Doing the most good with hurricane giving

My newsfeed has been filled with pictures of babies being carried to safety through the floodwaters left by Hurricane Harvey. I have two responses: “Thank goodness,” and “How can I support those babies and their families through their long journey home?”

Before Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, the National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN) was mobilizing to send shipments of diapers and other baby essentials to member diaper banks throughout the area as well as other organizations that will shelter families displaced by the storm. Newborns need about 10 changes a day. No parents could pack enough to wait this out. Shelters will run out quickly. And none of that takes into account the months (or years) that people may be away from home and without income.

As I write this, one of my colleagues is on the phone with the Houston mayor’s office as others answer phones lighting up with people asking: “What can I do?”

The answer is simple. Give – to NDBN or one of the many other great organizations providing relief in the wake of this massive hurricane. But I’m going to expand on that simple answer, with three points that those of us in non-profits are often too timid to share.

1. Give money, not things. Shipping is expensive – often equal to the cost of the thing being shipped. When NDBN ships diapers, we do it by the truckload to keep costs low. And, of course, we either buy diapers at significant bulk discounts or get them donated by our founding sponsor, Huggies, or another generous manufacturer. Any well run non-profit that provides a basic need in bulk is buying more cheaply than you possibly can. So rather than buying an item at the store – whether it’s diapers, food, clothing or anything else, your charitable dollar goes farther if you simply make a donation to an organization that meets that need.

Sending physical objects can also create inventory and storage challenges for relief workers on the ground – particularly when the items don’t meet their immediate needs. For example, right now member diaper banks in the area are telling me that they need diapers size four and up. So that’s what I’m sending. Without contact on the ground, it’s easy to send something that’s not urgently needed and take up precious storage space and relief worker time.

At this writing, we have trucks waiting to get into Houston itself, which is still largely inaccessible by road. The Texas Diaper Bank, a member that is staffed by some of the smartest and most caring people I know, is giving out diaper kits to families who have sought shelter in San Antonio. We’ll be sending in supplies to restock them. Meanwhile, we are following Harvey’s path as that horribly persistent storm remains over Texas and threatens Louisiana. Where Harvey goes, we will follow with aid for families in need.

There is one exception to the give-money-not-things rule. Give blood. Our friends on the Gulf Coast need it badly.

2. Keep on giving. Disasters do not end after the cameras leave. It took years for many people to get back home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. We can expect long periods of displacement after Hurricane Harvey. In the meantime and for a long time, many businesses will be shuttered, leaving people without incomes. The infrastructure of a region will need to be rebuilt. Nothing will be normal, not for years.

The people of the Gulf Coast will need our help for the months and years ahead. There are many ways to keep giving so that the support remains in place when the disaster is no longer front-page news. NDBN encourages people to make monthly donations, as do many other relief organizations active in the region. You might also make a pact with yourself to give a bit to hurricane relief whenever you splurge on yourself. Put five dollars in a jar whenever you make an online purchase, for instance, and periodically send it off to the relief organization of your choice.

3. Fight poverty – persistent and situational. Disasters give rise to what I call situational poverty. A family that was once secure finds themselves with nothing but the clothes on their back. The organizations that will help that family get back on their feet – the food banks, the diaper banks, the shelters – are already in the community helping people who live in persistent poverty. Their ability to respond depends on how well their community supports them in ordinary times.

Texas Diaper Bank was already in San Antonio helping families through the ongoing disaster that is poverty. In March, we were happy to partner with the Honest Company to provide Texas Diaper Bank with disaster relief kits for babies – kits that are filling an essential need today.

A prompt and effective response to disasters can only happen when there is a good network of organizations in a community helping families in need. So if you want your community to be prepared when disaster hits, do not wait. Support the organizations now that will be the first on the scene when a family’s world is turned upside down.

Even in the face of a dire emergency like Hurricane Harvey, it is beautiful to see how Americans open their hearts to people in need. Those of us in the non-profit sector must learn to better communicate how great that need to support families is, day in and day out. Clearly, the desire to help is always there.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.