Karen Ansara doesn’t just recommend giving donations to areas impacted by disasters. Instead, she urges funders to “fall in love with the country and its people, and be willing to commit for the long haul.” That’s where true partnership, respect, and deep impact begin.

Karen and Jim Ansara Photo: The Boston Foundation
Karen and Jim Ansara
Photo: The Boston Foundation

Ansara, co-founder of the Ansara Family Fund at the Boston Foundation with her husband, Jim, speaks of her family’s personal engagement in Haiti following the 2010 Haiti earthquake as a life-changing process. While Karen was advising the Haiti Fund, Jim, a retired general contractor, oversaw the construction of a solar-powered, 320-bed national teaching hospital in Haiti. The new public facility, built entirely through private philanthropy, is an attempt to bolster a weak public health system and keep local medical professionals in-country with increased opportunity.

Here, Ansara offers suggestions for funders wanting to make the most of their donations:

  • Be willing to work toward tangible and intangible results.  Remember that what’s “broken” in a community may be invisible. The restoration of social networks, trust, and legal systems is essential, including the reduction of gender-based violence (providing, for example, flood lights in refugee camps) and the reinstatement of livelihoods.
  • Engage and fund the work of local authorities, as well as groups that hold authorities accountable. For private philanthropists, this means funding private NGOs that might, for example, provide technical and logistical support to local institutions, or that might press authorities to uphold basic human rights of shelter and security.
  • Fund international NGOs that work in partnership with grassroots organizations. Large relief organizations have their place, she said, but “grassroots organizations know the social landscape best, and know how to reach those who are hidden from view.”
  • Study the track record of various NGOs and how/when they’ve spent donated funds. Ensure that the timeframe of distribution matches your own principles, whether money is to be used quickly for immediate relief efforts or held for longer-term recovery.
  • Remember how little you know about the big picture—and how smart the people around you can be. “It takes a lifetime—actually, several lifetimes—to figure it out,” she said. “Funders often want to see visible and tangible results. They want impacts they can measure. But recuperating from a large-scale disaster is not something that can easily be measured over 2, 3, or 5 years when it’s layered on top of systems that already may be dysfunctional…. You have to look at how your intervention is tied into the whole system. You have to be strategic so that your intervention is something that can be replicated, and can push the nation toward systemic change.”