Photo by Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

October 25, 2017; The Atlantic

This year, a series of hurricanes struck US cites and Caribbean islands, causing billions of dollars in damage that will take years, if not decades, to fix. Thousands of people are without homes, electricity, and other essentials.

As they often do, donations poured in from around the country: clothes, food, water, and even building supplies have come in to beleaguered cities. It’s reassuring to see that national rancor has not eradicated the impulse to help those in need. However, while the urge to give is admirable and some of the donations are no doubt helpful, the truth is that donated “stuff” is often more work than it is relief, when what’s primarily needed is cash.

A USAID advisory explained:

Unsolicited donations can hinder relief efforts by diverting relief workers’ attention, clogging up already limited work space and requiring equipment and time to manage. In stark contrast, even small financial donations can make a huge difference because of charitable organizations’ bulk purchasing power. For example, relief organizations can provide safe drinking water to more than 32,000 people for one day for the same cost of shipping one 6-pack of bottled water to a disaster site.

Cash lets people pay for what they really need, such as medical attention, car repair, cell phones, or home repair. (That is, assuming that there are places to get the products or services.) It also helps get the local economy moving again, or as the Atlantic puts it, “boosting the local economy and piggybacking on the logistics already bought and paid for by the Walmarts and Home Depots and Targets of the world…The idea is that money is more flexible and low-overhead than goods are, easier for organizations to handle, and more valuable to afflicted individuals.”

To those in the disaster relief world, and indeed in other parts of the sector, this problem is anything but new; they’re used to seeing piles of clothes rotting in warehouses after, for example, people shipped high heels and parkas to Haiti after the quake. Food banks face this problem all the time—Deb Martinson’s tips on food bank donation include the memorable “don’t give stupid things.” After Harvey, local towns restored their water supply relatively quickly, but donated bottles of water continued to arrive. “It gets pretty depressing taking bottles of water and pouring them out into buckets to wash the church down with,” said Tony Wilcoxson, a Texan pastor.

How can nonprofits do better at getting what is needed to the people in need? To some degree, it’s a problem of messaging. This can be a difficult line to toe, as one Vancouver food bank discovered; after all, the last thing we want is to discourage donors from giving. But if you’re a relief organization working in a disaster-struck area, maybe it’s time to tell your donors explicitly, “Your boxes of clothes are well-meant, but we’d rather have the $15 you spent to ship the box.” With all the ads going out begging for donations, could some of them inform well-meaning citizens about what’s actually helpful?

This might help address the emotional aspect of the problem: People like to give stuff. “People still prefer to give material donations, because that’s in their comfort zone,” Juanita Rilling, the executive director of the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), told NPQ in 2013. CNN quotes former aid worker Saundra Schimmelpfennig, “Sending donated goods…is an appealing idea because it makes you feel like you’re really helping while at the same time recycling things that are no longer of any use to you.” To get cash donations, nonprofits need to make donating cash feel like the right thing to do and help it provoke the same emotional satisfaction as handing over a tangible object. Providing clear messaging about what’s needed and why may help donors connect their cash to tangible, satisfying outcomes.

There’s also an issue of trust; when the New York Times questions the Red Cross’s spending habits not a week after Hurricane Harvey, donors might be inclined to give less fungible things. Local organizations might be more trusted (and trustworthy), but coordinating their work and helping them reach a wider donating public is a huge job even for groups that haven’t lost their offices to a flood or a fire.

In the coming months, Texas, Puerto Rico, and other places will need to rebuild entire communities, and it’s increasingly clear that FEMA isn’t going to provide all the help they need. (Puerto Rico, in particular, may be relying on some grassroots and rather revolutionary efforts.) Getting strong messages out about what is and isn’t needed will be important, and donors who mean well can be redirected through a coordinated effort to be more explicit about what a particular situation needs—which, in many cases, is a combination of cash and the expert coordination and deployment of resources.—Erin Rubin