, Charity Navigator noted that:

Already it has raised $1.5 million! It is critical that we all – from the media to nonprofit experts to donors – closely watch how it handles all of these new donations. Will it spend the money on its own programs and services? And does that mean it will help with the medium to long term recovery efforts, or will it try to provide immediate aid? Will it simply funnel it to other groups and if so, will that diminish how much makes it to other organizations?

Wyclef Jean responded to these criticisms in an extended clip on YouTube. In this clip, he denied taking any money for personal benefit, and mainly detailed how he was Haitian, born in Haiti, and the costs involved in putting on a show, including a fundraising celebrity show. The costs included the production cost, cost for the band, costs for the setting for the show, costs for management, and costs for performers.

Again, Dean Zerbe:

It brings real caution for donors that want to help in Haiti that they might want to take a harder look at this organization but also consider the significant number of charities that have been doing good work in Haiti and don’t have these question marks.

This brings up the entire issue of celebrity fundraising, including fundraising for natural disaster relief. The “Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief” telethon was reported to have raised $57 million as of 23 January 2010 for the relief efforts in Haiti. According to some reports, it was a “star-studded event [that] shattered records for money donated by the public through a telethon. Lead by actor, George Clooney, and singer/performer Wyclef Jean, scores of celebrities participated in this event. Their efforts garnered the biggest one-day album provider in iTunes history, making it number one on iTunes in 18 countries. The Hope for Haiti continued to receive donations on its website well after the actual telethon.

The British online news service, spiked, reported on 28 January 2010, “Haiti: an all-singing, all-dancing, celebrity disaster. How did Haiti so quickly become a conduit for celebrity emoting, celebrating gossip and even celebrity rescue operations?” This report continued:

There’s nothing like a disaster in a land populated by black people to bring out the rescue instinct in celebrities. In the two weeks since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, celebs on both sides of the Atlantic have tweeted, sung, danced, signed cheques and even hand-delivered aid. The George Clooney-led Hope for Haiti Now telethon is estimated to have raised £35 million in just two hours.

As this article reported, it is easy to be cynical about the heartstring-tugging fundraisers, especially when some of the performers changed the lyrics to their songs to make them apply to Haiti, to a backdrop of weeping Haitian babies, and to mock pop stars’ earnestness when they tell the viewers they want to be in Haiti so badly. But even if you think the whole thing is “a bit cheezy, . . . at least the celebrities are Doing Something.” After all, isn’t it important to get the aid to Haiti where hundreds of thousands have been reported to have died and one million are now homeless?

This piece drips with cynicism, which I am not sure is completely out of order, when we think of the moral foundation for why we should care about those in need, whether or not there is some natural disaster, and whether there is any moral basis for the feigned cries for transparency and accountability. For example, while “it is indeed heartening that people around the world have been moved to donate millions to help Haitians rebuild their lives,” nevertheless:

Because, just like with past causes célébres, such as Ethiopia and Darfur, the earthquake in Haiti has quickly become as much about well-to-do Westerners as about catastrophe-struck Caribbeans. It is a news story that allows celebrities and politicians alike to keep a flattering spotlight on themselves (always making sure they wear casual clothes and little makeup, of course). For politicians who are desperate to score some easy brownie points with their electorates, Haiti is the place to be. Who can disagree with them that the earthquake was a tragic and devastating event and that Haitians deserve help?

As for celebrities, over the past week, they have been elevated into selfless heroes, and turned into intermediaries for our sympathy, as if we can only care about Haitians if we know that movie stars and pop singers are personally affected and touched by their fates.

The Hope for Haiti Now organization, is not affiliated with Hope for Haiti, which is based in Naples, Florida. Although the BBB Wise Giving Alliance has issued a report on Hope for Haiti, it has not determined that it meets the Wise Giving Alliance’s 20 Standards for Charity Accountability because Hope for Haiti did not provide BBB with the requested information.

According to the website for Hope for Haiti Now, funds are being held with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), which is a tax-exempt organization that has raised millions of dollars to address health, education, and other issues on behalf of the entertainment industry, and is providing on a pro bono basis, philanthropic support to Hope for Haiti Now. EIF is an accredited nonprofit organization with the BBB Wise Giving Alliance.

The initial distribution of the $35 million funds received in connection with the Hope for Haiti Now charity was to be to its partner organizations: Oxfam America, Partners in Health, American Red Cross, UNICEF, United Nations World Food Programme, the Yéle Haiti Foundation, and the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. Hope for Haiti Now, in response to a question about the issues surrounding the Yéle Haiti Foundation, stated that the Yéle Haiti Foundation was dedicated to the recovery of Haiti with homes, schools, and roads, but was not a disaster relief organization. Nevertheless, established relief groups continue to partner with Yéle Haiti because of its demonstrated capacity to reach remote communities with vital services.

Hope for Haiti Now is a special fund established at EIF. It is unclear from what I found whether Hope for Haiti Now is separately organized as a tax exempt charitable organization in its own right, although it has a Tax ID number.

According to its website, 100 percent of the donated funds from the public is going directly to the partnership organizations that are on the ground in Haiti. No administrative costs or other program expenses are charged by Hope for Haiti Now. There is nothing in the organization’s website about accountability, other than to EIF. However, the website does state that donors can opt-in for email updates from Hope for Haiti Now on how the donations are being used, and that each partner organization will regularly report to Hope for Haiti Now on how the funds are being used in Haiti. Since the funds will be distributed in two or more installments, “the impact of immediate assistance will be carefully monitored and assessed before additional funds are distributed. While all of this may be true, there is no real indication as to whether Hope for Haiti now is accountable to any independent monitoring organization.

A recent update of 18 March 2010 of The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported on a benefit concert held in Carnegie Hall in New York on Sunday night, 14 March 2010, touted as a Haiti fundraising event which provided little cash for Haiti relief. The New York Times had a more extensive report on the benefit concert with Lang Lang, the celebrity pianist, and Christoph Eschenbach, the conductor and the Schlewsig-Holstein Festival Orchestra.

Although the event was almost sold out with close to $200,000 worth of tickets, less than $8,000 from the sales went to the Haiti relief cause. Most of the money, including a $50,000 subsidy by the Montblanc company and $10,000 by CAMI Music, the concert presenter, went to Carnegie overhead accounts, the rental costs for the hall, for ushers and security, and for stage labor, long recognized as a major cost of doing business at Carnegie. There were also added marketing costs, including $52,000 in advertisement in the New York Times at “discounted nonprofit rates.”

Officials at Unicef, the actual recipient of the aid, said that “no matter how much money was earned, keeping Haiti in the public’s consciousness after the earthquake headlines had faded is invaluable.”

Charity Navigator posted on its website:

Charities cultivate relationships with stars for their ability to increase the public’s awareness of their charitable endeavors and thus stimulate more donations. Celebrities can be spokespersons, board members or even a founder of a charity.

It is wonderful that celebrities have the power to make us aware of causes that need our support. But the onus is still on us to do our homework before making a contribution. A celebrity’s endorsement simply cannot serve as a substitute for researching a charity. First of all, even if you are the number one fan of a particular celebrity, you two do not have exactly the same philanthropic interests. Second, the celebrity may not have thoroughly vetted the charity’s finances, commitment to accountability and transparency or its programmatic accomplishments – all steps that savvy donors take before making a donation.

I wonder how many savvy donors thought of this word of caution as they watched the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, or enjoyed its presentation on iTunes.

The height of chutzpah may be seen in this announcement from the Fun, Food and Friendship organization in Melbourne, Australia. I guess this could be regarded as partying with a purpose.

Hope for Haiti | Networking Charity Night

Hope for Haiti is Melbourne's latest craze in socialising for charity from the Melbourne Social group Fun, Food and Friendship on 11 March 2010.

Mingle with the best, drink the finest and donate the highest! Proceeds raised will support the Red Cross Haiti Earthquake Appeal. The event Features - live performances - Silent auction … shhh and Fashion launch. The entry fee includes a complimentary Coopers 62 Pilsner, finger food and booking fee. Left Bank is one of Melbourne's stylish and sophisticated venues set on the banks of Southbank, with a relaxed lounge, bar and dining areas. Come and see for yourself this exciting venue.

Join Fun, Food and Friendship for a fantastic social networking charity event held at Left Bank on 11 March from 6pm. Look for our Fun, Food and Friendship banner.

This charity event is ideal for meeting Fun, Food and Friendship members, as well as other people supporting this charity event. As a special incentive to attend this charity networking event, when you book, Fun, Food and Friendship will send you a special discount code that will allow you to receive $30 off a new Fun, Food and Friendship membership. Discount code will be valid for membership registrations from 3rd March until 12 March only.

The cost of the event is $30 and Left Bank is located at 1 Southbank Boulevard, Southbank and bookings and more information via

More information on other great social events can be found at the Fun, Food and Friendship website at

There has been a remake of the “We are the World” song of a number of disasters ago which has become popular on YouTube to remind the public around the world of the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and the importance of human solidarity in providing the needed relief and reconstruction.

Turning again to Neil Postman and his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he noted that two things happened toward the middle of the nineteenth century, that is, “two ideas came together whose convergence provided twentieth-century America with a new metaphor of public discourse.” The new idea was that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, and space was no longer an inevitable constraint on the movement of information. Society no longer needed human beings to carry the information from place to place. The second, and old idea derived from cave drawings, was photography, and the promotion of image.

The new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, of news, and to a large extent, of reality itself. Seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing. Together, the ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world, a “peek-a-boo” world in which various events pop into view and then vanish again. It is a world without coherence or sense; a world this is endlessly entertaining.

As Neil Postman wrote, “Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is by now complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.” Television is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. Television is our culture’s principle mode of knowing about itself, unless we also include the Internet, social networks, and virtual communities of virtual friends, and as a result, it becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. In classroom, operating rooms, courtrooms, board rooms, churches, and even airplanes, people no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They don’t exchange ideas, they exchange images.

We know that television, and indeed television commercials and by extension, I believe the fundraising appeals on television, have embedded in them, certain assumptions about the nature of communication which run counter to those of other media, especially the printed word. For one thing, television insists on unprecedented brevity of expression. As Postman puts it, a sixty-second commercial is prolix; thirty seconds is longer than most, and fifteen seconds is about average. It almost always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer. “It is not merely therapy. It is instant therapy.” It asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, and that they can be solved quite quickly, often by some kind of technical intervention. Thus, this type of programming, and commercial, disdains exposition and discourse because that takes time and invites argument.

In other words, we learn that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones, that drama is preferred over exposition, and that being sold solutions, such as sending money to an identified charity or fundraising appeal, is better than being confronted with questions about problems or challenges. Our orientation to political discourse, the news, or to fundraising appeals for disaster relief, includes certain assumptions about the domain of politics, of what is happening in the world, or in the work of charity and nongovernment organizations, is derived from television, social networks, and the so-called new media. We begin to believe that all problems can be solved through fast solutions and simple measures.

Just as television uses athletes, actors, musicians, and other celebrities to sell products, notwithstanding the fact that the virtues of such products are outside the domain of their expertise, athletes, actors, musicians, politicians, and other celebrities, are freed from the limited field of their own expertise when addressing the needs arising out of natural and man made disasters, and the areas of need met by civil society organizations. Television commercials, programming, and often fundraising appeals for some disaster relief provide just the right slogan, a symbol, or focus that creates for the viewers, a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves and their need to do something.

I guess if the goal is simply to make us feel good contributing to a cause, such as earthquake relief in Haiti, it does not make a lot of difference whether we know much about the soliciting organizations, where the money is going, how much is getting to the cause in which we are interested, and whether or not there is any transparency and accountability by the soliciting organization with respect to its operations generally or specifically to the project that moved us to give in the first instance.

If the Hope for Haiti Now telethon provided good entertainment and raised $57 million, I guess that is good. Some money is bound to have gotten to the urgent needs in Haiti, and we were fortunate enough to give and be entertained at the same time. Anybody, or any group, that has performed in Carnegie Hall knows that this costs a lot of money, and that there are many expenses attributed to renting the Hall, paying for ushers and security personnel, paying for added production costs, and paying for marketing. Why should we care if only $8,000 out of the more than $200,000 taken in went to Haiti relief, as long as it kept the Haiti disaster in our minds after the earthquake headlines faded from view? And how long do you think the memory of the performance in Carnegie Hall lingered in our minds and reminded us of those in Haiti desperately needing aid, at least sufficiently to cause us to give? Why shouldn’t we feel good if we learned enough about Haiti from the television programming and fundraising appeals on television and our ability to talk about it at cocktail parties and social events, notwithstanding how all this entertainment seemed to trivialize the events and needs in Haiti?

My questions keep pressing to surface? Is there really a moral basis for giving to the needs far away, whether they are in South Central Asia, devastating earthquakes in China’s Sichuan Province, in Haiti, or in Chile? If the wealth we have is ours and ours alone, and our money is to be given or spent as a matter of personal choice, why should we care whether the intermediate recipients of our giving are civil society organizations, nongovernment organizations, and other charitable institutions that are transparent and accountable? And too whom do we look to ensure that there is some level of accountability if we are not able to engage in our own personal due diligence, assuming we are even interested in doing that?

This is where I think the independent, or self-regulation monitoring organizations can help. Agencies, such as those in ICFO, can provide some assurance that that the civil society organization, or charity to which a donor is considering making a gift in the time of some kind of natural crisis, has satisfied some well-recognized Standards of Accountability and is monitored on a regular basis to insure that those standards have been met. These include: Oesterreichische Forschungsstiftung fur internationale Entwicklung (OEFSE), Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC), Comite de la Charte (CC), Deutsches Zentralinstitut fur soziale Fragen (DZI), Istituto Italiano della Donazione (IID), Centraal Bureau Fondsenwerving (CBF), Stiftelsen Innsamilingskontrollen i Norge, Fundacion Lealtad, Svensk Insamlingskontroll (SFI), Stiftung ZEWO, Taiwan NPO Self-Regulation Alliance, Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), and several supporting members in Britain and Belgium. Each of these national monitoring organizations have their own national standard and are subject to the international standards set forth in official documents of ICFO.

Maybe as we understand the wisdom of Rabbi Harold Kushner, we will come to realize that our religious beliefs form a way of seeing things rather than wondering why God did not intervene to prevent this particular disaster. Even if we cannot change the facts on the ground, we see those facts in a way that shapes our thinking about our obligations to those in need, how we might responsibly respond to those in need, and what we should expect from those who act as our agents, as civil society organizations, to address those needs.

In the words of Forest Gump, “That is all I have to say about that!”

Saturday, March 13, 2010

ICFO Press Release on NPO Haiti Relief

The International Committee on Fundraising Organizations (ICFO) has been tracking donation statistics in member countries regarding Haiti Earthquake Relief efforts since the date of the earthquake. While these recent statistics presented in a press release issued by the ICFO Secretary General, Burkhard Wilke, in Berlin, Germany represent only a sample of of some of the national donation statistics for Haiti relief as of the beginning of March 2010, the data reflected therein do express the interest and compassion of the donor public to the work of civil society organizations (CSO) and public benefit organizations on behalf of the people of Haiti. See, and click on Press Releases