When it Comes to Disaster Relief, Will You be an Asset or a Liability? It’s up to you.

Your plan for helping those hurt by Hurricane Matthew might actually cause more harm than good, so think twice before booking a flight.

We’ve all seen the photos. Photos of towns flattened, roads destroyed, bridges washed away, people killed, children homeless. If you haven’t seen them, stop reading now, pull your head out of the sand, go to Google, and spend a good hour or so questioning your place as a citizen of this planet.

If you’ve seen the photos, you’ve probably also watched the videos. Videos of muddy brown floodwater surging through neighborhoods, trees being ripped up from the root, huge pieces of debris careening through the air, people trying to float their stuff to safety, people trying to float themselves to safety.

And if you’ve seen all these things, you probably want to help.

Wanting to help is awesome. It’s also necessary because there are so many people not just in Haiti, but also in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Cuba, and I’m sure I’m missing somewhere, that need help too. But as you decide where and how to help, please remember one thing:

Wanting to do good isn’t enough.

Or, more pointedly, your desire to do good doesn’t mean that good will be done.

This is true whether you are looking to donate money, send down supplies, or, and maybe most importantly, travel to a storm-hit area to volunteer.

Over the past week, I’ve heard a lot of friends talk about wanting to give back. Their enthusiasm and commitment to doing good makes me hopeful for the future of humanity at a time when it can sometimes be hard to be positive, but I’ve also found that it is at moments like this when that urge to help should be addressed most critically.

If you want to donate, donate to organizations that have a proven track record, have experience in the areas in which they are working, and, ideally, are locally-based.

If you want to send down supplies, think hard about what is most urgently needed, and what may actually end up being more of a hindrance.

A friend told me a story a while back about an experience she had while volunteering in Haiti about 6 months after the 2010 earthquake. She was placed in a medical unit where she was creating a paperwork system so that patients, who were often treated by different doctors on each visit and had no medical charts, could have more cohesive, and thus successful, care. Not a glamorous project, but an important one. One day, a shipment of used sneakers arrived. They sat out on the airport tarmac for days until they could figure out what to do with them. The generous donors, it seemed, had not realized that while a lot gets destroyed in an earthquake, shoes weren’t one of the things in short supply.

So don’t use Hurricane Matthew as a disposal strategy for your sweaty running shoes and worn in t-shirts unless there is a real need — and even if there is, they still probably don’t want your sweaty shoes.

And if you want to volunteer, especially in Haiti, think twice. Think three times. Think until it feels like your head is going to explode because unless you are a trained professional with skills that are needed on the ground, you should not be there. I repeat: you should not be there. Yes, you could pick up sticks and sweep mud, but so can many of the people who are already there.

There are three things that are in desperate shortage following natural disasters like a hurricane: food, shelter, and water. There are three things that volunteers need: food, shelter, and water. When every bed, meal, and bottle of water is needed for those who were actually affected, to presume that you have the right to claim those resources in return for picking up sticks is not just absurd, but obtuse.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help. You should. You should just also drop the idea that your physically going there is a natural extension of your desire to do good. Instead, support initiatives that are on the ground already. There is plenty of time for your do-goodery after the storm has passed.

A Few Organizations and Initiatives That I like:

UNICEF

Partners in Health

HDC in Action

Matthew Aviation Fellowship

OXFAM

Doctors without Borders

Engineers without Borders

[Image source — image is of the destruction in Indonesia following the 2004 Tsunami]