It didn’t take long after the first images appeared of the destruction Hurricane Harvey caused for Texans to help those in need.
Good-hearted Americans quickly dug into their pockets and donated as much as they could. The options for donors have been plenty: from long-standing non-profits known for their relief work like the American Red Cross to new fund-raisers that popped up instantly and organically, like Houston Texans star J.J. Watt’s online efforts to raise money for the victims. The message to all donors is the same: No matter how small or large your donation, demand accountability from the organizations entrusted with your money to help those in need.
Accountability leads to trust. And trust encourages Americans’ willingness to give, especially after horrific disasters like the devastation experienced in Houston.
Hurricane Harvey killed 82 people and is estimated to have caused up to $160 billion in damage, impacting more than 100,000 homes and making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. President Trump has approved $15 billion in disaster aid for victims.
The will to help was so overwhelming that non-profit organizations working closely with Houston disaster relief efforts stopped accepting non-monetary donations for a host of reasons, including that they lacked space to store donated items and they couldn’t distribute food with short shelf lives fast enough.
Texans and anyone else wanting to help were asked to donate money to their favorite organizations with troops on the ground along the Texas Gulf Coast.
The response was impressive.
More than 50 local and national charities have raised over $350 million in the nearly three weeks since Hurricane Harvey struck, the Associated Press reported.
Non-profit organizations consider monetary donations practical. To start, money under the watchful eye of trustworthy organizations can be easily tracked, lending a degree of transparency. Non-profits are required to keep a record of how each dollar is spent.
Through monetary donations, organizations also can better determine how much they can spend to meet the immediate needs of victims and how much to put in reserve to help later with needs that emerge as victims begin to put their lives back together, Monica Maldonado Williams, the founder and editor of GivingCity Austin, told me recently. Long-standing organizations like the Red Cross, Maldonado Williams said, have the resources — though limited — and the experience to get the job done.
In recent years, however, news reports have led to a distrust of some large charities like the American Red Cross. The reports have cited the Red Cross’ slow and lacking response in its relief efforts, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and the Haiti earthquake. As a result, wanting to make sure that their money is well spent, many donors choose to give to smaller, local organizations.
Consider Watt’s online fundraiser: More than 200,000 people answered Watt’s social media call to raise money for Harvey victims. Watt initially set a goal of raising $200,000, but increased that amount incrementally as more and more people gave to the crowdfunding account he created on YouCaring.com.
Just hours before the site’s 5 p.m. deadline on Friday, donors had given nearly $35 million. Major corporations, athletes and celebrities made sizable donations. They included H-E-B ($5 million), the Houston Texans ($1 million), Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon ($1 million) and Rapper/songwriter Drake ($200,000), to name a few.
But it was the smaller donations — most under $100 — by thousands of people that drove the fundraiser’s success, Watt said.
Still, most of the money raised for Harvey relief has gone to the Red Cross, which has collected at least $211 million, according to the Associated Press. A Texas Department of Public Safety report showed that the Red Cross has already disbursed $46.4 million to 116,000 people, the Washington Post reported.
People want to feel that what they give will help those they see hurting, Maldonado Williams said. Even if the efforts are being led by a charismatic, well-respected celebrity, Texans need to ask the same questions they’d ask of larger charities, she said.
It is important for Texans and beyond to do their homework before they blindly donate. After all, disasters don’t just bring out the best in us, they also bring out the worst in those who exploit the misfortunes of others. For that reason, we should demand accountability from all organizations claiming to help victims.
How will the money be distributed? Does the organization have the infrastructure needed to get as many volunteers out to as many victims who need help? When will the money be distributed? How will the money be tracked?
These are some of the questions Maldonado Williams said should be asked of any charity organization.
As of Friday, Watt had yet to disclose a long-term plan for the nearly $35 million he helped raise.
Houston Texans communications director Amy Palcic told the Houston Press that a thorough plan with information on how people can apply for funds and how the money will be used, will be released soon. No date was specified.
What Watt has accomplished is truly remarkable. The sheer number of people who responded to his call to action is testament of the love people have for him.
How the work of the Red Cross, Watt and other organizations will ultimately help Harvey’s victims is a story still in progress. Americans will be watching and demanding accountability.