Written By: Joe Costanzo
Director UK Institute for Migration Research (UK-IMR), www.uk-imr.ac.uk

Anyone today with access to modern media has heard a podcast, watched a news story or read an article/blog about migration—even those without access to media have almost certainly heard or shared a personal, migration story.

December 18th, is International Migrants Day when we recognize “the large and increasing number of migrants in the world”. (United Nations @ http://www.un.org/en/events/migrantsday/)

Rarely a day goes by when stories of migration do not affect our lives. For some, migration is a first-person experience—our own stories of leaving, of change, of struggle, of searching for something better for us, for our families. For many, migration is part of our families’ stories. For some, migration is something we worry about, how it appears to be changing our villages, our cities and our nations. Migration is all of these things and more.

Who is a migrant? What about refugees, are they migrants too?

These may seem like basic questions but they cause confusion and frustration for many, including students and teachers, statisticians, legal scholars and policy makers trying to make sense of the complex world around us. The public conversation about migration has been nearly constant this year when we have witnessed unprecedented levels of human displacement across the globe.

Journalists, politicians and researchers have been responding daily to a rapidly changing landscape where all forms of migration continue to reach historically higher levels; where public support for humanitarian migration has abruptly shifted towards security concerns; and where long-standing (and assumed stable) policy and philosophical frameworks are in crisis—the European Union’s policy framework on asylum (called the Dublin Regulation) and the principle of free movement within European borders (the Schengen Area) are now being challenged. Here, in the UK, local authorities are responding, attempting to develop strategic plans on how to manage the certainty that change is coming but the uncertainty of what’s to come. This includes the formal resettlement of Syrians and steady claims for asylum from nationals of many other countries, as well as the continued growth in intra-EU migration towards the UK.

International agreements, like the 1951 Refugee Convention – which defines a refugee – and international organizations, like the United Nations, provide legal frameworks and guidance on how to describe and count the many different sorts of people (migrants, refugees, students etc.) who may cross national borders by choice or by force to travel, live, work or settle outside their home countries. The term “migrant” has no universally-accepted definition around the world, but the UN suggests that, in the international context, it refer to “any person who changes his or her country of usual residence” regardless of their motivation or legal circumstance.

Where can I find good, reliable information or learn more about migration?

The ‘simple’ answer could be in three easy steps: In places you likely already know, a few you may not and a few classics!

First, locate the basic terms and numbers: For definitions and other migration-related lingo, check out our migration institute’s new glossary of terms. Even though it might seem daunting at first, for numbers check out the experts at the national statistics offices in your country (like the Census Bureau in the United States, or the Office for National Statistics in the UK). These are excellent first points of contact for getting the big picture.

Second, think critically about what you read on migration. Ask yourself (and, why not the person or organization putting out the information?) where the numbers come from and whether sources you trust use those same numbers.

Third, google it (responsibly). I just googled “migration” from here in the UK. It gave me 170 million responses. I might be a migration researcher but I don’t have the time (or the money) to read all those results! Be more specific, googling “migration research” or “migration statistics” reduces the number of hits by millions. Even more important, the top results are recognizable names and organizations—universities, think tanks and government agencies working specifically on these issues. Adding even more specific terms you’re interested in, like your city, or themes like “jobs”, “impacts” or “asylum” will help again. If you find yourself caught on an academic website—fear not! Sources like TheConversation.com and DiscoverSociety.org translate academic research into compelling, accessible and timely data and analysis that can be readily used and understood. Too, targeted google searches have the added value of introducing you to new, emerging sources of information.

The importance of an informed discussion on migration could not be more critical given the historic levels of all forms of migration underway worldwide including, and most visibly, the forced (or humanitarian-led) migration of refugees. And, through the determined efforts of many actors in and outside of academia, a hard-fought and important place has been created for evidence-led debate on migration.

For many reasons, the debate over migration will continue to grab headlines. Hopefully this short blog post gives some easy to remember and easy to use tools so you can question (and provide your own answers to) the migration conversation.

Currently the Director of the UK Institute for Migration Research, Dr Costanzo got his start in the migration field in the early 1990s as an intern in the Consular Section of the US Embassy in Paris (State) before working for many years on migration statistics and migration policy for the US Commission on Immigration Reform, US Census Bureau (Commerce) and US Citizenship & Immigration Services (Homeland Security). Joe and the UK Institute for Migration Research are based in Kent, England.




“If everyone donates cash, the effect is cumulative and more tangible as such aggregate impact would improve the lives of not only the recipients but would also boost the local economy.”

I donate cash because I know that cash can be used for many needs. As the recipients know their needs better than I do, donating cash avoids my second-guessing of their critical needs. For example, instead of sending clothing to some needy families in Somalia, I donate cash so they can determine how to best use that cash. The critical decision of whether to have a change of clothing or necessary medication for a sick a child can be made on the ground by the recipients. This has made a world of difference to those receiving my cash donations.

On the larger scale, if everyone donates cash, the effect is cumulative and more tangible as such aggregate impact would improve the lives of not only the recipients but would also boost the local economy. Therefore, I look at the bigger picture when donating and, as a result, I donate cash. Simply put, cash is the best.

Barlin's photo

Barlin Ali, Program Coordinator for Center for International Disaster Information


“What is altruism without effort?”

As a researcher at USAID CIDI, I have spent a great deal of my time conducting research on humanitarian supply chain logistics.  As a result, I now know that the effectiveness of the humanitarian supply chain is critical to the success of disaster relief efforts. We as donors can help logisticians working for professional humanitarian organizations more effectively plan disaster relief operations and better serve survivors by making more effective donations.

When we contribute unsolicited material donations, these can create “logistical bottlenecks” in the humanitarian supply chain that can slow down the provision of aid to those in need.  For this reason, I donate cash to professional humanitarian organizations responding to international disasters because I want to provide them with the opportunity to respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.

While it’s not always easy find NGOs that are trustworthy, actively involved in a relief effort, or participating in a way that we as donors want to contribute to, the internet is making it easier for us as donors to do our homework and identify professional humanitarian organizations that we want to support. Websites like GuideStar or Charity Navigator allow us to read reviews from other donors that share their experiences with donating to a particular NGO and offer donors the ability to measure an NGOs legitimacy by evaluating their financial statements, tax returns, and more.  This process does require some time, but what is altruism without effort?

As donors, we rarely consider what happens to our donations after we make them. When I think about what would need to happen for an item to leave my hands and enter the hands of an international disaster survivor, it becomes clear that an incredibly complicated and expensive journey must ensue. How much would it cost to send a pair of jeans from Los Angeles, California to Kabul, Afghanistan?  The answer is roughly $202.05 if you bought the jeans at WalMart and sent them to Afghanistan through FedEx.  Though this isn’t the primary method donors choose to send donations, the process for NGOs that receive unsolicited in-kind contributions is much the same and equally costly.

Monetary contributions, by contrast, provide NGOs with much greater flexibility in the way they can carry out disaster relief operations.  NGOs can exercise bulk purchasing power in countries where the cost of goods in general is considerably less than the cost of the same goods in the United States.  With monetary contributions, NGOs can more easily respond to changing needs on the ground, which is a common occurrence in the wake of severe natural disasters.

I donate cash to international disaster relief efforts for all these reason and simply because monetary donations allow efficient humanitarian supply chains that provide goods and services to disaster-affected people faster.

Eric Chavez (second from left) Senior Research Analyst for The Center for International Disaster Information

Eric Chavez (second from left) Senior Research Analyst for The Center for International Disaster Information

“Just because you didn’t receive a tax write off, recognition from a local organization, or a thank you card doesn’t mean your efforts were unnoticed.”

So if you haven’t heard, #GivingTuesday is all the rage around the holidays! Recognized globally on December 2nd, this day is dedicated to bringing communities, families, organizations, causes and students together for one common goal: to give.

There are so many ways to give back;  whether it’s done anonymously or intentionally, the warm feeling you’re rewarded with is indescribable. The holidays are a time where you are around people you care about the most and every memory is special and imbeds itself into your psyche. That’s what makes it the best time to start traditions; giving a reoccurring role for all to take on and share with their other communities and families.

Whether you choose to give your time, talent, or money, giving back can be done in any fashion. This day fits perfectly between Thanksgiving and Christmas time. So with one day encouraging you to give thanks, another infecting you with cheeriness and acts of generosity, and the one in between actively encouraging you to give, why not donate the best way possible?

Giving money assures that you’ve done your part, and the recipient, who knows the situation best, has comfort in knowing a need is about to be met. I think that is the most important position to view donating from: the position of the recipient. Maybe the need is food and not clothing? How much? What do people need or want to eat? These questions will circulate through the head of the giver who practices #smartcompassion, a giver who channels the desire to give back in the most effective way.

We’re no strangers to donating and giving back. Just because you didn’t receive a tax write off, recognition from a local organization, or a thank you card doesn’t mean your efforts went unnoticed. I think giving money to a friend or family member and not expecting it in return is considered donating. To me, the act of giving itself is what is appreciated by the donor, the recipient, and everyone else.

If you stop and think about it, money travels faster than goods. Cash can meet any need and fill any gap in most circumstances. I think when giving cash, it feels just as good learning that I was responsible for helping build the infrastructure of the organization that feeds children after school as it would feel being responsible for the food they are eating.

With hash tags like #unselfie and #GivingTuesday, this holiday is an excellent way to help push social impact while also giving millennials a chance to be a part of something emerging before our eyes on the platforms we know and love! Great job New York’s 92nd Street Y.

Lauren Chatman, Online Communications Specialist for The Center for Disaster Information.

Lauren Chatman, Online Communications Specialist for The Center for Disaster Information.

In the summer of 2005 I worked at a summer camp, earning enough money to purchase my school uniforms and excited by the prospect of riding Metro without an adult. When not working I was glued to the television, watching events unfold after Hurricane Katrina and related flooding in New Orleans . Thousands of moms, dads, children, and elderly people were in desperate need of relief. So many thoughts raced through my mind. What could they have done to prepare for this? What would I do in their situation? What can I do to help them? As days passed, I saw more and more initiatives to support the survivors of New Orleans, yet none of them inspired me to act.

Soon, I started high school; classes and extracurricular activities occupied by mind and time until one announcement thrust Hurricane Katrina back into my consciousness. All after-school activities in the gymnasium had been cancelled or moved to a nearby recreation center so the gym could shelter survivors of Hurricane Katrina who relocated to DC.. There were no ready answers to our many questions: how were they chosen, did they volunteer to come to DC, when would they arrive, how long would they stay, and will they have beds and supplies? This sparked a conversation with a girl in my homeroom who moved to DC following flood warnings in New Orleans. Her stories about how drastically her life changed left me sympathetic and scrambling to grasp that we are all at risk of life-changing events. How can we prepare for the unpredictable?

Preparing for emergencies within our families and communities is important and potentially life-saving. So is preparing oneself as a donor, being ready to give aid to people impacted by disasters. Are you prepared to help others in the most effective and efficient way possible? When disasters strike, many people’s first impulse is to collect food or clothing; it is not unusual for community and local groups to collect thousands of pounds of material – typically used clothing, canned food and bottled water – realizing only afterward that they do not know whether it’s actually needed, how they will transport it or who will distribute it. We all want to help affected families in difficult circumstances, and it is important to remember that material donations not specifically requested by relief organizations can actually slow the process of delivering essential supplies, as they take away precious space, personnel, time and other resources from life-saving activities. For those who want to send material things, it’s important to “connect before you collect” and identify a relief or charitable organization beforehand that needs and can distribute the collection. Charitable preparedness!

Being prepared is a skill and it can be a challenge. In light of National Preparedness Month, I am reminded of that summer before high school. There was little difference between what my classmate shared and what the news recounted after Hurricane Katrina; it was the same story from two different perspectives. Both of them inspired me to think hard about priorities in preparedness. As a donor, I may be tempted to donate clothes and other things I no longer have need for, but realized that the best way for me to thoughtfully express compassion starts with being absolutely positive that what I give is needed and requested.

That’s why Cash is Best! Cash donations to relief and charitable organizations working in disaster-affected communities can be used immediately to purchase supplies that are urgently needed, while supporting the local economy. Sending coats that don’t fit any more or out-of-season shoes to disaster sites can disrupt relief operations by taking up space needed to manage and distribute life-saving supplies. Therefore, it’s important for donors to understand that in-kind donations can be useful in the right circumstances but very harmful in others. For more information on donations and why cash is best, please visit: www.cidi.org.


When people hear I’m writing a book on aid I immediately get asked about specific aid agencies they gave to. Unfortunately, I cannot tell them the quality of those aid agencies without spending time to research them. What I can tell them is how they can research the aid agency themselves.

Evaluating aid agencies before donating is critical

If you don’t have time to research an aid agency, then I would suggest not donating. There is no body that regulates aid and no outside entity ensuring that the aid agency is providing quality aid or working in the best interest of those you want to help. Without properly vetting an aid agency before giving, you risk your donation being used on programs that may do more harm than good. To ensure that your money is doing the good you intended you have to look past aid agency advertising, name recognition, and “happy stories”, and instead look for evidence that the aid agency is following best practices and constantly improving their organization.

Do the aid agency photos show the aid recipients as people with dignity and ability or do they show them as helpless victims. We’ve all seen photos of people in tears looking at their destroyed homes or emaciated African children covered in flies. If that was your child or your sister in that photo would you want it used for an international fund raising campaign, or would you feel it was exploitative? There are guidelines being developed for these photos. The gist of the guidelines is that aid recipients should be shown as people with dignity and ability, rather than hopeless and helpless.

In general I find that if an aid agency uses a photo that shows the aid recipient as having dignity and ability, then the aid agency is likely to have the organizational philosophy that aid recipients are able people, and the projects they develop are more likely to treat them as such. If an agency uses photos that show the person as helpless and hopeless, then they are likely to have a similar organizational philosophy and treat them as such. Which way would you rather be treated?

I have a lot of respect for aid agencies that regularly evaluate their work and share the findings, both positive and negative, with the world at large. If evaluations are rigorous and then acted upon by the agency, it can lead to real improvements in the organization, ActionAid is a good example of this. It is not easy for an aid agency to share their negative findings because it puts them at a disadvantage in competing for donor dollars with those aid agencies that do not share their negative findings. However, it is critical for the industry to grow and improve as well as for donors to be able to hold aid agencies accountable for that improvement.

Evaluations should be done on a regular basis. Either yearly as ActionAid does or at the end of each major operation. Annual reports or “happy stories” do not count for evaluations because their is no independent evaluation of their accuracy, therefore it is far too easy and tempting to focus on the positive or disregard the failed projects.

Some aid agencies may argue that project evaluations are too expensive and donors don’t want to pay for operational costs. While I agree that evaluations can be expensive, there are ways to have a less expensive evaluation done, for example working with a local university to have college students perform the evaluation. If it is not possible to find affordable ways to evaluate your project then share what you have tried with the donor so they understand what you have and have not been able to evaluate. Unfortunately, far too much emphasis has been placed on rating aid organizations by their operational costs, leading to donors unknowingly preventing aid agencies from paying for things such as evaluations. This will only change as donors begin to understand the negative impact of not covering operational costs.

If an aid agency does not have the findings from independent evaluations available on their website you should consider whether you want to donate to them. If they haven’t conducted evaluations they are not being professional, and if they have conducted them but have not shared them they are not being transparent. When donors begin to give preferential funding to aid agencies conducting and sharing needs assessments, they are rewarding aid agencies for evaluating their work and financially encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, read the most recent evaluation findings and then check that against the current work or funding proposal of the aid agency. Do they appear to have made improvements to their work based upon their evaluations?

If an aid agency is asking for your money, you have the right to know that they will use it responsibly. Unfortunately, in the past this has meant primarily focusing on the amount spent on administrative or operational costs. As stated above this, unfortunately, can do more harm than good.

Instead, I’d recommend looking for audit results from the past three years. A recent posting focused on one of my articles where I made this same suggestion. One of the comments posted was that audits were only legally required for large charities, and therefore didn’t apply to most organizations working in the field. I would argue that it is good financial practice to have annual audits regardless of the size of the agency.

If the audit results are not available on the website you may need to request them. If an aid agency refuses your request consider carefully whether you want to donate to them. If an aid agency has not conducted some sort of audit they are not actively reviewing and improving their internal processes, if they have conducted an audit but are will not share the results, they are not being transparent. If donors begin to fund only those aid agencies performing annual audits and sharing the findings, they are rewarding aid agencies following sound financial practices and encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, look for aid agencies that share their financial information with aid recipients. The aid agencies that have tried this admit that it was difficult at first because the local people may not agree with how an aid agency spent money, but in the long run it made their projects use funds more effectively and reduced fraud.

Often the aid agency will not share their needs assessment, which is unfortunate. However, regardless of whether they are willing to share the actual needs assessment, they still need to demonstrate that they have taken the following factors into consideration.

  • What similar services are provided by the government, why are these services inadequate to meet the needs, have they evaluated how to best support government services instead of duplicating or undermining them.
  • What other aid agencies are in the area and what projects are they implementing. This should focus on areas where there is potential problems with overlapping the work of other agencies or the potential to collaborate with other agencies.
  • Information on the situation of similar schools/health centers/orphanages in the wider area. If you know the general situation you will be better able to evaluate whether the aid that is proposed is appropriate.
  • Information on national standards. What does the government consider to be adequate?
  • If there is no needs assessment, if the needs assessment seems inadequate, or if the project they are proposing does not match the needs identified in the assessment consider carefully whether you want to donate to the agency. If an aid agency has not conducted an adequate needs assessment or is proposing a project that does not appear to meet the needs identified in the assessment, then they aid they are giving may not be needed. If donors begin to fund only those aid agencies that conduct adequate needs assessment and share the findings, they will reward aid agencies that following good aid practices and encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

    If you want to take this one step further, look for evidence that the results of the needs assessment are shared with other aid agencies as well as the local government and the aid recipients. A common problem in aid is the lack of information sharing between agencies and with the people they are trying to help. This wastes donor dollars by forcing each aid agency to pay for separate needs assessments and frustrates aid recipients who take their time to answer aid agency questions but never hear back as to whether or not they will actually be receiving aid.

    Once you have looked at everything suggested above, if you still feel comfortable about the aid agency, then it’s time to see if there have been any complaints lodged or negative research on the organization. Although this information can be hard to find, two places to look include the BBB and AIP.

    The Better Business Bureau’s Charity Reviews gives BBB ratings for aid agencies registered in the US. Unfortunately, since aid agencies are registered by state, it can be a little confusing because a single agency may have multiple entries. Part of the aid agency rating includes a section stating whether or not any complaints about that charity have been filed to the BBB.

    The American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP) Articles page has a listing of charities mentioned in AIP articles. It’s worth seeing if the agency you are considering is mentioned at all.

    There are other charity rating systems that can easily be found on line. In general rating systems are based on the 990 tax form and information on the governing board. Several charity rating sites are working on ways to better evaluate aid agency work, unfortunately, none of them currently evaluate an aid agency on any of the factors recommended in this article.

    One commenter states that it is unrealistic to expect the average donor to take that much time to evaluate an aid agency. The commenter points out that the average person doesn’t even do that much research before voting or investing in stock. While this may be true, the unfortunate end result is that people vote for politicians that do not look out for their best interest, lose their life savings on the stock market, and perpetuate poor aid practices that may do more harm than good. Don’t let this be you. For the sake of the people you are trying to help, please take the time to be an informed donor or don’t donate at all.

    Education, Not Titillation

    Reflecting on the debate over disaster/poverty tourism a couple of weeks back some bloggers, such as Tales from the Hood and Pepy Tours, have argued that there is a benefit, if done right, of donors visiting aid recipients. And, if done right, I agree. One of the common complaints after the tsunami was that donors did not come and check whether aid work was done well or learn about the real needs of aid recipients. Donors do need to have a greater understanding of what does and does not work in aid as well as common problems associated with aid. Properly structured visits can help them become better donors.

    However, it is important that donor visitations are done is such a way that it puts the needs of aid recipient over the needs of the donor. Care should be taken so that the visit does not objectify aid recipients and ensures that the recipients concerns are heard (concerns about objectifying aid recipients and gratuitous visits prompted my Disaster Tourism posting).

    During dinner with my brother last weekend our conversation turned to microfinance and the fact that it’s not living up to it’s original hype. In fact, rather than being a panacea to all problems, people receiving microloans face many of the same problems we face with credit cards. High interest rates, using one card to pay off another, using borrowed money to pay for things that are not actually necessities. It is starting to appear that it may be better to offer other financial services such as savings accounts and insurance instead of, or in conjunction with, loans. For more on this see David Roodman’s Blog, GiveWell’s series on microfinance, and the Good Practice Guidelines for Funders of Microfinance

    My brother, a regular donor to local and international charities, is like so many other donors. He wants to ensure that his donation does the good he intends. As we left the restaurant he stopped me and asked, “What does work?”. This question, or some variation of it, has been asked to me hundred of times by donors over the past five years. Unfortunately, the answer is both simple and complicated.

    What does work?

    There is no silver bullet, there is no single type of project that is successful in all situations or solves all problems. On the flip side there are few aid projects that are always wrong. Even orphanages, which I have written against in several posts, do have instances where they might be the best solution for that specific situation.

    What works are good NGO’s and aid organizations following good aid practices

    Unfortunately, the average donor has very little idea what good aid practices are or how to identify good organizations. A recent post from Tales from the Hood discusses this problem:

    Despite more Developed World interest in international issues, aid, and philanthropy now than at any time prior, there remains massive, general disparity between what individual citizens who support our work think we do, and what NGOs and aid agencies actually do.

    There is a critical need for individual donors to understand aid better so that their funding decisions are based on knowledge rather than the best marketing campaign, the promise of a silver bullet, or the illusion of a person to person connection.

    This blog was started out of the need for better educated donors. Unfortunately, determining if the charity is well managed and follows good practices requires understanding and evaluating a variety of factors. No single post or series of posts can provide donors with enough information to confidently chose between the millions of charities vying for their donations .

    A charity rating system that teaches donors what works

    This has compelled me to develop a different type of charity rating system. One that teaches donors about aid as it walks them through the process of rating the charity themselves. A soft launch of this system is tentatively planned for January.

    Just as there are no silver bullets for aid programs there are also no silver bullets for charity rating systems. While this system won’t be perfect for all donors and and all charities, it will give interested donors the knowledge they need to make thoughtful funding decisions. And that’s as close to a silver bullet as I could hope for.


    What’s the worst present you ever received? A crazy colored sweater from your aunt Martha, questionable cookies from a neighbor, a tacky decoration from a coworker. We’ve all received those types of gifts, but have we given them as well?

    The gift that doesn’t fit

    We’ve all received that sweater, shirt, or tie that just doesn’t work. It’s too big, too small, too tight, too wide, or too something else that means we’ll never wear it.

    From my own childhood it was the year that all of the cousins received little knit hats from our grandmother. They were so small that nobody could actually put them on, they would only fit on teddybears. Reflecting back they were probably baby hats that my grandma got on sale. But at that age few of us still had teddybears and none of us had babies, so the gifts were useless.

    How often do we give to charities just assuming that if people are so poor they need charity any gift is helpful. Just like my hat, there are many times when what is given is of little use. Look for charities that vary their aid according to the needs of the local population instead of one-size-fits-all projects.


    “You wouldn’t want to receive something you didn’t ask for or need at Christmas, let alone during a humanitarian crisis.”

    It is Christmas eve and presents are lined beneath my family’s tree. Do you remember that present from a distant relative last year that you opened, cringed and never used? For me it was Barbie dolls when I was sixteen. I appreciate the thought that my relatives put into gifts but sometimes I receive ones I know I will never use. It led me to ask for cash.

    Now raise the stakes exponentially. I’m not talking about holiday gift giving but donations given during times of crisis.

    In Ebola-stricken areas, healthcare workers may give more than a cringe upon receiving in-kind donations of canned food or used clothing when they are not needed or when those needs have been met. You wouldn’t want to receive something you didn’t ask for or need at Christmas, let alone during a humanitarian crisis. Just as I would hate to give a gift I know would be discarded, I would never want to donate goods that would impede a relief effort. Instead, I donate cash.

    It’s difficult to anticipate the needs of a relative; it’s even more difficult anticipating the needs of those in a humanitarian crisis. Cash is best.



    This year’s Christmas tree! (an image from Margot Morris, Program Assistant for The Center for International Disaster Information)


    Most of us have heard of bad aid projects, but few of us really know what makes a program good or bad. Because of this, most donors fund what feels good to them. Unfortunately, what feels good to donors might not be best for the people they are trying to help. So I’ve decided to share a system I use whenever I’m trying to determine whether an aid project is a bad idea.

    First, research the current situation on the ground – this is key to making good aid decisions. If you are unwilling or unable to take the time to do the research, then I recommend not donating. Without this information you’ll likely donate based on assumptions or stereotypes, both of which play a large role in bad aid. To avoid the possibility of biased information, make sure you use a source other than the agency that is seeking donations.

    Everyone has heard of aid agency waste and poorly implemented programs, but few people understand the underlying causes. Unfortunately, poor donor advice, heavy media coverage of “sexy” projects and locations, and aid agency advertisements targeting donor heartstrings, have made it so the average donor has many misconceptions about good donor practices. Donating based on these misconceptions may fund programs that are poorly implemented, unnecessary, or even do more harm than good.

    Many people think that there is an international body regulating aid
    Most people assume that the aid agency they are donating to is monitored and regulated.

    In reality, there is generally no real oversight or regulation of aid agency work.

    event invite

    Join us as we host a panel discussion on:

    Diaspora: who are they, why do they matter, and how are they impacting the economics of disaster relief in an increasingly globalized world? We want to take the mystery out of this very diverse, dynamic topic and engage with those who are active diaspora working in development.

    RSVP here, from now until seats are gone, so hurry!

    We’ve all heard of, or even volunteered for, popular non-profit organizations like United Way, Salvation Army, Goodwill, American National Red Cross, and YMCA to name a few. Non-profit organizations rally around a common principle, using profits to invest back in projects that address the organization’s interests. The ones we are most familiar with have a charity or a public service component. They welcome and enable people to contribute their time, skills, efforts, and money for a greater good. Organizations that do this play an integral role in the general welfare and economic and social interests of our communities – solving problems and enriching the community. Non-profits can work domestically or internationally on a range of issues, from addressing immediate hardships for people to preserving macro and micro aspects of cultures.

    Do you have an interest in working for the greater good? Human rights, gender equity, environmentally sound development, assisting refugees – I bet there is an organization that exists to address what you care about! Are you interested in giving to or volunteering for a non-profit but you’re not sure what charities are nearby and who needs help? As part of my focus on the Back-to-School season, I’ve compiled a list of non-profit organizations, both domestic and international, that address some of the issues related to going back to school like access to food, books, and a well-rounded education. Thanks to websites like Global Giving and InterAction, we have the resources to explore and support trusted organizations that serve nearly every country and every cause in the world.

    Here are some organizations and projects that I have learned about that might interest you:

    Help 95 DC Kids Extend Learning After School: New Community for Children plans to serve students from Kindergarten through 12th grade and support them in reaching their full academic potential, preparing for college, and giving back time and talent to their communities.

    Increase Graduation Rates In Little Rock: City Year, of Little Rock, Arkansas, is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for low-income youth. City Year’s Long-Term Impact goal is to ensure 80% of the students in the schools they serve reach the 10th grade.

    The Lunch Box Expansion Project: Chef Ann Foundation believes by changing the way children eat and think about food, we are helping to create a future generation of informed consumers and parents whose food choices will support sustainable, healthy food systems.

    Goods for the Greater Good: Good 360 transforms lives and strengthens communities by mobilizing companies to donate needed materials. The non-profit leader in product philanthropy distributes goods to a network of more than 32,000 prequalified charities, schools and libraries on behalf of America’s top brands.

    Pact:Pact’s vision is a world where those who are poor and marginalized exercise their voice, build their own solutions, and take ownership of their future. Pact accomplishes this by strengthening local capacity, forging effective governance systems, and transforming markets into a force for development.

    Donating money to a non-profit enables it to utilize the funds in a manner that best serves its goal. Donating your time and skills to an organization locally means you understand the importance of the cause and think it is valuable enough to your community for you to contribute. However you choose to start the year, I encourage you to donate your time, effort, skills, or money to an organization you believe supports the future you want to see.

    Class is dismissed! You’ve successfully completed the final course in giving back for back-to-school. What did you learn? What do you plan to share? I want to make the final lesson more active than the previous two and hope that my reflections on the fundamentals in starting the school year encouraged you to reminisce as well. I have a couple of questions for you!

    How important can a great foundation be for a student to succeed?

    How do you define foundation?

    What’s your favorite organization? Is it one of the non-profits we mentioned above?

    Share with us below, on your Facebook, or on Twitter! We’d love to hear from you.





    The recent posting Analyze This on Philanthrocapitalism stated

    In a speech at the conference, Ken Berger said that sometimes he cannot sleep for worrying that Charity Navigator’s ratings (of up to 4 stars) “may do more harm than good”. Its stars are awarded for “financial resilience”, which largely means the ratio of costs to money raised. This is widely recognized to be a lousy measure of effectiveness:, as anyone in business knows, it is costs (such as spending on recruiting the best talent, marketing etc) that often make success possible.”

    From my own experience tracking aid in Thailand after the tsunami, I saw many examples where an emphasis on low administration costs did more harm than good.

    Not enough orphans for all the orphanages

    Needs assessments are expensive and increase administration costs, this meant that after the tsunami  aid agencies were unwilling to share their assessments. Giving another aid agency their assessment would have meant that the other agency would benefit from the information but not take a financial hit by paying for it. Therefore, each aid agency either had to pay for their own assessment – wasting overall funds through unnecessary duplication of work and leading to “assessment fatigue” in villages and government offices – or agencies simply developed programs without a needs assessment.

    In one instance an orphanage was built without first determining if there were orphans in need of a home. The dearth of homeless orphans led representatives from the agency to visit my office seeking orphans, eventually they had to recruit street children. In another instance there were four aid agencies competing to lead children’s programs in a village of just 23 families, while

    in a similar village 10 kilometers up the road had no aid agencies helping children.

    Practices that are less expensive may appear more expensive

    When I worked for the American Red Cross we funded four programs in six provinces. In order to save costs and increase coordination we decided to rent a single office in each province and hire a  coordinator, office manager, and cleaner which each program would share. We debated how to pay for this because paying for it directly meant the expenses were billed to general management, increasing our apparent administration cost. If, instead, we had given money to each program to rent their own office and hire their own staff it would have cost considerably more, but would have been billed as a program expense creating the appearance lower administration costs.

    Taking advantage of the lack of communication between aid agencies

    Many agencies gave out student “scholarships” (monthly or yearly payments into a bank account to pay for uniforms, books, etc). This was cost effective for the aid agency because all they had to do was send a team into the area for a week. They would meet with principals and students to choose aid recipients and set up bank accounts after that most things could be handled at a distance. There was no need to pay for an office, vehicle, or full-time staff. Unfortunately, principals, teachers, and students quickly learned to take advantage of the system to get multiple scholarships for the same students – some of which never made it to the students. This was done by repeatedly telling aid agencies that the students had not received any assistance, and then opening bank accounts at different banks. Students in easily accessible schools received more visitors and could get more funding. Students is more distant schools often received no assistance.

    To keep administration costs low, agencies did not dedicate the time and staffing needed to communicate with other aid agencies. Because they came and went so quickly they did not spend time in the villages to hear what was really going on. This and other examples of unfair distribution of aid created animosity and distrust between villagers that had been neighbors for generations.

    Why the focus on administration costs?

    Charity rating agencies have very little information with which to work. In the US the only annual reporting required is the IRS I-90 form. Religious agencies don’t even have that requirement. As the Philanthrocapitalism article points out, getting any other information from aid agencies is extremely difficult.

    “The biggest problem may be the lack of cooperation from non-profits themselves, not least because shockingly few of them actually collect meaningful data on their own performance. Berger recently asked the 100 biggest charities with a four star rating to provide him with performance data, and only 10% did.”

    Changing how we rate aid agencies will change aid agency practices

    Perhaps, instead of rating aid agencies on the percentage spent on projects, we could rate them according to their financial transparency. A base score could be assigned according to whether they regularly share their financial information with donors and aid recipients. Extra points could be awarded to those agencies that make their most recent audit findings available upon request.

    The information used to rate aid agencies does impact aid agency practices (see related post). Agencies that score well are financially rewarded by donors, therefore priority is placed on those factors that lead to high scores. By changing how we rate aid agencies we can potentially improve aid agency practices.

    Going back to school always gave me mixed emotions. Not every year, but at every stage of my education, I felt like expectations of me were bumped up a notch or two. Like going to elementary school after being in daycare, I remember feeling that routine was everything and as long as I remembered how each day was ordered I would be fine. Moving on to middle school after elementary, my new routine included remembering my locker combination and the order and location of seven subject periods. In high school I balanced finding time for my social life while remaining steadfast in my studies. As for college, routine went out the window and time management took over as a preeminent skill to have. Actually, practicing time management in college enhanced lots of other skills for me, including critical thinking, weighing options, and strategizing. Ultimately I realized that while every school year would require an increasing level of life-skills, each year would also involve a lot of repetition.

    I am thankful for the things I knew would ensure my success in school. Taking care of updating my immunization records, keeping a supply of crisp uniforms, and enjoying a hot breakfast each morning gave my parents confidence that I would succeed. New school supplies, new shoes, and a fresh learning environment gave me higher heights to reach. A new grade level, more friends, and increasing responsibilities made me feel like I was in a perfect position to excel. Looking back from elementary to undergrad I’m reminded of that old saying that “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. I understand now that repetition of familiar routines helped to ease my nervousness in each new environment, and each new success builds on prior successes.  Fortunately for me, I had familiar and new things to look forward to every year. But many of us don’t.

    I can imagine the disappointment felt by a student who starts a new school year feeling unprepared and without many successes to build on. There may be concern for the health of a child who doesn’t have updated immunizations and records. There may be feelings of embarrassment for students who return to class with uniforms that have more wears than those of classmates. And I’m pretty sure it’s hard to focus on the lesson at hand when your tummy is rumbling. New school supplies and new shoes are so exciting to return to school with and many of us don’t fully appreciate how blessed we are to be able to have those things. Determined is the child who manages to complete each grade level, make new friends, and handle new responsibilities despite these obstacles.  Try to imagine the difficulty of not having these resources year after year. Repetition of their absence becomes disturbing over time. The repeated cycle of a lack of preparedness at each stage of your educational career can easily become disturbing. Disturbing and discouraging.

    For me, the repetition has changed. This year isn’t about new uniforms or new grade levels, or even a hot breakfast when I’m battling the clock. This year is about new responsibilities, new dreams, new lessons, and maybe most important, new ways of compassion toward others. I’m learning that there are many nonprofit organizations that understand a child’s foundation of success in education goes a long way. They understand that without the proper tools for success children will have more distractions than just their classmates. The distractions hold them back from learning, which sometimes causes a lack of desire to learn.

    Helping others and giving back is a substantial way to contribute to your own success, in education and otherwise. Instead of purchasing uniforms for myself, I could donate to an organization that provides uniforms for students who can’t afford them. I could donate to a back-to-school drive that provides students with the right course materials. Or even donating to a favorite health organization that gives free immunization shots could help.

    Repeating something good over and over again can make it a habit. How amazing would it be to make a habit of donating to your favorite organization when the back to school season arrives? Cool right? Need help finding some?

    Stay tuned for third period where we discuss nonprofit organizations who agree with the fundamentals of back to school.

    Feeling sad that summer is coming to an end? That’s normal! Instead, think about all the memories you and friends will make and share during this school year. Or what about all the new faces you’ll soon learn to love? It’s not all that bad. Actually, it’s pretty great!

    My name is Lauren Chatman, and I am the new Social Media Specialist for the Center for International Disaster Information at USAID. Although I am no longer physically in a classroom I am in a new, active learning environment every day. I live by the saying, “I have always loved school, and therefore, I will forever be a student.” Isn’t it amazing the effect that time has on your perception of things? Last year at this time, I was gearing up for the final semester of my undergrad career and now I am reflecting on the many contributions to my success in school, and hopefully, in life. Please join me in Part One of a three part blog series highlighting the “back-to-school” season

    The  first day of school can forecast the rest of the year, depending on how you look at it. Put another way, your perspective of your first day in class can create your attitude about the upcoming year in a positive or negative way. What will you decide?

    There are a number of things I found during my time at school that lead to a successful school year:

    Getting enough rest: Getting 8 to 9 hours of rest helps you stay alert so you don’t miss anything vital on the big day . Being well rested can result in you boosting your brainpower and making better daily decisions.

    Eating a healthy breakfast: Breakfast is also a way to recharge the brain and body causing you to be more efficient throughout the day. Eating a well-balanced breakfast in the morning ensures you’ll be able to not only concentrate but also perform better in the classroom . So not only are you well rested you’re pretty full too.

    Preparing your clothes the night before: Whether you’re returning to class in uniform or in style, nothing helps to smooth the morning panic of getting ready like being prepared. This forces you to not only identify but eliminate any issues up and coming.

    New school supplies: Having color-coordinated or thematic supplies or a fresh pack of pens and paper is exciting and functional! Having brand new materials can spark your enthusiasm and creativity and encourages organization . Not only does having your supplies help in confidence, but, colors also help establish familiarity, recognition, and symbolism.

    Bright eyes and bushy tails:  School comes just in time to rescue us from the last days of summer, refreshed and renewed from the sun and the time off. You’re full of energy and eager for new adventures after a fun-filled, busy summer. Channel that energy!

    With memories of undergrad studies fresh in my mind and back-to-school season approaching, I can’t help but to have some mixed emotions. As I look back on all the things I considered vital to a successful school year, not one was more important than another. They all can mold us into the successful students we want to be .

    And not surprisingly, I’m finding that they work in the post-graduate world as well! Getting enough rest, well balanced breakfast, having the right materials, and so on are all essential to success in the wider world as well. Can you imagine how hard it might be to reach your full potential without doing one or two of the things listed? If not, lucky you, but I bet most people would agree. Stay tuned for blog post #2 where we discuss the importance of helping others where help is needed.

    It was a pleasure meeting you– see you soon and best of luck to you in the new school year!






    “Hit the ground running”

    As a Crisis Corps Volunteer (part of the US Peace Corps) I was sent back to Thailand to help with the tsunami recovery efforts. Before my departure Peace Corps sent out a press release which stated:

    “The three resource development volunteers will be working with local governments to determine where the greatest need lies and identifying resources to help the local communities. They will also put together a local staff to insure progress will continue after the Crisis Corps team departs.”

    So essentially we were to go into a government office, work with them to determine needs, develop a program, find funding and resources, implement the program, and ensure that it was sustainable – all of this in the span of just six months – there would be no extensions.

    How long would it take to develop a program that solves a problem in your own community?

    Would a six month program be successful in your own city? Imagine if a stranger were sent to your community from an aid agency boasting that they were going to solve a community problem. How would your community react?

    As Director of D-TRAC in Thailand, I was regularly approached by donors wanting to fund aid agencies  helping with the tsunami recovery. With over 200 aid agencies to choose from they quickly became overwhelmed and sought advice on choosing aid agencies. D-TRAC aid agency folders - Photo by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

    The photo is of the blog’s author at D-TRAC. The blue folders are filled with information on different aid agencies responding to the tsunami.

    Choosing the right aid agency can be a daunting and frustrating task

    Without adequate information or guidelines, many people choose aid agencies based on name recognition, speed of implementation, or percentage spent on administration. Unfortunately, none of these are real indicators of the quality and appropriateness of aid.

    Donations can be misused and ill-spent despite the best intentions of donors
    Deciding whether or not to donate and which agency or project to donate to can be a daunting and frustrating task. Although donors choose aid agencies that they think will have the greatest impact, aid donations often are misused and ill-spent. This occurs both despite of and because of the best intentions of donors.

    How does this happen?
    Concerned about aid reaching those who need it the most, many donors give to aid agencies that work quickly and cheaply. Dependent upon donors for funding and survival, aid agencies feel pressured to develop programs that are fast and cheap. Unfortunately, projects with low administration costs and fast implementation rates often have unintended consequences.

    This posting is from a journal I kept as a Crisis Corps volunteer working on the tsunami recovery in Thailand.

    Boats are “sexy”Donated boats - Thailand - photo by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

    Boats have become the “sexy” projects of the tsunami recovery.  Go onto the web site of most aid organizations and odds are that somewhere they will talk about boats.  Some days it’s seems as though you can’t turn around without running into another organization working to give boats to villagers.

    Don’t get me wrong, boats are very important for these coastal villages.  They are also extremely difficult for the average villager to replace because, as a general rule, they cost around 120,000 baht (to put this into perspective, as a crisis corps volunteer I would make about 96,000 baht a year, and our salary is based upon local wages).  This means it’s almost impossible for villagers to replace their boats on their own, especially now that many of their livelihoods have been destroyed.  So boats are desperately needed.  But there is a growing belief (unsubstantiated because of the difficulty of collecting data from the multitude of aid organizations) that there will be more boats in this area after the tsunami than there were before the tsunami.  There is also a fear that some people may well receive 2 or 3 boats.

    Think about the most memorable photo in a recent advertisement from an aid agency. What emotion did that photo create? Did it inspire you to give money?

    Now imagine that it is your child, sister, or parent in that photo. Would you want that picture used in an advertising campaign?

    Does the photo show the aid recipient as helpless or able?

    Recently I’ve seen several of my friends give to an aid agency that uses the picture of an emaciated African child on death’s door. We’ve all seen the type of photo I’m talking about (in writing this article I tried to find some sample photos by typing “starving child” into google image, it came up with thousands of them, and almost all of them were from an aid agency website). Each time I see someone donate to an agency that uses this type of photo I think NO, DON’T DO IT!