Long-Term Support Versus Putting Out Fires
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Long-Term Support Versus Putting Out Fires

When is the best time to give money?

Crisis fundraising is something the Jewish community does well. From the tsunami in Indonesia to the earthquake in Haiti, established Jewish organizations have perfected the art of mobilizing millions of dollars quickly in the wake of international disaster. (Raising money for domestic social service needs has proven to be a far more difficult task.)

So when the fire broke out in northern Israel that killed 43 people and scorched thousands of acres of forest in the Carmel, established Jewish organizations immediately shifted into high gear.

In less than two weeks, the Jewish National Fund, for example, has raised $2.5 million for “Operation Carmel Renewal: From Black to Green.” The rehabilitation effort will be costly and will not happen overnight, since forests need years, if not decades, to rejuvenate. A committee commissioned by Israeli Environmental Minister Gilad Erdan estimated the price tag for rehabilitating the Carmel Forest at $46 million.

Given that reality, is it wise for individual donors to react to disastrous news by immediately opening up their checkbooks or donating online? Should donors, particularly those of means, but the rest of us as well, allow emotions to rule their checkbooks?

Maybe not, argue many philanthropic advisers.

“When a tragedy of this magnitude happens, our immediate and appropriate response is to want to help,” Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, told The Jewish Week. “That doesn’t mean the most readily apparent opportunity to help is the best course. There is much that we don’t know about the help that is going to be needed in terms of rebuilding. We don’t know the extent that losses will be covered by the government, by national insurance and private carriers.”

The Jewish Funders Network is advising its members “to take a deep breath and take a coordinated approach with the government and NGOs on the ground to determine what the real needs are going forward and how philanthropy can play an effective and appropriate role,” Charendoff said.

Others in the philanthropy world agree.

“You’re usually better off not being one of the first responders financially,” said Richard Marker, co-principal at Marker Goldsmith Philanthropy Advisors and chair of the New York University Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education. “You don’t know what needs will arise or where your money will be better leveraged down the road.”

Many funders learned this painful lesson after 9/11. “Millions of dollars were thrown into the pot immediately, and later on there was a realization among big-ticket funders that some of the giving wasn’t spent as well or as strategically as funders would have liked,” said Marker. Continuing health problems, for example, were not anticipated by many of the funds set up in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

Waiting for the dust to settle may help donors to give more strategically and take a long-term view. Funds are often in greater demand months and even years after the crisis, when the emotionally driven, in-the-moment donations have dried up. “A year from now, all of the $5 and $18 contributions won’t be around,” Marker says.

However, this approach assumes that in a year, you’ll still be as committed to the rebuilding effort as you were the day after the disaster struck.

“It takes a very unusual donor to say I want to wait until, literally, the smoke settles before making a gift, and then following through and making that gift,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, and co-author of “The Art of Giving: Where The Soul Meets a Business Plan (John Wiley and Sons, 2009). The timing of the gift is less important than choosing a reputable organization that has a strategy for how it plans to distribute relief funds and a long track record of funneling 100 percent of the money to the cause, he says.

“Your heart should guide your philanthropy, not rule it,” he said.

In the wake of a slew of international disasters in recent years, organizations have ramped up efforts to increase transparency and accountability in their disaster fundraising campaigns. Donors want to know what’s behind the 10-second sound bite and whether the organization has a plan for how it will distribute the funds. “The Haitian earthquake marks a turning point in American philanthropy where donors are now expected to ‘give smart,’ not just give,” wrote Sean Stannard-Stockton, CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, in his philanthropy-focused blog.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, for example, published a three-page list identifying $1.5 million in immediate programmatic needs, including post-trauma care, as well as $4.5 million in projected mid- to long-term needs, ranging from volunteer initiatives to rebuild the Carmel to supporting small businesses negatively impacted by the fire.

JNF has allowed donors to earmark their donations for either immediate or long-term needs. A page on its website features the costs for specific immediate needs, such as 24 thermal cameras at $7,500 each, $1.5 million in air tanks, and $3 million in fire protective gear. Long-term needs include purchasing 140 fire trucks, ranging from $100,000 to $750,000 each. Approximately 75 percent of funds to date have been directed toward immediate needs, though the percentage will likely shift as time passes and longer-term recovery efforts commence.

The question then becomes, “How do I balance short-term, human needs with long-term systemic needs?’”

There is room for both, said Marker. The difference, he said, is that larger funders “have the advantage, and in some ways, the responsibility, to think more systematically and strategically.”

Still, many individuals may find that a crisis is a time when they must stick to their giving priorities. In the immediate aftermath of disasters, smaller and mid-size organizations are particularly vulnerable, since so many people are diverting their charitable donations to help overseas. “That’s also valid,” Marker said.

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