Please Stop Donating Stuff After Disasters

The intentions behind disaster donations are nothing but good, but donating to communities in need can do more harm than good.
Publish date:
May 18, 2016
natural disasters, fundraising, Disasters, donation

Currently, thousands upon thousands of donated items are sitting in warehouses in Alberta, Canada, as well-intentioned people have shipped goods off to Fort McMurray in an effort to help those who have been displaced. Shoes, clothing, toys, and household goods frequently flood the reception centers following disasters such as the wildfires at Fort McMurray. While the intentions behind these donations are nothing but good, the donations themselves can be troublesome for relief workers trying to support the community impacted by a disaster.

This happened after Sandy, after the Newtown shooting, after the Flint water crisis, and after basically every other disaster in the history of charitable giving. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, over 60,000 teddy bears were sent to a community that did not have the need nor the capacity to handle them. Following Hurricane Sandy, thousands of food and clothing donations consumed hours upon hours of volunteer time just sorting the useful from the unuseful, let alone distributing the useful and disposing of the unuseful. Following an earthquake in Haiti, a rather unuseful box of Frisbees was sent to the collection site for donation.

This has to stop.

Governments and nonprofit organizations do not have the manpower nor the time to intake, process, and distribute donated goods in the chaos that is the aftermath of a disaster. What's more, the cost to ship these products to the disaster site is often more than the value of the items sent.

For example, following the news of the Flint, MI, water crisis, many groups wanted to send water to the people of this community. This is a well-intentioned act, as water is a necessary supply for survival, and it was being denied to the people of Flint.

However, a 12-pack of bottled water costs approximately $3.00 at a store, depending on your location. To mail that 14-pound package of water from the middle of the USA to Flint, MI, costs about $30. Shipping the water costs about 10 times the price of the water itself! This is a common problem following disasters; the desire to donate the items needed is admirable, but the practicality of mailing clothing and food is overshadowed by the cost of doing so.

A better use of this expense is to let it be spent on-site, contributing to the rebuilding of the local economy while purchasing what is actually needed at that moment. If donations are solely in the form of the goods themselves, the businesses in the local economy that are trying to continue operation are hurt. People who would normally purchase their necessities from the local store will instead be receiving those items for free from the (cost-inefficient) donations, and the business owners and local economy will suffer. What's worse, the items that have been donated may not suit the particular needs of the community. On the other hand, if people wishing to aid the recovery efforts make financial donations, the money can be injected into the local economy and help return the area to a sense of normalcy. Furthermore, the money can be spent on the exact items that are needed, instead of relief efforts facing a warehouse full of worn-out pants when the population actually needs diapers and infant formula.

I never want to discourage charitable giving, especially in the wake of a disaster that has consumed an area the size of Long Island. However, before you ship off a donation, ask yourself the following questions:

Am I creating more work for the relief workers on the other end of my donation? Remember that before it can be given to a person in need, every donation must be inspected, evaluated, and sorted. If a relief effort has requested specific items, then by all means, donate those items. But if nobody has asked for dish soap, then are you adding value to the relief effort by sending them dish soap?

Does it cost more to send this donation to the site than the donation itself is worth? I hate to break it to you, but the answer is probably yes. Shipping costs add up quickly. Again, if an effort has requested something, then maybe the local supply is not sufficient, and the shipping costs are worth the met need.

Am I positive that this donation is something that the population needs? 65,000 teddy bears were not needed by the community impacted by Sandy Hook. I'm sure that donation warehouse was adorable, but was there any added value in the thousands upon thousands of unused teddy bears? On the other hand, the cans of water that Anheuser-Busch sends after disasters such as the St. Louis floods are much-needed items. Make sure the items you send are items that are actually needed.

And, finally, is this donation taking away from the recovery of the local economy? Organizations such as Tom's Shoes have come under scrutiny for taking business away from local entrepreneurs. Are you supporting a community by sending soap, or are you simply taking business away from local business owners? Organizations often prefer to take financial donations specifically so that they can spend that money locally, therefore injecting cash into the economy in the area that is recovering from disaster.

As an American citizen, I am proud of the philanthropic spirit of our country, as well as the rest of the world's desire to help following a disaster. We always come through with support for our fellow humans. I hope, however, that we can become smarter with our donations, in order to expedite the recovery process for the communities experiencing disaster.