Donations: 'The Disaster After the Disaster'

When tragedy hits, people want to help. But often, what arrives at the scene gets in the way because there's too much or it's not needed. Find out better ways to get involved in times of trouble.

Tragedies that break the heart often also come with a desire to help.

Superstorm Sandy. The Newtown shooting.

But what help to offer? Especially, when you’re far away.

Stories of families that lost everything in the storm led to thousands of people sending what they thought was needed to the East Coast. But at some point, donation centers became overwhelmed with the amount sent.

Nashua, N.H., firefighters held a clothing drive after Sandy hit. Within two weeks of the storm, the Nashua Telegraph reported the firefighters were overwhelmed with clothing donations—but still needed gift cards and cash. 

After the Newtown shooting, the same thing happened.

According to CNN, Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra said“Our hearts are warmed by the outpouring of love and support from all corners of our country and world. We are struggling now to manage the overwhelming volume of gifts and ask that sympathy and kindness to our community be expressed by donating such items to needy children and families in other communities in the name of those killed in Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14.” 

Sky News reported more than 30,000 teddy bears were sent to Sandy Hook, and they had to set up a task force to handle gifts that kept coming. And they expect it will take about three months to sort through the donations.

It’s a familiar story.

Tragedy hits, people want to help, and their idea of helping is to send stuff. It feels more real, perhaps, something tangible. More personal than a monetary donation, and less likely to be misused.

But the impulse to send stuff just doesn’t help.

One expert told the Associated Press the flood of donations causes a “second disaster after the disaster.” 

Relief groups need very specific things, along with cash and organization. Instead they get vases and vacuum cleaners, or interference from well-intentioned volunteers who think they’re helping but are just hindering efforts.

Another issue, said James McGowan, associate director of partnerships at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, is that moving physical goods can be incredibly expensive, with the cost to transport and distribute a donated can of food reaching $15 to $25.

Recognizing this problem, after Hurricane Sandy, some agencies turned to Amazon’s charity wish lists for help. Creating a wish list allowed them to set specific needs, the quantity needed, and then allowed far-flung donors to pay money but guarantee it was needed goods arriving on site. The Occupy Sandy Animals wish list included things like pet food and cat litter. Other lists had construction supplies, masks, toys and children’s books.

Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross, told NPR she monitored social media after Hurricane Sandy hit. If she saw someone posting about filling a truck with donations and driving in, she contacted them in advance to make sure the items are needed and directed to a place where they can be used. 

A recurring theme is to look to local charities when disaster hits elsewhere, and you want to give something—but for whatever reason, not money. See what agencies in your community need clothing, buy groceries for a local food pantry or volunteer your time.  

If you still want to help directly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has some tips for how to help


  • Affiliate with an existing non-profit organization before coming to the disaster area.
  • Do not go until a need is identified and the community impacted requested support.
  • Make sure you have a place to stay before arriving.
  • Be patient. There will be needs for a long time—possibly years—after the disaster.


  • The best way to help is to make a financial contribution to an organization working on the ground. It offers flexibility to meet shifting demands and the greatest needs.
  • If you’re donating goods or services, confirm what is needed before you send.
  • Coordinate collection drives with an organization distributing the items and only collect and send what they ask for.



livingintheOC January 21, 2013 at 08:51 PM
My Aunt in NH just did some digging after Sandy and found a family that lost 1/2 their house. A nurse and a firefighter. Then they asked people for small gifts and gift card and mailed them a box. I think it was pretty easy to do and sure beats handing cash to some giant organization. Sure it was some work but I can even see the work being the gift for a circle of 50ish facebook friends. Not a penny wasted and you might even make a friend in the process.
Vicki Bennett January 22, 2013 at 04:34 PM
It seems to me that there is a lot of fund raising that doesn't reach the needy. Other than the Red Cross, how do we know that the funds are getting to the right individuals. My personal opinion is that, even with the Red Cross, these organizations pay a lot to their top heavy executives and leave little for those at the bottom who need the help.
WPN1488 January 22, 2013 at 05:43 PM
I don't donate a penny to any disaster relief fund. The tax money collected from the working people of America should be more than adequate to help others in times of emergency. Maybe if we would have given out less Obama Phones and free window air conditioners we would have money for the Hurricane Sandy folks.
atomhammer@hotmail.com January 23, 2013 at 02:20 PM
I may be mistaken, but I understood your point to be twofold: that private charity cannot cover up the shortcuts of government underfunding of social programs, and that the emphasis on personal consumption over social investment is now rightfully biting us in the rear end. If so, I applaud your points. In America it is currently politically incorrect to observe that our obsession with "charity" goes in tandem with widespread failures in government delivery of social services, due to chronic underfunding and relentless vilification of the public sector in general.
Kathy January 23, 2013 at 02:33 PM
My sister does fund raising for local families. She takes in anything and everything and distributes locally to the people that fall through the cracks of other efforts. Her home is a diaster but it is a labor of love for her and thankfully this year she has more help. Community for a Better Tomorrow


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