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.
- 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.