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Washingtonians Put Human Face On Humanitarian Assistance

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Most marathoners train with personal goals in mind, be it for bragging rights, getting in shape, or simply filling the days with activity. When Slovenian Ambassador Samuel Zbogar runs, he’s thinking of landmine victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It’s not that the ambassador isn’t fast or doesn’t have a personal interest in running. In October, he finished the Marine Corps Marathon course in 3 hours and 31 minutes. Finishing 26.2 miles in that time takes determination and talent—two traits Zbogar decided to turn into an advantage that could be used to help children who have suffered from conflict.

The event was the fourth and final—for now—in a series of marathons and half marathons that the ambassador completed this year to help fund the treatment of landmine survivors. His goal? To raise ,000 on behalf of six young children who were injured after the Balkan wars in the 1990s. But by the end of the 10-month project, including races in Texas, Tennessee and Ohio, Zbogar’s supporters had amassed more than ,000 to help pay for rehabilitation and new prosthetic limbs for the growing children. All of the money he raised is being used to treat children through the Slovenian-run International Trust Fund for Demining and Mine Victims Assistance (see also Nov. 8, 2007 news column of the Diplomatic Pouch online).

“I thought that if I am asking people to trust me with their money, I should also do my part of the sacrifice,” Zbogar said. “So I decided to run marathons, even though I never ran them before and never thought I would.”

Such grassroots efforts are abundant in the Washington area, where many diplomats and business globetrotters are inspired to take up causes after first-hand experiences with tragedies overseas. So The Washington Diplomat decided to take a look at a few of these humanitarian efforts, in time for the charity-giving holiday season.

After witnessing hardships abroad, Washingtonians often find themselves well positioned to help with their key contacts and inside knowledge. Such was the case for Linda A.H. Smythe, who spent 19 years in Bahrain as a manager for Bell Helicopter and honorary consul of Greece. After returning to the United States in the early 1990s and joining the Rotary Club of Montgomery Village, Md., she introduced an idea to her fellow Rotarians in 2005: a fundraising effort that would help train and equip Iraqi physicians to care for the thousands of civilians who have lost limbs to bombs, insurgent attacks and other explosives.

The Basra Prosthetics Project completed its first mission in May 2006 with financial support and donations from dozens of organizations, agencies and individuals. At a medical station in Jordan, away from harm’s way, Iraqi doctors were guided through some of the most difficult cases—a man who lost both legs when a landmine explosion sent him flying through the air toward another landmine, for instance, or a boy who lost so much of his arm that just building an artificial limb to fit him presented a huge challenge.

Project volunteers have arranged additional missions, always with a focus on equipping physicians to serve as many patients as possible. In addition to training, the initiative provides prosthetic limbs and other supplies through donations from manufacturers and hospitals.

“I just really had a wish to help Iraqi civilians and victims,” Smythe explained. “The [Iraqi] Ministry of Health is in such bad shape that someone had to do something. There are so many amputees that we can’t possibly address them all, but we can help train physicians.”

Ask Smythe how long she and her fellow Rotarians plan to keep at it, and she’ll really get going. She said she hopes the worn-torn country will find some footing and the health care system will improve, but for now, the Basra Project has no plans of slowing down.

There’s passion in Smythe’s voice as she talks about the young boy who sent her a note saying, “I love you. I love you. I love you,” or about how astonished the Iraqis often are when they first learn that all of the project’s members operate on a voluntary basis. In an e-mail last month announcing class="import-text">2007December.Humanitarian Assistance.txt.5 million in funding from the U.S. State Department—by far the project’s largest donation to date—she said the award “takes her breath away.”

In fact, the State Department is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its public-private partnership program to reinforce humanitarian mine action, and since 1993, the United States has spent more than class="import-text">2007December.Humanitarian Assistance.txt.2 billion in nearly 50 mine-affected countries and regions.

Benefactors say that homegrown charities are making an important mark in the world of philanthropy, complementing these types of governmental efforts as well as the many multimillion- or multibillion-dollar foundations and organizations with similar missions, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Red Cross, CARE, Mercy Corps and numerous other large-scale humanitarian organizations.

But Smythe pointed out one specific characteristic of smaller efforts such as hers that sets them apart: Because homegrown charities start from scratch on a volunteer basis, very little goes to overhead.

“Not a dime goes to any salaries,” Smythe said of the Basra Prosthetics Project. “That’s how Rotary operates. All money goes to training, airfares, equipment and prosthetics supplies—and none of it is going to salaries or fringe benefits. It’s money well spent from a donor’s perspective.”

Another advantage that organizations such as the Basra Project have is the dedication and true passion that drives the people behind the cause.

“All of what we do is accomplished quite well, and it’s all done by a very small, high-quality staff,” said Julius E. Coles, president of Africare, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization specializing in aid to African countries. “We really are working as a very dedicated group because we believe in the cause. We’re certainly not in it for the money.”

A testament to what a philanthropic vision can grow into, Africare got its start in the early 1970s when a group of Peace Corps volunteers set up their headquarters in a basement with a grant of ,550. With an initial project in Niger, they set out to help alleviate the effects of severe drought.

Today, the organization operates a million budget, with a high rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy and an endorsement from the Better Business Bureau. With more than 1,000 employees—many of them African and all but 50 or so working on overseas projects—the organization operates comprehensive grassroots programs that address HIV and AIDS education, public health, agriculture, sanitation and political issues in some 25 African countries.

“Africare is one of the largest, if not the largest, nongovernmental organization working exclusively in Africa,” Coles said. “We’ve experienced tremendous growth in our programs over the years, and we are a very well-respected organization in the African continent. And we’ve stayed the course, serving through droughts and through civil wars.”

Throughout the years, Coles added, the organization has managed to focus the bulk of its spending on programming. For every dollar earned, 4 to 5 cents goes to fundraising, salaries and other managerial costs—a rate Coles describes as “fantastically low” in the charitable world.

With this kind of targeted giving, Coles and his counterparts say, every donation makes an impact, right down to the individuals who want to help but can’t afford more than a few dollars each month.

Checking on Your Charity

For many families and businesses, the holidays are a time for giving. After all, it only makes sense that goodwill would stir a desire to help those less fortunate.

But in giving to charities and causes, many donors forget to ask how they can be sure their money is making it to those who actually need it. Of course, there are plenty of reputable charities that process donations effectively, but the number that run inefficiently or even fraudulently makes the question an important one to ask.

There are a number of ways to check on your cause of choice, and it needn’t take much time. Several organizations examine charities with strict criteria for gaining endorsement. The Better Business Bureau (http://welcome.bbb.org), the Wise Giving Alliance (www.give.org), Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) and the American Institute of Philanthropy (www.charitywatch.org) are all good choices for either finding a dependable charity or checking up on one you’ve already chosen.

Leaders of CAFAmerica (www.cafamerica.org), a nonprofit that reviews charities for legitimacy and processes international donations, say more and more donors want to know what kind of direct impact their contributions will have. The organization serves as a distributor that connects U.S. individuals, companies and foundations to charities in more than 70 countries, and stakes much of its work on the claim that it’s important for donors to know where their money is going.

These organizations and others provide valuable tips for individuals and businesses as they consider making donations. In addition to checking credibility, they say, donors should find out if donations are tax deductible, look into how a charity’s funds are distributed, and avoid making cash donations.

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999