Charitable Groups Revisit Idea of Pooling Emergency-Relief Contributions

With donations to humanitarian and emergency relief organizations working in Haiti now totaling more than $610 million, aid workers and charitable groups are revisiting a fundraising model in which disaster relief donations from across the United States would be pooled and distributed to those in the best position to deliver desperately needed services, the New York Times reports.

The push to consider a new approach is driven in part by relief groups struggling to raise funds in the shadow of the American Red Cross, which has raised nearly $200 million for its relief operations in Haiti despite having had only fifteen people working on long-term initiatives in the country prior to the earthquake. In contrast, Boston-based Partners in Health had more than 700 doctors and nurses out of a staff of almost 5,000 operating a hospital and multiple clinics in the country before the disaster but has raised only $40 million for its emergency medical relief efforts.

While small-scale efforts to pool funds in the U.S. such as the recent Hope for Haiti Now telethon and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund already exist, the only large-scale efforts to create a pooled fund across an entire country have occurred abroad. In Britain, the Disasters Emergency Committee collects donations to support relief services after a major disaster and distributes the money to member organizations according to a formula calculated to ensure that the funds go to those best able to deliver effective and timely relief to people most in need. The model grew out of a similar effort in Canada and has been adopted in a modified form in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

As the largest single recipient of charitable donations after every major disaster over the past decade, the Red Cross stands to lose the most from such a pooling of charitable donations, the Times reports. But the idea raises questions for other organizations as well, including whether such a joint appeal would increase or decrease the amount of funds raised for relief efforts, how those funds would be divided, which organizations would be included in the pool, and who would make those decisions.

Peter Bell, former CEO of CARE USA and a senior research fellow at Harvard University's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, said that pooling funds would be more complex in the U.S. than in most countries because of the larger number of organizations and the more fragmented media market. "You do see, in the response to the Haiti catastrophe and other recent disasters, some elements of joint fundraising coming together," Bell said. "But it is a very complex issue here, where organizations are programmed to compete for dollars."

Stephanie Strom. "Haiti Crisis Prompts Fresh Talk of Pooling U.S. Relief Money." New York Times 02/02/2010.