Post-Harvey Relief: Think Twice Before Taking Out Your Wallet

*The following article is educative in nature. It is not meant to wrist-slap those who already donated money to large non-profits. Rather, it is meant to make you think the next time you take out your wallet and donate to disaster relief organizations.*

If my research on humanitarian relief in the past few years has taught me anything, it is that large non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not the place to channel your hard-earned cash in the aftermath of a crisis (humanitarian, natural disaster, etc.). While this option may be appealing to individuals watching the ongoing and harrowing destruction in Houston right now on TV and from places far from TX, I urge you to think twice before funneling your money there.

My suggestion comes from my own work with refugee aid organizations; however, we can apply the same logic to the NGOs working in Houston, claiming to fund rescue missions and reconstruction efforts. From my own research, large organizations like the Red Cross/Red Crescent and United Nations Refugee Commission (UNHCR) may have polished and professionalized branding and run funding drives that are easy to donate to (and maybe thus convince you they are more legitimate); but, these large NGOs are not the ones on the ground doing the hard work in disaster situations. For those familiar with the Haiti disaster, the Red Cross was over-donated to, and yet the organization only had a handful of rescue and disaster-relief personnel on the ground. A small CA-based humanitarian organization currently building houses in Haiti recently told me that you cannot find Red Cross personnel anywhere — and yet they have all the money to do so. So where do Red Cross donations go? I would tell you, but I can’t because no one outside the organization knows or has access to their official books. We only have access to their disclosed finances and allocations. The same goes for the UNHCR in Greece, a country that has limited UNHCR staff, despite the 1 million plus refugees stuck in the country trying to register for asylum protection, let alone survive. They are over-funded, but understaffing in disaster zones.

What then is the solution? Where can you donate and what should you donate? Multiple TX-based sources are listing l0cal-level, non-profit organizations and impromptu community groups, to which you can donate. This is a good source: I recently became aware of multiple animal rescue organizations coordinating rescues and they are worth looking into, as well: Tall Tails Animal Rescue, Best Friends Animal Society, Austin Pets Alive! desperately need funding.

As for what you can donate? Money is valued over things in disaster situations. Why? Because money is fungible — it can be turned into clothes, food, clean water, hygiene products, etc., where as sending a box of your old clothes and shoes is not easily transferrable into other forms of goods. Oftentimes what happens when you donate your old wardrobe is that your clothes sit in a warehouse — they require sorting, cataloging, and distribution, if they can be used at all. In short, send something that can actually be used, and not that pair of platform heels you never wore.

Ultimately, if helping matters, then how you go about ‘helping’ might actually matter more.

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