Go Social, Give Wisely

January 16th, 2010 | Shonali Burke | 8 Comments

The way philanthropic organizations have been mobilizing social media in recent years to raise funds isn’t really “shiny new stuff” any more. Still, the recent waves of donations after the earthquake have been coming at lightning speed.

In light of that, I’ve been intrigued by The Smoking Gun’s scrutiny of Wyclef Jean’s charity, Yéle Haiti (also reported on in today’s Washington Post). Having run communications for the ASPCA during some critical events in the animal welfare arena, I know how generous people can be with their money when tragedy strikes, even when they don’t have a lot to give. I also know how important it is that that money reaches the right hands.

I honestly don’t know what the deal is with Mr. Jean’s charity and am not going to play a guessing game. If you’ve been following the story, you can view his video response on YouTube, which Mashable picked up pretty quickly (h/t Lindsay Allen for finding it for me). I do think he is to be commended for springing into action so quickly after the earthquake hit and being a very public face for the poorest nation in the Americas.

What I will say is that regardless of who you’re going to give your money to, you should do your research and give where you trust that your donation will be wisely used.

Charity Navigator is a good place to start, and usually my first stop when I’m researching a non-profit organization (you can read their take on Yéle Haiti and why they don’t currently rate it here).

GuideStar is another resource, and there are some terrific blogs and writing out there on philanthropy, such as Tactical Philanthropy, which Wendy Harman of the American Red Cross directed me to.

Also understand that while you might give your money immediately, it will take time to reach those who need it most – it’s not an instant process, as Wendy, who answered a few questions related to the organization’s efforts in Haiti for me, explains:

Q. A couple of days ago, the American Red Cross confirmed $5 million in donations from a texting campaign. However, today’s Wall Street Journal reports that “it could be weeks, if not months, before any of that money actually can be used… the money won’t be routed from most U.S. wireless carriers to relief efforts until cellphone users pay their phone bills.” Is the ARC making this delay clear to potential donors? Does this have any impact on your operations? And how successful are campaigns such as this, in your opinion, to more traditional fundraising methods such as telethons?

A. We can now announce the public has donated $12 million in $10 increments from texting “Haiti” to 90999. It will take more than 60 days for these exact donations to get to the American Red Cross. In the meantime, we know how much has been pledged and will use existing funds from our International Response Fund to distribute the donations immediately.

This text campaign has been a supplement to existing fundraising channels such as donating online, calling 1-800-REDCROSS, mailing, telethons, etc. The ease of text messaging and the automatic $10 donation has helped raise awareness for the need for funds because it’s also so easy to pass around via twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites.

Q. How is the American Red Cross using social media to help Haitians in their time of need?

A. We’re proud of the social media philosophy and program we’ve had in place for a couple of years – we empower social media tools and the community on the social web to fulfill our mission. Many times we provide critical information for people who are affected by disasters. In the case of the earthquake in Haiti, we’re concentrating more on providing information to everyone in the United States who wants to help, and keeping everyone updated on how this tremendous outpouring of support is impacting people in Haiti.

Q. Is it working?

A. I hope so!

Q. Some of us in the communication field feel we can’t “do anything” to help in times of crisis. Do you think that’s true? If not, and we can indeed help, what can we do?

A. The best thing you can do is keep this story in the news. All attention is here now and for sure there is a dire emergency happening right now but make no mistake: this will be a massive long-term recovery operation and we could use your help in continuing to keep the people of Haiti in the minds of the public.


I’ve been trying to help spread awareness of the Red Cross’ efforts as well as those of Hope for Haiti, which 12for12K is partnering with (HFH is rated by CharityNavigator, by the way), as have many of the people I know, online as well as offline. As Wendy says, that’s the one thing that we communicators know how to do, so let’s keep doing it. And to everyone who is – thank you.

Do you have tips to share on giving wisely to charities? Any other thoughts you’d like to share? I’d love to know.

Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR
Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR

As a career nonprofit professional, I really appreciated this blog post. It is important that people research causes before they give or chose well-known, established nonprofit.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of new nonprofits. And many nonprofits (mainly smaller ones) have similar missions often confusing publics and competing for shrinking resources. Nonprofits sole purpose is to do good; however, nonprofits can and should be managed professionally. There is no excuse for mismanagement with the level of professionals available with passion for going good.

That's my two cents.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Thanks for your $0.02, Ann Marie. It really underscores the importance of research, doesn't it?

Lindsay M. Allen
Lindsay M. Allen

As I said when we were chatting about this, giving to a celebrity's charity when there are other charities raising funds for an *identical* cause is probably an issue of choosing style over substance. I'm not saying that celebrities' charities aren't ever substantial, but I don't see why someone would choose Wyclef Jean's charity over a long-established charitable institution like the Red Cross, other than the "star appeal" of donating to Wyclef's charity. The lesson here, as you've pointed out: Do your research, especially if you're thinking about donating to a charity that is a lesser-known organization (which I'd argue Wyclef's charity is; even though it's run by a celebrity, it is "lesser known" when compared to other charities doing similar work). Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful commentary on important issues, Shonali!

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

I really appreciate your frank input, Lindsay. And, as I said earlier, I wouldn't have found WJ's video had it not been for you, so thank you! Yup, there's a lot that should go into selecting a charity as a beneficiary, and more people need to think it through, especially if they're thinking of making a long-term commitment. Thank you for sharing your valued opinion!


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