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

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.

Photo via SFGate — Tubbs Fire victims in Santa Rosa, CA

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.

clothes rotting in Banda Aceh — 2004

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. Be aware that disaster relief efforts are quickly changing and information does not update quickly.
  4. 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: