Alex Steer

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The Long Give

1376 words

Note: This post was updated in September 2016 as the hosting site (posterous.com) where the 'long give' document was hosted as a PDF no longer exists. Thanks to the Internet Archive for providing a backup.

This is off-topic (normal service resumes shortly), but I think it's important. @sarahewalker and I have been thinking about the situation in Haiti, and in particular about how principles of effective giving apply to disaster relief situations. When problems arise suddenly it's easy to let the understandable will to help immediately get in the way of a more even-handed and possibly more effective approach to aid.

So we've come up with The Long Give - a short list of principles which people might find useful when they want to make effective giving decisions that stand a chance of having long-term impact. It's designed to be quick, not perfect, but we hope it helps.

If it's interesting or helpful, please do share it. Thanks.


This isn’t a fundraising drive. It’s an attempt to help us all get the most long-term benefit out of giving to disaster relief.

In the days since Haiti was devastated by a major earthquake, there’s been a huge outpouring of desire to help from all over the world. Simply, a lot of us want to do what we can to fix the situation as quickly and completely as possible.

Despite the tough conditions on the ground, where a lot of infrastructure has collapsed and many local charities and community organisations have been wiped out, the response by governments, the military, international aid agencies, companies and charities has been impressive. If you want to follow everything that’s going on, take a look at the Disaster Relief page set up by Facebook, which is tracking all the relief efforts. Facebook deserves a huge thank-you from the world for doing this.

So what about the rest of us? When a disaster hits, the first reaction is always to ask, ‘What can I do?’ We want to help immediately, and for most of us that means giving money. But then it gets confusing. How much should we give? Where should we give it? What will it do? And how can we help in the long term as well as immediately?

So with that in mind, we’ve written the Long Give List. It won’t tell you where to give your money, but it will give you some ideas if you want to think about how to make sure your giving has as much impact as possible.

Here goes.

  1. Know why you’re giving. Before you give, ask yourself why you’re giving. What do you want to achieve? Short-term impact or long-term development? Rebuilding houses or supplying medical aid? Having a focus will help you decide how best to give.
  2. Give what you can. Work out how much you can afford to give. (Be honest, now.)
  3. Give according to your amount. If you’re giving a little, give it to a large fund where lots of individual donations will come together to do a lot of good. If you’re able to give a lot (we’re talking the tens of thousands of dollars here), don’t just throw it in the pot – talk to some of the charities or funds you’re thinking of backing, and ask how they could make the most of it.
  4. Take your time. A lot of the first wave of relief in Haiti is already happening, funded by governments, international agencies and major charities. Your money will make a real difference in the longer term. So don’t feel like you have to make your donation today. Do a little homework, make it tomorrow, and make it better.
  5. Treat every donation like an investment. You wouldn’t buy shares in a company you knew nothing about. That’s because when you buy shares, you want to benefit somewhere down the line. When you give to disaster relief, you want other people to benefit. So when you’re giving, know who you’re giving to and what they’ll do with your money.
  6. Ask those awkward questions. Get on the website, get on the phone, send in an email – talk to the people you’re thinking of giving to.
  7. What awkward questions? Well, you want to be sure the work you’re supporting is worthwhile, effective and sustainable. In other words, is there a point to it? Is it getting results? And will the organisation I’m supporting still be around in a year’s (or ten years’) time putting my money to good use? So ask charities to explain what they do, to give you some evidence that it’s changing people’s lives, and to demonstrate that they’re well run and have enough money to keep going. (If you’re stuck on this last bit, ask them to tell you their operating reserves in months – i.e. how long they could keep going for if all their sources of income suddenly dried up. Three to six months is normally a good sign.) If you want more help with this sort of thing, ask a professional non-profit analyst.
  8. What about overheads, admin costs, etc? It’s tempting to ask how many cents in every dollar you give will go directly to the front line, and how many will be spent on running a charity’s offices, paying its staff, etc. But this isn’t always a good measure of effectiveness. What matters is what they get done, not how much they scrimp on office costs. As long as they’re not obviously frittering away cash, trust your charity based on their results, not their heating bill.
  9. Give unrestricted. Again, it’s tempting, when you give your money to a charity, to say ‘I only want you to spend this putting roof tiles on schools in Port-Au-Prince’. That’s a good instinct, but if we all did it there’d be a massive stockpile of tiles but the charities wouldn’t be able to afford to keep running to put them on. Trust your charities enough to let them decide how to use your money. This is called giving to unrestricted funds, and is a very good idea.
  10. Give to established organisations that know the territory. Sad to say, disasters attract a lot of newcomers. If you want to help Haiti, look for the organisations that were working there helping people before the earthquake hit. Oxfam America and the Clinton Foundation, for example, have a sustained presence in the country. Pick an organisation that knows what it’s doing.
  11. Think long term. If you only have a certain amount of money to give, do you have to give it now? Consider waiting until the initial rush has died down. A lot of disaster relief efforts run into trouble because they receive huge amounts of money in one go, then have no income for a long time after that.
  12. Think repetitive. Can you afford to give a little bit each month for the next year or two, rather than a whole lot now? Again, this will help smooth out the cash flow of disaster relief organisations.
  13. Think different. (With apologies to Apple.) If you’re giving a large amount, in particular, why not think beyond the obvious? Once shelter and food and medical supplies have been provided, what will the longer-term needs be in Haiti? What about schoolbooks, architects, or even counselling? Can you give expertise as well as money? (That’s exactly what Facebook’s software developers have done, after all.)
  14. Get help! If your country has a gift aid /tax reclamation scheme for charitable giving, make sure you know how to use it to get the government to donate the income tax on your donation amount. But think beyond that. Can you persuade your employer to match your donation? Can you get your friends to join in?
  15. Share the love. If a charity you support is doing good work and getting results, don’t forget to say thank you. And use social media, conversations with friends, etc., to spread the good news and recruit more support.

That’s it!

# Alex Steer (18/01/2010)