The Big(ger) Picture
"Don't send money to Japan." Depending on how you word it, you get anywhere from 3,000 to 8 million results for a Google search of that concept. Some are people complaining that Americans give too much overseas and not enough to help folks in their own backyards. Others question the integrity and effectiveness of the organizations collecting the money. There's reaction to Japan telling the world, "Gee, thanks, that's nice and all — but we really don't need your money." And so on.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that as of March 21 Americans had donated $136 million for relief efforts, but that still lags behind giving for Haiti last year and for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And while some organizations are going full throttle to raise money for Japan, many are holding back. As counter as that sounds to the core of what nonprofits do, it makes sense considering that the extent to which the Japanese people need financial support in the wake of this disaster isn't entirely clear.
That's not to say the devastation isn't mind-numbing. It certainly is. And that's not to say the Japanese people don't want/need/deserve support, comfort and succor. They certainly do. But with the beating the nonprofit sector has taken over the past decade and the increasing number of global disasters (and the concerns that inevitably follow the fundraising that takes place to support relief efforts), charitable organizations are wise to choose their battles and their strategies with care.
People who run nonprofits, who deliver the services they offer, who raise the money to fund programs are, by nature, givers. And doers. They want desperately to help, especially when disaster strikes and people are suffering. So it can't sit right with them to step back and carefully assess the situation, the need and how much real difference they can make. But it serves them well to do exactly that. Jumping into the fray and raising money just because there's a platform to do so — without a concrete plan to meet real needs that are consistent with the charity's mission — leads to suspicion and legit questions about where the money is going.
In the not-so-distant past, well-meaning and hard-working nonprofits raised record amounts of money in record amounts of time and found themselves with more than they could spend on the purposes for which it was solicited. There are plenty of other ways nonprofits can use that cash. But in the case of monies earmarked for specific disaster response, it isn't cool to divert "extra" funds to other programs, service areas or — God forbid — operating costs such as salaries or utilities, etc.
The Japanese people will have their needs met — by their government, by their neighbors, and to some extent by contributions from people in the U.S. and around the world. But I'm happy to see that caution on the part of nonprofits in their approach to fundraising seems to be the way things are going. That kind of right thinking and proper stewardship (even in advance) will go a long way toward renewing public trust in the charitable sector and ensure that U.S. nonprofits can continue to be giving portals for the most generous people in the world long into the future.