How do you know who to give to (& not)? Part 1


A few weeks ago I went to the prison in town to visit someone I know. Although I have served at prisons before, even took a class inside of one my senior year of college, I have never gone for a personal visit.

It took a few connections to make it happen, and I only had five minutes to speak with the boy who stood behind a metal screen. He has been there for almost a year, but this was the first time I have gone to seen him. I realize I should have gone sooner. I know Jesus was serious when he said we should visit the prisoner. I have no real excuse.

I am not going to reveal the boy’s name, or even those involved in his story. The point of my post isn’t to tattle and point fingers. Rather, I want to use this story as a means to enter a much larger conversation.

The boy in the prison- we’ve had our issues. At the orphanage we caught him aiding a security guard to steal thousands of dollars from our office. Although the judge said we were ridiculous, we didn’t press charges against him, convinced we could help him change. He was a kid, and we knew prison would forever change the trajectory of his future. So we gave him grace and a second chance.

But he didn’t change. Two months later he was found breaking into our apartment searching for our personal money. He was dismissed from the orphanage within the day.

Out in the streets he joined a gang and continued to get into more trouble. His specialty was scamming Americans. Growing up in the orphanage all his life he learned how to speak English pretty well…and also how to ask for money. This made him a wanted asset for many Haitians.

It didn’t take long before he started his own underground business. His operation was simple. People would “hire” him to create fake identities and with it set up fake Facebook pages and emails. Using all of the connections he had to Americans he would scam people for thousands of dollars. When money was sent to him, it was all under the impression that it would be going to help some cause in Haiti. Some orphanage. Some kid in need. Some church. But the reality was that it would go into the pockets of his local clients and he would take a cut.

He was reported to the police and put into prison a year go after one of his clients caught him breaking their arrangement and keeping the money to himself. Taking advantage of the situation, another client quickly visited him at his cell, telling the guards he intended to make money off of the boy’s circumstance. After taking pictures and videos of the boy behind bars, the client sent them to people in America asking for money to release him, naming a much higher price than the actual truth. The client is a well-known preacher.

Because the boy didn’t steal anything from his Haitian clients, and because there was no formal contract proving their agreement, he doesn’t actually owe anything to be released. All that stands between him and freedom is less than $75 US to cover legal fees. Until then, he sits in cell #9.

Standing across from him and his Marilyn Monroe t-shirt, I realized I had just enough cash crumpled up in my wallet to get him out. My purse felt unusually heavy and I wrestled with the thought for half a second.

I set a bag of toiletries on the counter for the police to check and give to him. A fresh stick of deodorant would do him some good. I expected a “thank you” for the bag and the visit. Instead, while the policeman escorted him out, he looked back and asked if Gerome and I were going to help him get out, then followed up by asking us to loan him some cash for something he wanted.

I didn’t answer. It was apparent he still hasn’t changed.

Although I could segue here to talk about orphanages and how kids raised in them are 40x more likely to become criminals than kids raised in a home, I’m not. Instead, I want to talk to you about money.

You want to know the hardest part about living in Haiti? It isn’t the heat or the mosquitos. Isn’t even missing family back in the States. It is the knowing. Knowing about scams like these. Knowing whose stories are honest and whose are fake. Knowing which pastors preach on Sunday but practice Voodoo during the week. Knowing which organizations are run by corrupt leaders. Knowing that the money you sent to pay that kid’s school tuition went to purchasing a smart phone instead.

And I have always struggled with how to handle this knowing. I am not the favorite among many Haitians because I have been known to tell their foreign donors the truth. I often feel like I walk a fine line: tell the Americans or save myself from another local enemy. If the opportunity presents itself I always choose the prior. That choice of mine has come with the price of losing many local friends.

I don’t want to sound discouraging. After all, for every corrupt person in Haiti you can give to, there is someone honest and sincere. For every dishonest organization here, there is a good and truthful one. As someone who is on the ground, I want to help guide you to the later.

Which is why I will be posting my list of suggestions tomorrow. How does one navigate financial giving in foreign countries? How do you determine who and who not to give to? What questions should you ask? What signs should you look for? What are the qualities of a trustworthy organization?

I hope you check back in tomorrow. My suggestions will not be a one-size-fits-all. But my hope is that my experiences can help you as you seek to help others in Haiti and around the world. If you have specific questions you would like me to address, please comment below.

See you tomorrow.

– Jillian

3 Comments on “How do you know who to give to (& not)? Part 1

  1. These are age old issues & go to the heart of NGO’s, “Pastors” & “Orphanages. Who at the end of the day can you trust?! Our answer initially is you can’t & shouldn’t trust anyone. You should take the time & expell a bit of energy to really find out what’s going on. Take a trip, spend some time volunteering & getting to know the issues and people.
    Our model is to be invited into a community and work from the inside out through volunteering offering ourselves as agents of change. No money! Then as relationships are built, projects & programs are established we work with leaders to implement and manage the projects. Is it perfect and flawless no not at all. Do people try to take advantage? Yes of course. The difference is the leaders are held accountable & generally lose the entire communities trust and leadership role. The same happens here in the US. I encourage people to get personally invilved & don’t get discouraged as the work is worth the challenge.


    • This is such good advice and I whole-heartedly agree. This is issue is nothing new under the sun. But until we stop the cycle of blindly giving without requiring accountability it will just continue on. I hope to address this well tomorrow. Thanks for giving me head start 🙂


  2. This is a tough issue. I recently saw a report on an incredibly high percentage of kids in Haitian orphanages – Who really have parents in country. Almost the same thing.
    I’ve limited my financial giving to kids education. Where I actually go to the school and pay the tuition, and get grade reports through the year. I do pay a couple of annual rents for widows with kids as well. I know these are valid as I send the rent to the landlord.
    It is way too easy to get scammed in many places, unfortunately, some Haitians have mastered it.
    Great articles!


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