Using Hollywood to teach people about disaster giving

Mike Rea latched onto the release of a Hollywood film on the 2004 tsunamis in Asia to help spread his message about how to effectively support charities engaged in disaster relief.

Jose Haro/AP/Summit Entertainment
Tom Holland, left, and Naomi Watts in a scene from 'The Impossible.' In January Watts was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress for her role in the film. Mike Rea, founder of Give2Asia, has tied his efforts to provide effective aid to tsunami victims to the release of the film.

Mike Rea, founder of Give2Asia, calls the 2004 Asian tsunamis the “first global disaster of our time.”

Now an employee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr. Rea wanted to use the disaster’s 10th anniversary to investigate what had become of the millions of dollars his group contributed, and the many people it aspired to help.

Then he learned that Hollywood was producing its own retrospective (of sorts) on the tsunamis. Even better, he thought, for educating people about a once-devastated land and ways to respond effectively in the wake of natural emergencies.

So Mr. Rea fast-tracked his plans for his “Tsunami Plus 10″ Project to coincide with last month’s release of The Impossible, a film starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.

Mr. Rea traveled to Sri Lanka in August where he filmed a “mini-documentary” called “To Sandy From Sri Lanka: Lessons in Diversified Disaster Giving.”  He reached out to the producers of The Impossible, who invited him to the premiere of the film and enabled him to interview its director, Juan Antonio Bayona. Mr. Rea also released a “viewer’s guide” to the movie; so far, it’s received at least 12,000 views. (The project is a personal one, not part of Mr. Rea’s work with Gates).

One of his hopes is to give people a richer understanding of the tsunamis than they can get through The Impossible. The film focuses on a white family of tourists whose visit to Thailand is disrupted by the disaster.

“Every single Thai character is at the service of foreign tourists,” says Mr. Rea. “You have no sense that their own lives have been turned upside down. It’s a missed opportunity.”

His other goal is to help inform disaster philanthropy. Mr. Rea’s takeaways, in broad strokes, are relatively simple:

• Make gifts not only to the Oxfams of the world but also to community groups. (Or, in the case of New York’s Superstorm Sandy, “Give to Occupy Sandy and community foundations as well as the Red Cross,” he says.)

• Give “when emotions are high,” he suggests, but also later — six months or a year after the disaster, when it becomes clearer which nonprofits are doing an effective job and still need cash.

• Write checks; don’t send used clothes.

Mr. Rea’s trip to Sri Lanka was mostly encouraging. A vocational-training center to which Give2Asia sent $500,000 had expanded its programs and served as a “safe haven” during the country’s civil war, says Mr. Rea. A $50,000 grant paid for 100 people to be trained in culinary skills. He learned that many of the program’s graduates were thriving in businesses overseas.

With hindsight, Mr. Rea says he wished he’d done more to help women who participated in the program but chose not to leave their homes and families for work.

Still, he says, the experience taught him that giving to local groups often pays off over the long term. ”It’s a big investment that’s been sustained after the crash of post-tsunami philanthropic aid died,” he said.

Mr. Rea is plotting next steps for “Tsunami Plus 10″— he has two more years, after all, until the storm’s anniversary — and he plans additional trips to the region.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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