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Do's & Don'ts of Donating to Disaster Relief

From time to time we see images that grip our hearts:  Children climbing over rubble. The family standing in the street staring at what little remains of their home. The mother weeping over her injured child. We want to help. We need to help. But how?

Not everyone has the skills or availability to be on the front lines.  But we can still have a big impact from a distance. The question is whether our “impact” will be positive or negative.

Sometimes the actions taken by good-hearted, well-intentioned people to help disaster survivors actually hinder relief efforts rather than help.  Here’s how to make sure you make the right kind of difference:

Let’s start with the Don’ts:

  • Don’t donate goods or supplies unless they have been specifically requested by an organization with first-hand knowledge of the current needs. No matter how good a deal you got on those camping supplies at Walmart, unless an organization has the means to transport, get them through customs, and distribute them to those in need, your good deal won’t help anyone. Even if they can get there, you don’t know whether they already have an excess of what you’ve provided. Many times unsolicited supplies are inappropriate for the culture, climate, or other environmental constraints at the disaster site. Worse than that, valuable manpower gets consumed having to process and dispose of unneeded goods.  This is a big problem commonly referred to as the “disaster within the disaster”.  Donating used clothing, for example, requires labor to either clean, sort, hang and fold for distribution, or haul to a landfill for disposal.

Even for local disasters, delivering cookies or meals to a disaster site may be an act of kindness, but most agencies won’t risk serving food from unknown sources.

  • Don’t give money to any individual or organization unless you can validate them through a reputable third-party. Are they who they say they are and are they doing what they say they are doing?  Scams spring up quickly following every disaster. Don’t be conned!

Here are the Do’s:

  • Do donate money through reputable organizations. If you’re concerned money might be misdirected or not used well, choose an organization you trust more.  Money may seem impersonal, but when handled by a trustworthy organization, one dollar of cash does more good than one dollar of merchandise for several reasons:
  • Transportation and manpower to get money on-site is much faster and cheaper.
  • If you donate goods, someone still has to donate the money to get your goods delivered.
  • As needs change throughout the recovery, money can flex to meet the current needs
  • Money can be spent at or near the disaster site, providing a much needed boost to the local economy
  • Money can provide gift cards to survivors so they can meet their own needs. Helping survivors regain a sense of personal control is an essential part of the recovery process.
  • Do donate goods and supplies only when specifically requested by organizations with the resources to use them effectively.

So . . . rather than donate clothing or goods from your closet, consider holding a garage or yard sale and donate the funds raised to the nonprofit of your choice.  Of course, we hope you choose to support DRA’s work in local disasters!