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Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Sat Oct 14, 2017 10:58 pm
by Saria Dragon of the Rain Wilds ... 18bc394131
Giving food and sending used clothes feels good, but it’s usually the last thing people or charities need in times of crisis
72 hours ago, the worst wildfire in California history sparked in my backyard, in Sonoma, Napa, and many surrounding areas. Thousands of people have been evacuated and many have lost their homes already, and the fire still rages on un-contained today. My family owns 3 homes in a mandatory evacuation area that are pretty likely going to burn down, if they haven’t already.

Yesterday, to try to turn my worry into a positive act, I signed up to work at an evacuation shelter in Petaluma, in the capacity of Spanish interpreter and seasoned disaster relief volunteer. I spent a fulfilling day… boxing up literally thousands of surplus donations of deodorant and toothpaste. There are dozens of evacuation shelters in Sonoma County involved in this relief effort, and the one I was working at received a nonstop stream of in-kind donations throughout the day. Around noon, I suggested to the organizers that they might want to start turning away donations. “Did you know we’ve received at least 2,000 sticks of deodorant?” I asked.

They finally closed the door to donations around 3 PM, around the time an avalanche of used blankets and sleeping bags buried me and 2 other volunteers. By the time I left at 4 PM, I had boxed up a surplus of around 5,000 toothbrushes and 3,000 sticks of deodorant. This was at a shelter with around 100 evacuees! When I drove to a couple of other nearby shelters to ask if they needed any of our surplus, they pointed to the mountains of donations they had received and laughed. “We stopped accepting donations a long time ago. You should see how much hand sanitizer we got!” I could relate — I had just finished boxing up hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer myself.

I started doing some simple math. 3,000 deodorants times $3 each was $9000! What if each family at the shelter had instead received $500 instead of being offered more toiletries? What were we going to do with all that deodorant? Would those boxes of deodorant and toothbrushes ever be opened, used, or redistributed, or would they just sit there to be tossed in the trash in a few years?

I have seen this in every disaster I’ve worked; sites languish for needed funds while they are literally drowning in unsolicited donations of goods. They can’t find volunteers to organize the stuff, nor space to store it. They can’t eat all of the donated food and have to leave it to rot. What an incredible waste.

Do I sound angry and frustrated? I am, for good reason. Imagine you have lost your home and everything in it, and what you get as a community is… 50,000 sticks of men’s deodorant?

What about food? Don’t charities need to feed folks after a natural disaster? Or during the holiday season? Heed the words of Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust: “Baby food may be critically needed, nutritional shakes for seniors may be in short supply, but they [organizations] likely have shelves of boxed stuffing and canned corn.” The food items you donate may be culturally inappropriate for swaths of recipients who don’t eat stuffing or canned corn, or nutritionally inappropriate for people with dietary restrictions, protein needs, or common health problems like diabetes or hypertension. And dropped-off food takes up extra resources because it has to be shipped, sorted, organized, stored, and distributed by staff or volunteers.

Giving money to charities, churches, or individuals so they can buy their own food allows them to choose when to buy the right foods at the right times and meet their nutritional and fulfillment needs without creating waste or surplus. It also lets them buy fresh and perishable foods that are more nutritious, like fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish. Katherine Rosqueta from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania notes that as much as half of donated food goes uneaten, because of nutritional, cultural, or preferential mismatch. It’s hard going grocery shopping for an unknown stranger!

Giving money instead of food is also much more cost-efficient. In fact, food banks and other charities can often buy food that’s 20 times cheaper than what you or I pay at the store. So giving cash — even $5 — would be money far more effectively spent than buying 2 jars of peanut butter and dropping it off somewhere.

International food aid is even more cost-inefficient. According to Diana Rothe-Smith, an expert in coordinating aid for international disasters, “if you buy a can of peas and it costs 59 cents, it’ll cost about $80 to get it where it needs to go.” Let that sink in for a moment.

What about gifts for impoverished kids at Christmas time? Instead of buying gifts, give cash or gift cards so parents can pick out the toys their kids actually want. Would your child be happy with a soccer ball in their stocking when they wanted a specific Lego set instead? Of course not. Poverty doesn’t make you less picky, nor should there be the expectation that people who can’t afford things should be grateful for anything you’re offering.
And that gets me to my next point: giving goods instead of cash isn’t just an inefficient use of resources. (Which it clearly is: after the Sandy Hook massacre, kind-hearted folks sent the community 65,000 teddy bears. At $15 a pop, that’s a million dollars that could have been spent on grief counseling, funerals, or about 100 other more useful things.) It isn’t just a burden on underpaid charity staff or volunteers. (Which it clearly is: volunteers and staff have to spend key time sorting and organizing donated goods instead of participating in actual relief efforts.) It doesn’t just create surplus and waste. (Which it clearly does, since as much as 50% of donated food and countless used goods are thrown away.) It’s also paternalistic as hell! Why would you or I think we know better what other people need or want? Do you want someone else picking out your underwear, or toothpaste flavor, or the snacks you eat? Or guessing what things you would prioritize buying in the first place?

The Center for International Disaster Information implores you to consider that a cash donation is not only the most efficient and effective way to maximize your donation’s impact, but also that it does more to stimulate local economies (which may be suffering,) and decreases the environmental impacts associated with transporting goods. As a story in the documentary Poverty, Inc. points out, giving goods can compete with local businesses and create a long-term negative impact. Further research from the Red Cross/Red Crescent found that in-kind donations “cause congestion, tie up resources, and further hurt local economies when dumped on the market.”

Giving used goods is even worse. Yesterday, I found myself sorting through moldy pillows, stained clothing, and Ziploc bags filled with random assortments of loose tampons and Q-tips. Following the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, well-meaning folks sent several shipping containers full of things like expired medicines, used teabags, old ski jackets, and discarded evening gowns. This influx of useless items diverted already overstressed personnel from life-saving and relief efforts and tied up trucks and facilities that could have been better used. Piles of used, donated clothing littered Indonesia’s beautiful beaches before they rotted and were eventually set on fire.

A version of this story can be found over and over, disaster after disaster, national, international, rural, or urban. A study from Rensselaer Polytechnic University found that “the materials and supplies converging at the disaster site include a large proportion of inappropriate or useless goods that create havoc in the disaster response… a significant portion of the material convergence brings no benefits to the disaster victims, and may even pose risks (e.g., expired medicines). Moreover, the arrival en masse of supplies that have a market value depresses local markets, negatively impacting local production at a time when reigniting economic activity is essential.”

Knowing all of this and continuing to give goods is ultimately one of the most selfish acts you can make. Giving goods makes the giver feel better, more righteous, and more connected to the cause. But shouldn’t charitable giving ultimately be about what the recipient needs?

So please: just give money. People who are poor, or suffering, or who have endured a disaster, do not need or want your goods. They need and want your money.

Hopefully by now, I have convinced you to give money. But if you MUST give goods, please follow these thoughtful giving guidelines:
Give only items that have been specifically requested. Ask a shelter or school what they specifically need. Check a food bank’s website to see what in-kind donations they are looking for.
For disaster victims, give new and unopened things only. (If you have used items to donate, save them for a trip to Salvation Army, Good Will, or another charity that accepts used items throughout the year.)
Be aware that disaster relief efforts are quickly changing and information does not update quickly.
Give money.

UPDATE: many people have asked me WHERE to donate their money to help victims of this disaster. Here are some local, on-the-ground funds that will go directly to victims when it’s time to rebuild:
North Bay Fire Relief Fund of the Redwood Credit Union
Resilience Fund of the Sonoma County Community Foundation
Disaster Relief Fund of the Napa Valley Community Foundation
Sonoma County Fire Relief from the Redwood Empire Food Bank
California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance Fund for Undocumented Fire Victims

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Sun Oct 15, 2017 4:37 am
by Validecember
Thanks for posting this. This is really good to know.

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Sun Oct 15, 2017 7:35 am
by New! Tazy Ten
That sounds like a problem with the donation drives more than people. Ask for food and you'll get food. Ask for money and you'll get money. Don't ask for anything and you'll get random s**t, usually cheap s**t. You won't get any if you don't ask for it. And don't steal it for yourself either.

Also, why are people taking deodorant sticks and sleeping bags to California? They're not an impoverished nation, they're California. Food's one thing, but I'm sure most American citizens can get toothpaste if they really need it. Puerto Rico and California are different places where one is an island that is harder to get supplies over to. Just saying, why accept any of this at all? It seems like a no-brainer.

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Sun Oct 15, 2017 9:34 am
by Christmas PDN
^A lot of people have been displaced because of the wildfires there recently.

Good share, SD. If I had anything to offer I'd try and help out myself, but at least I know for future reference not to donate random goods.

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Sun Oct 15, 2017 10:54 am
by Cravdraa
It really depends on the disaster and the people handling it.
I read a story not long ago about a smaller community down in Texas shortly after the flooding that actually ran the Red Cross out of town because they were actively making things worse.
Throwing out used clothing even though there were people in the shelters without clothes (or only clothes contaminated by the flood waters.) Throwing out prepared food donations made by local restaurants even though there was a shortage of food. Giving people small amounts of money to buy amenities when the nearest open store was miles away and most of them had no means of transportation. They were saying they were only accepting money donations. So the people literally ran them out and took over their own disaster relief.
Money is only a useful donation if actually gets to the people who need it and that's still only if the actual supplies to be bought with it are making it to the area and being distributed.

A more useful strategy is to try and find out what they need.
The links with that article are a good example: you'll notice that they're all from local agencies which is a very good start. Local relief efforts are the most likely to be able to tell you what they actually need and they're also more likely to actually get the money and supplies to the people who need it. If you want to help, call them and ask them if they need anything specifically or if money is more useful.

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Sun Oct 15, 2017 12:07 pm
by New! Tazy Ten
Random User wrote:
Sun Oct 15, 2017 9:34 am
^A lot of people have been displaced because of the wildfires there recently.
I know this?

California is not an island is what I'm saying. If things are really dire there's five states that can supply aid compared to an island that at the least has to wait several hours or much of anything.

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Tue Dec 26, 2017 3:14 pm
They sure found a real dick to convey the message. And "culturally inappropriate" food? Is that a joke?

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Tue Dec 26, 2017 8:29 pm
by New! Tazy Ten
Medium is a site that's made for article writing and has the person's real name on it. So it's probably not a joke.

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Tue Dec 26, 2017 10:20 pm
by Cravdraa
Given, they used a really strange example "stuffing and canned corn?" but I think they're just trying to say that if you're going to donate food, maybe don't donate something than nobody in that particular country has ever eaten in their entire lives. Cause nobody is gonna wanna eat it if they have any choice, and chances are they're not going to know how to prepare it properly either.

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Wed Dec 27, 2017 12:15 am
I've just never heard of such a notion. I mean it goes without saying you don't donate really oddball stuff but I don't think it would kill an Asian to eat a tamale.

Good main message though, donate what's needed and not what isn't. It would probably help if the organizations taking donations were specific in what they need though, and it can't just be money. Even that CEO in the article specified baby food and nutritional drinks so that's a start. If they take anything and everything then it kinda seems like their own fault, though why anyone would donate moldy pillows I don't know.

Re: Stop Donating Goods to Disaster Victims. What They Need Is Money.

Posted: Fri Dec 29, 2017 2:01 pm
by Booyakasha
^Charitable donations are tax-deductible. Donating worthless crap is thus profitable, neverminding you'd have to be King Sleazebag of Sh*tville to actually take that angle and work it. Not to say that's necessarily what's going on here, of course. Hopefully people are just being ignorant and sh*tty, instead of evil and sh*tty (though the actual difference is academic).