Human trafficking and other causes: Donate wisely during the holidays

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities

Holiday Giving


RICHMOND, VA December 27, 2012 ― ‘Tis the season for baking cookies and shopping, singing carols and gift-wrapping; for spending time with family, calling on friends, and spreading holiday cheer to those we know and love. ‘Tis also the season for donating time, money, and gifts in-kind to worthy causes and charitable organizations.

As our nation struggles to recover from an economic recession, charitable organizations are faced not only with budget cuts, but also with a greater demand for their services. As a result, nonprofits have a growing need for private donations just when their resources are at an ebb. As a columnist and speaker, I often encourage my audiences to support their local charities, especially youth-based organizations.  While I urge you to donate generously to any charity, I also warn you to be wise about your investment.

Human trafficking is an issue which has gained a wildfire of attention recently; and in turn, scores of anti-trafficking organizations and campaigns have cropped up across the country.  The increased attention to this heinous crime and its victims is positive; however, the list of nonprofits is growing so rapidly that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with it.  Many of these groups aren’t yet listed with reputable watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator or GuideStar.  If you choose to support an innovative, local anti-human trafficking group, then the responsibility of vetting falls on you, the donor.

CharityWatch offers ten tips for “Giving Wisely,” the first of which is to “know your charity.”  CharityWatch recommends that you request detailed information including a list of the board of directors, financial statements, and a mission statement.  I encourage you to take your time in reading the mission statement.  If the organization’s mission is unclear to you, then it’s likely unclear to the organization as well.  While it may change over time, the mission statement must have a clear baseline.  Without this, neither you nor the organization can understand its goals or boundaries.

In the nonprofit world of anti-human trafficking, an organization’s services may be geared towards raising awareness, implementing methods of prevention, advocating for stronger laws, providing services to victims or victims’ families, or any combination of these and more.  All of these agendas are important, but you should pick and choose which agenda fits with your interests and the needs of your community.  If you want to support an organization that offers services to victims, be sure you aren’t donating to a nonprofit that concentrates its funding towards raising awareness or prevention, and vice versa.

Then, I encourage you to ask questions in order to ensure that the organization has a viable plan in place to achieve its goals.  For example, if the organization claims to be currently providing services to victims, then inquire about the services.  How many children or adults is the organization currently serving?  What services are provided, and how are they provided?  Is it a group home or do they manage case work involving service providers within the community?  Who are the service providers?  An honest organization will be transparent and welcome an open discourse on its inner workings, except when it compromises the safety of its clients.

If the organization is raising money in order to provide future services, then ask for a timeline.  When can donors see the results of their donations?  By results, I don’t mean restored victims of human trafficking- I mean a group home, or a solid network of outreach service providers.  If the organization is implementing methods of prevention within the community, then ask for details.  With whom are they working?  Ask to participate in one of their programs or to visit their facilities.  Heed the advice from CharityWatch: know your charity of choice.

Be wary of organizations which evoke emotion via documentaries, films, picture images of abuse, or survivor accounts of trauma, and then ask for your money “to combat slavery in your own backyard.” Set aside your emotion and ask questions: How do they plan to fight human trafficking and other forms of exploitation?  To whom are they giving the money?  Are they keeping the money?  If so, what specific services are they offering “to combat slavery” within your community?  Are they offering services to victims?  Are they donating portions of the raised funds to other organizations that provide services to victims?  If yes, then ask who these other organizations are and confirm with them directly.

As in all causes, there are those organizations which mean well and those which are looking to exploit a cause and a donor’s generosity.  There are also those organizations led by passionate but misdirected advocates who unintentionally spend donations on fruitless efforts.  I encourage you to reach out to others in the community for reviews on the organization you wish to support.  Check with your State Attorneys General Office, your local and state police departments, your local Better Business Bureau, local survivor advocates, the National Survivor Network, and other established charities in your community.

If you are proactive in vetting your local anti-human trafficking organizations, then you will strengthen your community’s response to a growing issue and a hidden epidemic.  Otherwise, you risk loss of your time and money while trafficking continues uncurbed.  For more tips on giving wisely this holiday season, see CharityWatch and Charity Navigator.

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