Guidelines for Giving

USAID CIDI provides information and guidance on the best way to help support relief efforts following disasters around the world.  With more than 20 years of experience working in disaster areas and with relief organizations on the ground, USAID CIDI knows that cash is the best way to help people affected by international disasters.  Our goal is to ensure that America’s generosity results in the most effective relief, and we focus on helping donors make informed decisions about how to help.  

Looking to support relief efforts?  The guidelines will help make sure your donation is as impactful and effective as possible.  

Monetary Contributions To Established Relief Agencies Are Always The Best Way To Help

When disaster strikes overseas, people want to help.  The good news is this: the easiest way to support response efforts is also the most economical efficient, and effective – through cash donations to relief agencies.

Financial contributions allow professional relief organizations to purchase exactly what is most urgently needed by disaster survivors, when it is needed. Cash donations allow relief supplies to be purchased near the disaster site, avoiding the delays, and steep transportation and logistical costs that can encumber material donations. Some commodities, particularly food, can almost always be purchased locally – even after devastating emergencies and in famine situations.

Cash purchases also convey benefits beyond the items procured. They support local merchants and local economies, ensure that commodities are fresh and familiar to survivors, that supplies arrive expeditiously and that goods are culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate.

When disasters happen, many Americans respond by collecting items in food and clothes drives, intending to provide for those in need. It is not unusual for community and civic groups to collect thousands of pounds of material – typically used clothing, canned food and bottled water – realizing only afterward that they do not know what to do with it.

In-kind and material donations require transportation, which is often prohibitively expensive and logistically complicated, given post-disaster infrastructure and challenges.  Further, shipments of material donations require an identified recipient on the ground – someone willing to receive, sort and distribute the material.

In contrast to how cash donations are used, unsolicited household donations can clog supply chains, take space required to stage life-saving relief supplies for distribution, and divert relief workers’ time. Collections of household goods serve no useful function in the acute phase of an emergency operation. Managing piles of unsolicited items may actually add to the cost of relief work through forcing changes to logistical and distribution plans and creating more tasks for relief workers.

Before collecting goods, consider transportation expenses, storage and distribution challenges, and the real-time needs of those in the affected area.

Cash contributions to established, legitimate relief agencies are always more beneficial to survivors and to relief operations.  Keep reading for more information on why cash, rather than material donations, are the most effective way to help.

Know What Relief Experts Know

Every disaster is unique and every disaster response is carefully tailored according to population needs that are assessed by relief professionals on the ground. Relief organizations that have personnel working in the disaster area coordinate with each other, with government entities and with local groups to make accurate assessments.  These appraisals evolve daily as survivors migrate to safety and normalcy returns.  Unsolicited, unneeded commodities are never required in early stages of response, and they compete with priority relief items for transportation and storage. Relief organizations that request material donations through public appeals will communicate specifically what items are desired in order to avoid these problems.

Some foods, particularly in famine situations, can cause illness or may be culturally inappropriate. Donations of canned goods are rarely beneficial and the collection of bottled water is highly inefficient, as both food and potable water can be purchased more inexpensively through local merchants close to affected populations. In every case, survivors are most effectively helped when an accurate assessment of need leads to thoughtfully selected, appropriate commodities.

Before Items Other Than Cash Are Collected, Confirm That There Is A Need

Some people feel a strong desire to give material donations in addition to cash. Opportunities to do this are rare but do come up, usually through appeals by relief organizations. In those cases, the organization will give specific directions on exactly what to collect, a time frame in which to collect it and specific directions on transportation. Appeals will be advertised but interested parties can search the internet proactively. Visit for more information on relief and development agencies, where they work and how they’re responding to a specific disaster.

Any call for material donations must meet each of these criteria, or will risk burdening the relief effort it seeks to support:

A credible relief organization has identified a need for items being requested

An organization is prepared to receive, manage and distribute the items

Costs of transportation, shipping, warehousing, and distribution are covered

Management of customs tariffs, fees and other cross-border requirements are covered

Quality assurance requirements from the host government and the recipient are met and are available for disclosure.

Transportation Is Expensive And Requires Planning

It is important that transportation arrangements are secured before any kind of material donations are collected. A common misconception is that the US government or relief agencies will transport donations free of charge, or even for a fee.  This may have been the case decades ago, but is no longer true. Individuals or organizations that accept donated items are also responsible for paying for transportation and related fees – including customs fees – at commercial rates.

Volunteer Opportunities Are Extremely Limited

Volunteers without prior disaster relief experience are not generally selected for overseas assignments. Candidates with the greatest likelihood of being chosen have fluency in the language of the disaster-affected area, prior relief experience, and expertise in technical fields such as medicine, communications, logistics, water/sanitation and engineering. In many cases, professionals who meet these requirements are available in-country, not far from disaster affected areas. Most agencies will require candidates to have at least ten years of relief experience, as well as several years of experience working overseas. It is not unusual for a hiring agency to request that volunteers make a commitment to spend at least three months working in a particular area.

Though kindhearted and well-intended, offers to drive trucks, set up tents and feed children are rarely accepted. Relief agencies that hire volunteers are responsible for volunteers’ well-being, including food, shelter, health and security. Resources are strained during a disaster, and a person without technical skills and experience can be more of a burden than an asset to a relief effort.

Those who lack necessary training can participate most constructively by volunteering vicariously – by raising funds and fostering community awareness of organizations that support trained personnel on the ground. No donation is too small and every dollar contributes to saving lives and reducing human suffering in the most economical, efficient and appropriate ways.

Click here to read more Volunteering After a Disaster

Excerpts from this document should reference the USAID Center for International Disaster Information (USAID CIDI) as the source.

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