Helping in Haiti – and helping yourself

January 22, 2010, 1:02 AM UTC

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, Nick Kristof wrote a column titled “Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving.” Compelling title. Even more compelling insights. Kristof makes the case that altruism breeds happiness. That is, if you work with others on a cause larger than yourself, you’ll likely be happier than the lone super-achiever.

It’s a great thought–and certainly relevant now, as we absorb the horrifying extent of the crisis in Haiti. This week, I’ve heard so many people say, “I feel I should do something, but I’m not sure what.” Meanwhile, the people who are doing something–who amaze me with the doing–seem to feel enormously fulfilled, even for making a valiant effort. For example, Xerox chairman Anne Mulcahy, who wrote a Guest Post on Postcards yesterday, comes across as thoroughly energized by her new work for Save the Children–and excited that she’s heading to Haiti. And if you read NBC Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman’s harrowing on-the-ground account from Haiti, you feel her passion, along with her sorrowful view of the desperation.

But back to that question: How can we–the rest of us–help? Former Fortune Group VP of Communications Carrie Welch, who is now SVP at the International Rescue Committee, just emailed me some answers. Lots of helpful advice here–Carrie Welch’s primer on giving:

Do the Research. Smart donors do their homework and contribute to reputable, well-established aid agencies that partner, as the IRC does, with local groups. Charity watchdog agencies like the American Institute of Philanthropy, Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator give high marks to aid agencies that devote most of their funds to programs and limit how much is spent on overhead and fundraising.

Give money instead of sending supplies or volunteers. Money can buy the most essential emergency supplies and pay for the transportation of goods and personnel. It’s also flexible enough to purchase food at rural markets in Haiti, thus helping the local economy. Unwanted shipments of mismatched supplies block airport runways. Untrained volunteers simply get in the way of an efficient response. Sarah Smith, IRC Director of Children’s Programs, discourages people who want to rush to adopt orphans. “It is too soon to start removing children from their home country and culture,” she says. “Children should be kept with relatives or other people they know.  Removing them from a familiar setting may increase their distress and make it harder for them to recover.”

Know what your company is doing. The foundation arms of corporations are helping the IRC with significant contributions. These include the Stavros Niarchos, American Express , and Bloomberg L.P. foundations. Meanwhile, companies like Time Warner — which owns Fortune and CNNMoney — Goldman Sachs and Hess help spur giving by offering an employee match.

Raise money. The star-studded Hollywood gathering being produced by George Clooney and MTV will raise money for a small number of good organizations. The IRC is talking to New York-based performers
about holding benefit concerts in private homes. Hosting a fundraising event is a great way to convert a desire to do more into urgently needed resources.

Text your support. The public is giving via mail, online (Facebook and Twitter), and texting over the phone. By texting HAITI to 25383, for instance, the IRC will get $5 for their work helping with the recovery in Haiti, and the donation will show up on your phone bill. This technique is being used by longstanding agencies like the IRC and also by the new Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, led by the former U.S. Presidents. If you already gave to the Red Cross–which raised $23 million from texts after the texting promotion was featured on weekend NFL broadcasts–consider giving more to one of the other US-based relief or development organizations on this list from

In addition to heading communications for the Fortune Group, Carrie Welch co-chaired the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit with me for several years and still works with me on the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership. At the IRC, she oversees development and external relations. Founded in 1933, the IRC carries out emergency relief and development projects in more than 40 countries around the globe.

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