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Haiti charity checkup

Monday, Feb. 22
Posted: 11 a.m. EDT

American charities have raised $709 million in relief for Haiti as of Feb. 12, according to research conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Millions of individuals were part of that effort, but since travel to Haiti is impractical, do you really know how your dollars are being spent, and if you're making a difference?

It's well-known that Americans are financially generous in times of need, and when disasters happen in locations we just can't get to (remember the tsunami that hit southeast Asia in 2006?) you have to trust that the agencies you give your money to will spend it wisely.

Courtesy: The Salvation Army

But a new model for checking up on donations and tracking progress may be emerging using the Internet. The Chronicle reports that a new Web site, ReliefOversight.org, aims to use crowdsourcing to gather information on what charities are doing in Haiti, whether they're qualified to do the work, and if concerns are being raised about their efforts. The site was built in two weeks by more than 50 volunteers, according to The Chronicle.

Cruise through the site and you'll find well-known charitable organizations including The Salvation Army and the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund reporting on their activities. But lesser-known groups check in as well -- Agape Flights, for instance, a Venice, Fla.-based ministry that coordinates emergency and medical supplies for disaster-response.

Another group, CHF International of Silver Spring Md., which provides technical expertise and leadership to improve social and environmental conditions in low and moderate income communities worldwide, reported Feb. 10 that Caterpillar is providing heavy equipment and trained operators to assist with excavating wreckage.

Critics warn that the site could present an opportunity to mislead the public -- after all, you have to rely on those who are posting the information, just as you trust them with your hard-earned money. And parts of the postings do read a little like a public relations pitch. Take this one from The Salvation Army Feb. 9:

"The Salvation Army continues to be a beacon of hope for individuals and families whose lives were devastated by the earthquake. While the Haiti Relief Team maintains support and provides assistance for 20,000 individuals in an area adjacent to their compound in Port-au-Prince, they have reached out to other areas of the country -- diligently meeting needs at the point of need at the time of need."

But further in the posting, it gets down to specifics. For example, this is a partial tally of food and water delivered to Haiti by Feb. 6:

Nuama Rice: delivered 2,041,400 meals
MEARS Ready Eat: delivered 6,900 meals
Water filtration systems: 30,000 gallons/day
Total water supplied: 500,000 gallons

The results of philanthropy can be difficult to track, and in the end, charity still comes from the heart. But any additional efforts at transparency are welcome.

Questions? Comments? E-mail jmartel@bankrate.com

Bankrate's 2010 Tax Guide: Gifts to charity pay off on your taxes.

Read about the nuts and bolts of charitable trusts.

Read more Your Wealth blogs.

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