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The Donation Dilemma and the Generous American Public

Americans often spring into action after a disaster, sending food, clothing and all manner of items thinking it will help. But often, those items aren’t what’s needed, and experts caution the public about what to donate.

by Jim McKay / September 12, 2019

When disaster strikes, America comes to the rescue. Whether it’s a local house fire, a flood, fire or hurricane like Dorian, Americans want to help, and they often do so by sending donations — food, clothing, whatever they have.

But oftentimes, that immediate desire to help creates a situation where those on the ground are tasked with dealing with lots of goods that, unfortunately, can’t be used. For example, as those in the ground in the Bahamas struggle with recovery efforts after Hurricane Dorian, Americans want to help by sending goods. But what’s needed there now is cash, and that’s most often the case, even in local disasters and even in smaller ones, such as a house fire.

Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate recently offered advice for Americans who want to help those in the Bahamas affected by Hurricane Dorian — send cash. For one thing, we’re not certain what certain victims require, and what we think may help may miss the mark entirely. Sending cash will enable someone on the ground there to invest it in what’s really needed.

“People generally care and want to help and that’s a great sign,” said Anthony Tornetta, an American Red Cross spokesperson. “The best way for people to help is not by sending material items; it’s by sending cash. It doesn’t involve any transportation costs, and if you send clothes, they have to be cleaned, packed and shipped.”

And once the clothes, food or other unsolicited supplies land in the disaster area, there must be a coordinated effort to go through all of those items and see that they get distributed properly. But again, if it’s clothing, it’s difficult to find the right sizes and if it’s food, that’s often spoiled before it can be given out. Also, oftentimes in the disaster area, the infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, and getting those kinds of supplies to where they need to go may be difficult or impossible.

Sending money allows those on the ground to use that money to get exactly what’s needed with local companies and get better deals on clothing and other goods, making the dollar go further. “Let’s say there’s a $10 shirt. The local nonprofit might be able to find a way to get it for $2, so donating $10 to the local nonprofit might get you five shirts instead of one,” said Rick Cohen, chief operating officer for the National Council of Nonprofits.

This is an ongoing problem and part of it is that people are wary of sending cash and another is they that they often don’t get the message that emptying their closets of the 10 old sweatshirts collecting dust and send them to someone in need is nice but not necessarily practical.

Nonprofits are often on the ground helping in disaster recovery and know the needs of those who’ve been victimized. Those who want to donate can try to contact the nonprofits directly or can contact local government agencies, like the local emergency management agency, that commonly partner with these groups.

“It would be great if there were a PR campaign about just what to do in the aftermath of a disaster, we seem to be having so many of them, whether they’re natural or man-made,” Cohen said. He suggested those interested in donating do some research into where they can send cash.

“A donation to a nonprofit is like making an investment,” he said. “It’s your hard-earned dollars and you want it to go to something good; you want it to go to the right group to invest these dollars to make sure they can help those affected in the communities. Do your due diligence.”

He said when investigating whether a certain nonprofit can best allocate cash donations, it’s common practice to look at the “overhead ratio,” or what percentage of expenses the organization is spending on overhead or administrative costs. But be sure to understand that things like investing in a new roof for a homeless shelter or a new van to transport people to and from chemotherapy count as overhead or administrative costs.

“It’s an educational process,” Tornetta said. “The unfortunate reality is we are responding to more disasters more frequently, big and small. What many people don’t see is that we respond to 62,000 to 64,000 disasters a year, most of which are home fires, people who have been put out of their homes by a fire.”

Tornetta said that family may need have lost everything and the community wants to help. “In reality, they’re going to need cash for their needs, whether it’s shoes, eyewear or food. The cash we put in their hands provides a bit of normalcy.”


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