What We Owe to Each Other: Humanitarian Aid Edition

By now, I’m sure you’ve read about the devastation in Türkiye[fn1] and Syria. As of this writing, there are at least 7,700 dead in those two countries, a number widely expected to rise. In Türkiye alone, more than 6,000 buildings have collapsed, leaving an estimated 150,000 without homes. At least two UNESCO World Heritage sites, one in each country, have sustained significant damage.

In response to this utter devastation, the world has stepped up. The UN has dispatched aid teams. The EU, several European countries, the US, South Korea, Israel, Russia, Algeria, UAE, and Iraq (among others) have all sent or pledged aid.

This international governmental response is critical. But governments aren’t acting alone here: many nonprofit and charitable organizations are also providing money, tents, warmth, medicine, and other critically-needed aid. (I wrote a little about the nonprofit response, as well as some questions around nonprofit aid, here.)

Among the nonprofits pledging aid? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Europe Central Area Presidency wrote, among other things, that the church “is currently reaching out to other relief organisations, both globally and in-country, to offer assistance.”

This is the right response: while the church has the ability to mobilize people to help with disaster relief, especially through its Mormon Helping Hands (or maybe Helping Hands? the website includes both names) program, I suspect that in this case, having untrained volunteers come in would be dangerous to the volunteers and get in the way of trained relief providers.

And outside of mobilizing volunteers, the church doesn’t have specific expertise in disaster relief. I suspect the church will ultimately ship food, clothing, and other necessities. And it will provide funding to organizations ready to provide aid.

Which is a model for us. Because the people impacted by the earthquake are our neighbors. They need our help. And how can we help them?

Mostly we can donate money. And certainly we can donate it to the church’s Humanitarian Aid Fund. But the Humanitarian Aid Fund will turn around and give it to other organizations.

The thing is, we can do that too. It takes a little work—we have to research and find an organization (or organizations) that we trust. But it’s work that we can do. And when we donate to those organizations, we establish relationships. We’ll get mailings and emails. Those mailings and emails will ask for more money, of course, but they’ll also let us see what charitable activities these groups are engaged in. We’ll see the need in the world, but we’ll also see the good.[fn2] And we’ll meet our obligation to each other.

And who to donate to? If you have charities that you’ve donated to in the past, charities that you trust and have a relationship with, I’d go there. If not, this article provides at least a starting point. (I really like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, and, as an employee of a Jesuit law school, I’m inclined to think Jesuit Refugee Service is a good organization. But I’m impressed by all of the charities listed here that I’m familiar with.)

[fn1] I just learned, from this Deseret News article, that this is the country’s preferred spelling of its name. The State Department has started using this spelling in formal settings.

[fn2] As a side note: I talked about this in my Nonprofits class today, but the best thing we can do is find an organization we like and trust and give them unrestricted funds. While immediate disaster relief is critical, once we get past the short-term, there will be continued needs. People don’t just need tents and thermal clothing: they need rebuilt infrastructure. They may need long-term medical care. They need a place to live. They may need new job training. Our neighbors’ needs don’t end just because the immediate disaster has been averted.

Even better is getting on an automatic donation plan. That provides a relief organization with money that they need now, but it also provides them with a predictable stream of revenue that they can count on as they do both disaster relief and prevention. Because people don’t just need aid when a magnitude 7.5 earthquake strikes. But the smaller needs are less salient, and may not engender the same level of worldwide resource mobilization.


  1. Quick note, that I wish were unnecessary but it’s not: this post is not about how much or little humanitarian aid the church provides. I know people have strong opinions about that, but I’m not interested in that discussion here. I can’t control the level of humanitarian aid given by the church, and neither can you (unless you’re a General Authority reading this, in which case, hi!). I can, however, control the level of aid I give. Which is to say, if your comment talks about the church’s level of giving, I’ll delete it.

  2. Stephen Hardy says:

    Sam: I am truly grateful for your note and the list. I know that I am not as generous as I could be, nor am I as generous as I should be. It is easy to have good intentions, but then it is also not hard to |”over-think” and get tripped up: who to send money to, and when? It can “freeze” me from doing good.

    I am happy to hear anyone’s ideas on how they work out just how generous to be. With the church it is kinda easy: I pay my tithe and I pay a “generous” fast offering (in excess off two meals/month per person per month.) I understand that I could give more to the church. But I don’t want to for many reasons. I also do not believe that the church’s philanthropy has much to do with me. I don’t want to waste the emotional effort of wishing that the church did more (or less) than they currently do in the public arena. I also don’t believe for a second that my church-oriented donations absolve me from the need to be generous outside of the church.

    But what’s next? When you take into account your thoughts that the needs will be long, and will far exceed the needs of the moment, then I find myself asking: Shouldn’t I be giving to Haiti for their horrific earthquake in 2010? Isn’t this the time when they really need the money because the immediately flow of well-intentioned funds has long dried up, but they are still re-building, and they are likely ignored during this moment. What about Ukraine? Should I be providing relief to those displaced by that awful and ongoing war? And then there are my neighbors who may also be in some sort of financial crisis.

    It is easy to feel over-whelmed… and then do nothing. Any ideas on long-term sustained donations to help people not only in the immediate crisis but in the months and years after? I am ready to listen.

  3. Twenty-ish years ago, I heard something in a Sacrament Meeting talk that changed my perspective on charitable giving. The brother giving the talk said that we often pay tithing without thinking much about it, but we tend to consider offerings as something that we’ll do in a big way when we have more money *someday*. But really, any amount given *now* to a good cause will help. He challenged us to start making it a habit to just give, even if it’s only $5 or $10 or even $1. I felt really called to repentance by that talk and have strived to follow that counsel ever since.

    To plug one organization in particular, we have several families in our ward who emigrated here from Sierra Leone. One of the sisters worked for Oxfam there and speaks highly of their efforts. I’ve been on an automatic donation plan with them for several years now and have felt fortunate to be able to raise my monthly amount a little every year and sometimes give an additional lump sum for an emergent situation (I just got an email about their plans in Turkiye/Syria today, actually). The Church’s Humanitarian Aid Fund is great, but like Sam said, they often just move funds to other organizations that are already on the ground. As citizens of the world in addition to members of the Church, we can find plenty of worthy places to help.

  4. To Stephen Hardy’s point – One of the reasons I didn’t give outside of the Church was that I felt unsure about where to give and also overwhelmed by the sheer amount of need. It helped me to just pick a couple of organizations and stick with them. I talked to people who know more about it than me (like the sister in my ward and another friend who has done activism work with various groups) and chose three organizations, and that’s where I give.

    When I feel like I’m being inundated by all the suffering in the world, I try to think of the story of the man throwing starfish into the sea – I can’t help them all, but I can help some. Maybe I’ll be able to branch out later, but for now, I can do this. If there’s a particular country, region, or group that you have a special attachment to or a cause that is important (poverty relief, debt relief, legal aid, natural disaster clean-up, etc.), focus on that. There will be plenty of time and opportunity to do other things, but for now, just do one thing. Start doing it right now, even if it’s just a little bit.

  5. Stephen, thank you for your comment. That’s an important point: there are a lot of worthy causes and it can be so hard to choose between them.

    Also, thank you Villate. I loved those perspectives. And we’re similar—we make monthly donations to three or four organizations. A could years ago, we told our kids that we wanted to do it. We asked them to figure out what their charitable goals were, then we came together as a family. I think we decided on a humanitarian organization, a refugee organization, and Doctors Without Borders. My wife had volunteered with the refuge org. We had gone to a pop-up presentation by MSF. And we researched and liked the humanitarian org. (I think we donate to RefugeeOne and UNICEF, but I’m not home so I don’t remember for sure.)

    As for the paralysis of so much suffering: that’s the nice thing about consistent unrestricted gifts: if Haiti needs money, UNICEF can allocate it there. If a smaller disaster happens that doesn’t make the news, MSF may be sending doctors there even if I don’t know about it.

    And to Villate’s point: the amount I can shots to give won’t be transformational. I don’t have that much wealth. But my gifts, combined with others’, could be transformational.

  6. nobody, really says:

    I remember being told in several Sunday school lessons, Elder’s Quorum lessons, and Sacrament meeting talks that it was irresponsible and nigh unto sinful to give money to any “charity” that wasn’t the Church. They couldn’t be trusted to use the money in a Christlike manner, and since all we have has been given to us by Christ, it’s His money, not ours.

  7. nobody, really, I don’t doubt you’ve had to sit through the terrible lessons you describe. I’ll offer a counterweight to that, though: I’ve never heard church members discourage charitable giving outside of the confines of the church, and especially not heard that charitable organizations are somehow lesser. (And I think the idiosyncraticness of that kind of message is underscored by the fact that the church not only makes donations through other charitable orgs, but it actively talks about doing so. So anybody teaching that kind of absurd lesson would have to ignore the actual actions of the church.)

    That said, I do understand why members would focus on donating through the church. As Stephen in Villate pointed out, there’s a certain amount of paralysis in seeing the amount of need and the number of organizations that attempt to address that need. It is easier to donate through an organization that you’re familiar with and that you already trust.

  8. Love this post, thanks. I second Villate’s suggestion to give even small amounts when you see a need to break that paralysis. I really like International Rescue Committee and, for non-disaster relief, Give Directly which transfers cash to people in need.

  9. I have benefited from “donating” to my own Donor Advised Fund. Fidelity, in particular, has made it efficient and easy, and there are tax timing considerations, but I should emphasize that there are some extra steps and logistics, and always some overhead cost, that will make this inadvisable or inapplicable for many. I don’t do it quite this way, but I could in effect “tithe” myself into the DAF and decide later where the money goes, as one disaster or another strikes (for example). I really like separating the question what can I give from the question where should it go, and would recommend that two-step process even if it’s a do-it-yourself mechanic without setting up a trust.

  10. A wonderful post. Hopefully, it has inspired many to give. I have been studying the law of consecration which is a covenant found in the temple. One reason we consecrate our time, talents, and means is to help and lift the poor. I used to worry and wonder how much to give. Now I ponder and use reasoning along with the Spirit to guide me. Abiding by the law of consecration blesses all, both the giver and the receiver. It is sanctifying. I appreciate the list of great organizations. Thank you for this post

  11. Please consider a relatively new and smaller platform called: donorsee.com This is a simple way for individuals to give directly to other individuals who have specific need. You can have some interaction with the person you are helping.

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