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Coordinating Relief Aid: Is It Time?

January 15, 2010

(Tony Pipa is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he reflected on the many things philanthropy did well in responding to Hurricane Katrina.)

Hands_together I've seen multiple thoughtful posts about how to donate to relief efforts in Haiti and the potential implications for philanthropy of the rapid and widespread charitable response. Here on PhilanTopic alone the posts and comments have been very informative. If you haven't already, give -- and give freely.

But looking at the wide array of choices available, and after fielding questions about appropriate organizations from family and friends, an outpouring like this prompts me to question whether we should revisit creating a joint appeal here in the United States. (I've written about this before here).

A joint appeal is an entity that manages a coordinated fundraising campaign for a specific emergency. Donors give to one place, and the proceeds are distributed among multiple organizations that are responding to the emergency.

Instead of numerous public fundraising campaigns, telethons, and events created and sponsored by different people and organizations (often put together spontaneously), the joint appeal has pre-established partnerships with major media and handles it all.

By creating one central location to collect and distribute the donations, the ease of giving is increased and overall administrative costs are lessened. Presumably donations flow to the organizations that can make best use of them at that point in time. And the kicker is accountability: now I, as a small-dollar contributor, have the support of an entity with much more firsthand knowledge and capacity to monitor and analyze how my contribution is used -- and more power to push improvements for the next time.

This is actually common elsewhere. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in Britain, the oldest and probably largest joint appeal, has become a well-known and trusted brand. When a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti strikes, it's the DEC that comes to mind of the general public -- not necessarily the specific relief agencies themselves. (The DEC is doing a live appeal today hosted by John Hurt and Kirsty Young on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Al-Jazeera.)

Yes, there are significant challenges to doing something like this in the United States. The media market here is fragmented, so achieving the saturation to reach most of the public is difficult. Add in new media companies and the level of difficulty increases. The number of relief agencies based here in the U.S. is also greater, making questions of membership and revenue-sharing very prickly. A high-profile disaster brings in significant revenue to aid agencies, so they would want to be assured that a joint appeal will grow the pie rather than reduce their particular share of it.

Yet the fact is that most major media outlets and even the government are disseminating advice on where to send your donations. These are not experts in vetting organizations or monitoring the use of your contributions.

Isn't there a better way?

-- Tony Pipa

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Posted by Tony Wang  |   January 15, 2010 at 10:23 PM

Hi Tony,

Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking post. I think there is immense value of something like a joint appeal and think it makes the most sense from an efficiency standpoint; the challenge is probably whether or not aid agencies could be convinced to give up their autonomy and individual fundraising efforts to be part of an entity like a joint appeal.

Something I've been thinking a lot about recently is the importance of governance (I've always found it odd that foundations have been governed by an unusually distant entity known as the board) and how ultimately many of the challenging opportunities out there in the sector revolve around governance. Perhaps with the right governance structure (voting rights, etc) nonprofits could be convinced to become part of a joint appeal that has enough authority to execute decisions on behalf of the group.

The other challenge is incentive - and I'm reminded of all the studies on nonprofit mergers that discuss how many mergers don't occur because there really is no incentive for organizations or their leaders to do so. But if we could somehow overcome these two hurdles, incentives and governance, I think a joint appeal would be a great idea.

Posted by Bikerdad  |   January 20, 2010 at 03:33 AM

Joint Appeal? How about exploring the pitfalls as well?

Posted by Tony Pipa  |   January 20, 2010 at 09:21 AM

Bikerdad, I'd be interested in your own analysis of the pitfalls. Depending upon how the appeal is structured and how distribution of the revenue is designed, small-budget organizations or fast-growing organizations could feel as if a collective effort restricts their access to donors that they think they'd be able to attract on their own. Also, there's no guarantee that money will reach the indigenous NGOs that are often the first responders.

However, these are issues that - as Tony Wang suggests in his comment - could be addressed through creative governance structures. Also, the American Red Cross already dominates market share for individual donors, even for international emergencies. In some respects you already have quasi joint appeals popping up - witness the Bush-Clinton Haiti fund, which will make its own decisions about allocations, and the recommendations being publicized by all the major media outlets - but we aren't receiving many of the advantages, like lower administrative costs and increased accountability.

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