Five years after quake, Haiti Fund plans for transition

Pierre NoelPierre Noel

A Boston-based philanthropic effort that was launched in the immediate aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti will transition into a new institute over the next two years, according to leaders with the Boston Foundation, which hosts the initiative. The Haiti Fund, which has distributed more than $2.1 million in grants— most of them to existing, Haitian-led organizations in rural Haiti— will be phased out over the next two years as its board pivots into a new, permanent organization that will be called the Haiti Development Institute.

“We are looking to give Haiti an independent institute that will serve local communities throughout the country while also supporting in long run the public sector by pushing issues and hopefully changing public policies,” explained Pierre Noel, who is the executive director of the Haiti Fund at the Boston Foundation. Noel, who will serve as grand marshal of this weekend’s Haitian Unity Parade in Mattapan and Dorchester, will relocate to Haiti next year to finalize the establishment of the institute.

“We are giving ourselves two years to put this [institute] together, but we are building on what we have done the last five years in providing our support, especially in rural Haiti and in working with grassroots local leaders,” said Noel. “There is a huge need to help build the capacity of the organizations themselves. We are going to build off of that and the forum that we created for Haiti funders.”

More than 40 percent—or roughly $832,000— of the 134 grants issued by the Haiti Fund since 2010 have gone to rural development projects, according to an overview provided to the Reporter. About $112,000— or five percent of the fund’s portfolio— was distributed to local agencies here in Boston that focus on the Haitian community.

The Haiti Fund was created with a foundational donation of $1 million from Karen and Jim Ansara, a Boston couple who have a long history of philanthropic giving and an affinity for Haiti and its people. The Ansaras, who lived in Dorchester for years after their 1983 marriage, have played a key role in building Haiti’s first-ever teaching hospital in Mirebalais, which is run as a public-private partnership between Partners in Health, Zanmi Lasante and the government of Haiti. Jim Ansara supervised the hospital’s construction.

From the start, the Haiti Fund was informed by the Ansaras own principles on giving, starting with a concept that sustainable change in places like Haiti must begin with a “bottom-up” approach that emphasizes homegrown initiatives. The Ansaras and their partners at the Haiti Foundation built a board of advisors led by former Dorchester state Rep. Marie St. Fleur that was heavy with prominent Haitian-American leaders. (Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, the author’s wife, has served on the board since its creation.)

Critically, the fund was deliberately set up with a firm sunset provision. It would raise funds, find worthy projects to support — mostly in Haiti— and seek to end its work within five years. The fund, as it explained in a recent report of its history, hoped to avoid a troubling trend in charitable activity in Haiti— that is, becoming part of an “opportunistic growth industry.”

The fund also sought to be nimble enough to respond to the changing needs of its client base. In one instance, a community-based project in the northeast of Haiti sought a $10,000 grant from the Haiti Fund to fund a grain mill. But, mid-way through the application process, the applicant changed direction, hoping to instead use the money to buy the equipment to expand a rice mill and distribution plant.

“We realized that it could be transformative,” said Noel. “Today, they have contracts to produce and commercialize 3,000 tons of rice and they’ll soon be able to commercialize even more,” said Noel. “That initial grant is what sparked them and right now they are producing all the rice that serves school meals in two departments.”

Noel, 40, was born in Haiti, but came to Boston as a teenager, attending West Roxbury High School before going on to Boston University. He would eventually earn a law degree from the University of the District of Columbia School of Law. Noel decided to move back to Haiti in 2008, but was inspired to return to Boston to run the Haiti Fund in 2011. The fund had already been set up and he was impressed by the mission and values of the board.

“The best thing that we got from Karen was the fact that they chose to have an advisory committee serving as a board with mainly Haitians and Haitian-Americans that gave us leadership in terms of how we make our grant making and how we make sure we have a cultural competency,” said Noel. “Removing language as a barrier, getting to people and serving the needs of the people already on the ground.”

That sense of focus on the agricultural heartland of Haiti will migrate with Noel and his team to the next phase of the fund’s work. The institute, he says, will deliberately not be located in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

“When I came back to lead the Haiti fund, that was a decision that spurred my interest. Having lived there, I knew that the beating heart of Haiti is its mountains. Without special investment in those rural communities, it just won’t work,” said Noel.

As direct work on the Haiti Fund winds down over the next two years, Noel’s expertise is also being sought out to advise on a newly created fund within the Boston Foundation aimed at assisting the earthquake victims of Nepal. Once again, the Ansaras, already grantmakers to Nepal efforts through their family fund, will seed the new fund up with a $100,000 matching donation.

“The Nepal Fund at the Boston Foundation is in the works and the lessons that we’ve learned about sustaining the Haiti fund beyond the immediate response is what we think will be important to replicate,” said Noel.

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