Patt Morrison Asks

Richard M. Walden, Operation USA's charity buccaneer

Disaster relief seems to be a growth industry.

You have people who [see] opportunities to raise money, whether they know how to do the particular work or not. The public is motivated, the media helpful, and these guys don't want to miss out.

We don't have a large staff, under 10. We don't take government money because the U.S. embargoes so many countries.

Doesn't using social media make fundraising easy?

Any fool with larceny in his heart and a clever Web designer can raise a lot of money if they have some sense about what's getting to people about a particular disaster. Noah's Wish got millions [for animal rescue] for [Hurricane] Katrina. The attorney general of California made [it turn over] $4 million of it [to government agencies to deliver that animal assistance]. Social media and new media, they could be run by a saint or by a sinner, and the sinners are in the lead right now.

So people don't check out charities the way they might check out a car they're buying, or even a food label?

No, they don't. Charity Navigator or GuideStar — very few people look.

I've heard that sometimes so many groups show up in crisis areas that they interfere with relief.

So much [ineffective] money is thrown at something — billions for Haiti and the Asian tsunami. It doesn't mean new groups shouldn't get involved. There's really smart people who made their money and they're in their 30s and 40s and ready to do humanitarian work.

What about donation fatigue?

There's an earthquake in India. A guy calls up and says: "My wife saw this story; if I gave you $25,000, what would you do?" I say I'd find an Indian partner and build a small clinic. But then the story goes away. [It's difficult] sustaining it without what Bill Maher calls "disaster porn."

How do you address donors concerns that corruption or anti-American sentiment means their help doesn't get to the people in need?

We make sure our partner is powerful enough to get into the [disaster area] and get the stuff, unmolested by tax and duty and bribes, to the warehouse or hospital. We don't send food; food is the easiest thing to steal. If you're sending an X-ray machine or an incubator, it's pretty tough to divert.

In Sri Lanka, where we've worked for 25 years off and on, they don't like American groups [now] because [Secretary of State] Hillary [Rodham Clinton] complained about the military to the [U.N.] Human Rights Commission. We need to be on the down-low and find partner groups there.

Do you ever have to pay bribes to get goods and people where they need to be?

Usually we don't pay bribes of any kind. The only quasi-bribe I've ever paid was a new issue of Playboy. I will sometimes take two or three, folded over to the articles, and if I get stopped at a roadblock or by some airport official, I'll say, "I have something for you that's banned in 150 countries." Their eyes light up, and it's "OK, go!"

As I recall, your wife, the actress and comedian Rosanne Katon, was a Playboy centerfold …

I don't give away her issue!

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at