TV News Has Responsibility to Viewers Who Donate to Japan Relief

An afternoon telethon is not enough. Stations need to make sure money is allocated properly

The images we have seen from Japan are as horrifying as those from the earthquake that devastated Haiti more than a year ago. Once again, TV news stations in Philadelphia and across the country have promoted relief efforts in their newscasts and many even held telethons. These stations quickly become fundraising partners by using the imagery and the emotional connection that television inherently provides to get their viewers to donate. The stations do this void of responsibility or oversight of the money raised. After the phone lines are disconnected and the volunteers go home, the news departments move on to covering Charlie Sheen and car chases without a follow-up on where the money went.

[SIGNUP]In Haiti many are still asking where the money went. Of the $1.5 billion dollars raised in private American donations only 38 percent made its way to Haiti. Well-known relief organizations like CARE, the American Red Cross and Catholic Charities have all spent less than 40 percent of the money they raised for earthquake relief to Haiti. The charities argue they’ve already helped millions of people and would get criticized if they spent too much up front instead of addressing the long term. Each charity promises that all of the money will eventually get to Haiti—after they skim their 9 percent for administrative costs. In the meantime these charities get to hold the money in interest-earning accounts. That money, after the 9 percent taken from the top, can go to other causes. Interest on anywhere from $400 million to one billion dollars can be substantial.

Although it may be smart money management, it does raise questions about how quickly “emergency relief donations” should make it to those hit by disaster. After the earthquake in Haiti, 1.5 million people were left homeless. Today, one million are still homeless. Many are living in tent cities where fresh water is in short supply, and there has been a cholera outbreak that has killed over 2,000 people. You don’t think they could use more of that money right now?

Still, the charities listed above at least have some governmental oversight and an infrastructure to handle massive donations. Watch out for Internet relief efforts that spring up out of nowhere. Many are frauds, others have the best of intentions, but simply don’t have the means to get the money and goods where they need to go. More than 50 relief agencies were born of the Haiti disaster; many have disappeared along with the money.

InterAction, an umbrella group for U.S. relief agencies active abroad, advises donors to give to agencies with partner organizations in Japan that would be best placed to spend funds wisely. It says there is minimal need at this stage either for donated goods or throngs of foreign volunteers. “We need to be humble, so this is not about Japan being overrun by foreigners and having to deal with all kinds of wild and wacky goods showing up at Tokyo airport,” is what Joel Charney,
InterAction’s vice president for humanitarian policy told the Associated Press. “Find an organization that can demonstrate to your satisfaction that they have meaningful links in Japan, and give money to them,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

You should be informed before you give your hard-earned money to any relief organization. You want your good intentions carried out. Here are some questions to ask and rules to follow before you give your money.

• Ask how much of your donation will go to the charity and how much will be used to pay for fund raising, administration and charitable programming. Solicitors must give you this information if you ask.
• Pay close attention to the name of the charity. Some fraudulent charities use names that sound or look like those of legitimate organizations to mislead you.
• Ask questions about the charity. Donate only when your questions have been answered and you are certain your money will be used according to your wishes.
• Take caution when giving online. Spam and email solicitations from charities claiming to be linked to relief groups are common after natural disasters.
• Do not pay in cash. For security and tax-record purposes, pay by check. Be sure to write the full official name of the
charity on your check—do not abbreviate.
• Request written information. A legitimate charity will provide you with information outlining its mission, how your donation will be distributed, and proof that your contribution is tax deductible.
• Do not donate if the solicitor uses high-pressure tactics, asks for cash payment or insists on sending someone to pick up your donation. These are all hallmarks of a scam.

I also urge any media outlet that is going to use the emotion of the moment to get money from audiences to be a watchdog for those audiences. TV stations are more than just conduits when they promote a charitable organization and its relief efforts with a telethon and/or news reports; they have directly asked for our trust. They then owe it to us to follow the money.

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to