The Dos and Don'ts of Disaster Relief Donations

With the recent earthquakes in both Haiti and Chile, everyone wants to help, but many struggle with the best way to do so. Some measures can do more harm than good. Here's what you should consider.
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With the recent earthquakes in both Haiti and Chile, everyone wants to help but many people struggle with the best way to do so. Choosing the best way to give is important as there are far too many examples of aid doing more harm than good. One common problem is the well-intentioned donation of medicine. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent after each major disaster disposing of metric tons of donated medicines that were inappropriate, incorrectly labeled, or unnecessary.

As a leading expert in the post-2004 tsunami recovery efforts in Thailand, I have seen the impact of aid through the eyes of disaster survivors, government officials, religious leaders, aid organizations, the United Nations, and individual donors. This experience showed me the power of individual donors. The choices they make and the pressures they place on aid organizations affect the type and quality of aid after a disaster.

The following Do and Don'ts provides answers to common questions and guidance in deciding how to best help after a disaster.

Don't donate to a project just because it's "sexy"

Aid projects that are inherently attractive to donors, such as orphanages or boat, are easier to fund but may not be what is most needed. After the tsunami orphanages were built in excess of what was actually needed. I was approached by both an orphanage and a foster care program seeking help to find orphans to care for. In Indonesia some families resorted to abandoning their children at orphanages because they could not feed and clothe them. It would have been far better and less expensive to fund programs that support families in caring for their children rather than in building and staffing orphanages.

Do determine whether the country is accepting international assistance

The photos and videos of the destruction on the evening news makes it seem impossible that governments would not want outside assistance However, just because there has been a disaster does not mean that the local government and local aid organizations are not capable of reaching those in need. International assistance should only be provided if the scale of the disaster exceeds the local capacity to respond. Before sending your donation find out what, if any, assistance the government is allowing. Check to see if the aid organization you're considering donating to is offering that same type of assistance.

Don't earmark funds

Earmarking or restricting funds may force charities to spend money where it's not needed and keep them from spending money where it's need the most. An organization in Thailand after the tsunami received funding earmarked to purchase two truckloads of rice. By the time they arrived in the area it was four months after the tsunami, shipments of rice were no longer needed. Because the money was earmarked, the organization had to contact several donors to ask permission to use the money in different ways. If you trust the organization allow them to make professional decisions on how to best use your donation. If you don't trust the organization then don't donate to them. Take time to find an organization you do trust.

Do look at several charities before giving

There are hundreds of organizations that respond to a disaster, take time to evaluate a few before giving. Just because they have name recognition does not mean they're best able to respond. Look for organizations that were operating in the country before the disaster, they are in a better position to respond quickly and know the local culture, politics, and needs. Lists of organizations involved in recovery efforts can be found on InterAction and ReliefWeb.

Don't evaluate an organization based on the amount spent on administration

The amount an organization spends on administration is no indication of the quality or usefulness of its work. The pressure to keep administration costs low may lead to organizations understaffing or under resourcing their projects. This leads to staff not having enough time to work closely with aid recipients and government offices, hiring unqualified staff that may not have the right skills, not equipping staff with the resources to do their job, or focusing on inherently cheaper programs even if they are not what is most needed. In addition it is very easy to manipulate what is counted as a project versus an administration cost.

Do look for organizations with prior experience and expertise

There is a great deal of money to be raised after a well publicized disaster. The ease of raising money makes it tempting to respond to a disaster even if the organization does not have the expertise. After the tsunami many organizations with no prior experience built boats or houses. During a handover ceremony I attended, the boats sank because they were not properly sealed. There is a steep learning curve when organizations try new types of aid, this means mistakes will be made and money will be wasted. Make sure the organization has prior experience in their proposed projects.

Do ensure that the organization is legitimate before giving

After the tsunami there were several fake charities created. In Thailand someone took photos of a construction project and posted it on their website as their own work. Donors should verify that the nonprofit is real before giving. Google the exact name - be careful that they haven't used a name that is almost identical to a well known charity - if the organization has been in operation for a while there will be links to conferences their staff have attended, newspaper articles written about them, documents they've published, etc. Donate only through the organization's website to ensure you aren't giving money to someone sending out a sham email.

Don't expect the funds to be spent immediately

The initial relief phase encompasses search and rescue, medical care, food, water, and shelter. After these needs are met, the much longer recovery and reconstruction phase begins. Organizations that feel pressured by donors to complete their work quickly may try to speed their work by cutting corners, leaving aid recipients out of the decision making process, not coordinating with other organizations, or ending projects before they're sustainable. In Thailand there were numerous instances of houses being built before the land title was clear putting families at risk of losing their houses a few years later. After major disasters, the rebuilding process takes five years or longer, allow the organizations adequate time to ensure they are providing help in the best way possible.

Do consider holding some of your donations until later in the rebuilding process

Immediately after a disaster is prime fundraising time for nonprofits. Fundraising requests are sent out before there's any clear idea of what is needed or how much the organization can actually help. If an organization receives too much money it has one of four options. It can divert the excess funds to other programs in other countries, it can provide assistance in excess of what is needed, it can move out of its area of expertise, or it can subcontract other organizations. Rebuilding after a disaster takes years, waiting a few weeks or months before donating the total amount you plan to give will allow you to make additional funding decisions once the situation on the ground is clearer.

Don't take up a collection of goods to send over

After the tsunami tons of used clothing were donated, much of it inappropriate to the climate and culture. There were winter hats, coats, and gloves donated to southern Thailand and mountains of donated clothing dumped beside the road in India. Ports can only hold and process so many goods and often the port authorities have difficulty sorting through everything arriving to get it processed and out the doors. Donated goods can clog ports preventing more immediate relief items from getting through. Please do not take up collections of medicine, clothing, baby formula, or food for shipment, or show up on your own to hand out money or goods. Although well intentioned, these types of assistance can actually make the situation worse.

Don't go over individually to volunteer

Many people want to volunteer to help in the recovery efforts in Haiti, however unless you have a specific skill and speak the language there is often very little the individual can contribute that local people could not do, and even get paid to do. In addition, volunteers that are unprepared for the realities of a post-disaster situation can get in over their heads and divert time and resources away from the recovery efforts to rescue the volunteer.

Do consider donating an equal amount of money to disaster preparedness programs

Programs that help communities prepare for and respond to disasters save more lives and are more cost effective than large rescue operations after a disaster. After each disaster the first people to respond are always neighbors, friends, family, and local disaster response teams. Consider donating to organizations in other countries - or even your own home town - that help communities prepare for and respond to future disasters.

Don't support the adoption or evacuation of orphans

After each disaster there are attempts to adopt or evacuate orphans. However many of these "orphans" have parents or other living relatives desperate to care for them. All efforts should be made to reunite children with their families and provide support for families to care for their children. Evacuating orphans or putting them up for adoption may forever separate them from their family.

Don't assume there is a body overseeing and regulating aid

Most people assume that some entity, probably the UN, oversees international aid to ensure that it's well done and getting where it is most needed. In reality the UN has no direct control over nonprofits, making it difficult to coordinate the relief efforts and ensure all the aid provided is appropriate an well done. Two attempts to create a regulatory body, once under the UN and once under the League of Nations have failed. Without this it is up to the government to monitor and control the flood of assistance into their country. This can be an impossible feat for many local governments after a disaster.

Do take the time to make informed decisions

The funding decisions donors make and the pressures they place on aid organizations affect the type and quality of aid the organizations provide.

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