Disaster Donations - Get the facts before you donate! Print E-mail

Introduction
The sad fact is, disasters are inevitable. Somewhere, in some capacity, there is going to be a disaster that requires a community to reach out for assistance. How that assistance arrives and is provided to the victims, is a constant challenge.

As Americans, we are some of the most generous people in the world. We want to help communities and citizens recover after a disaster. Unfortunately, unsolicited donations or spontaneous volunteers arriving on scene, may inadvertently make the situation worse by creating a “disaster within a disaster.”

This article is designed to answer basic questions on disaster donations management and the steps that can be taken to ensure donations are meaningful to the victims and not an added burden on the relief operations.  Click on the Links below to learn more about Disaster Donations...

The disaster within a disaster is created when an event or action intended to help a disaster situation actually adds to the problem. In the case of donations, the sequence of events starts with well meaning individuals and/or groups, who rally their communities and collect donations that they feel would benefit the victims. Unfortunately since the majority of these efforts take place without verification of the actual need, truckloads of unannounced and most often needless items, start arriving at the disaster site.

Disaster workers which are already working under difficult conditions are now faced with an even more monumental task of sorting through the newly arriving donations to determine if they are needed items, and more importantly if they are safe.

In large scale disasters or even smaller ones that receive considerable press coverage, donations can begin pouring in from everywhere inundating the disaster management system. The volume of donations can easily, and in most cases does, overwhelm the system while at the same time not meeting the actual need of the victims.

To compound the situation, disaster managers and even community leaders within the stricken community are placed in a difficult position of eliminating the volume of unused or un-needed items in a way that does not give the appearance of being ungrateful. This, as many communities stricken by disasters have discovered, can lead to a public relations nightmare.

Remember, unsolicited donated goods must be collected, sorted, checked for safety, labeled, packed, transported, unloaded, resorted, relabeled and redistributed. This takes volunteers away from working with victims one-on-one.

Donations can cover a wide range of items including, but not limited to: money, food, clothing, blood, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and a host of other materials, equipment, and supplies.

In order for a donation to be useful it needs to reflect the need of the victims. Fewer and fewer cases of tangible donations are considered acceptable in a disaster.  Donations are viewed by emergency planners and groups involved in donations management as “solicited” and “unsolicited”.

Solicited donations are generally those items or services that organizations directly involved with the disaster have requested to aid in the response to stricken community. But, even solicited donations can present problems. Verify who is making the solicitation. Just as unsolicited donations are made by well meaning persons so can solicitations. A person or persons presenting themselves as a representative of the stricken community often makes a solicitation, but does so without working within the emergency management structure, which can create just as great of a problem as those typically seen with unsolicited donations.

Unsolicited donated goods or volunteers can cause more problems than they solve in a disaster. Unsolicited donations create logistical nightmares in both the warehousing and distribution of items. Donations management is similar in concept to any normal warehousing process. A well functioning warehouse expects goods to arrive packaged in appropriate containers with clear labeling as to content. This maintains structure and allows for smooth operation during the sorting and distribution processes.

The reality is that very few unsolicited donations are collected with the warehousing and distribution aspect in mind, let alone the actual need of the victims. The result is usually a truck load of unknown items with unknown value to the victims which must then go through a time and personnel consuming sorting process once it reaches the disaster site, which in the end delays the help that victims could otherwise be getting.

In most instances, a financial contribution is the most effective donation to aid disaster stricken communities. Financial contributions allow professional relief organizations to purchase exactly what disaster victims need most urgently, and to pay for the transportation necessary to distribute those supplies. By purchasing exactly what is needed, relief agencies can avoid the oversupply of what is not needed and the purchase of those urgently needed commodities which might be in short supply. Unlike in-kind donations, cash donations entail no transportation cost. In addition, cash donations allow relief supplies to be purchased at locations as near to the disaster site as possible. This approach has the triple advantage of stimulating local economies (providing employment, generating cash flow), ensuring that supplies arrive as quickly as possible and reducing transport and storage costs. Cash contributions also allow for the purchase of food, clothing, and other items that are culturally appropriate. Cash contributions to established legitimate relief agencies are always considerably more beneficial than the donation of commodities.

In many cases donations are tax deductible. Check with the agency to which you make your donation. For more information that details tax-exempt, tax-deductible and other issues related to donations and charitable organizations, please visit the Give.org website.

Donations can be made a various points following a disaster. Knowing what to do and when to do it is just a matter of making an inquiry to the appropriate disaster organizations.

The definition of an acceptable donation can change from one disaster to another, and even within a disaster. Information on what is needed is typically disseminated through your local media. However, this doesn’t mean that all information being disseminated is representative of the need within the disaster area. Many well intended groups and individuals wishing to help will contact the media and ask to have their efforts broadcast. These groups may or may not be linked into the disaster management structure. If they are not, their request for donations could inadvertently start the process which attributes to the disaster within the disaster.