In-Kind Can Be Unkind

In-kind donations are commodities or services given by a donor instead of a monetary contribution.  True in-kind donations are given within an established relationship between a donor and a charitable organization, though individual donors have used the term more liberally.  Either way, it’s important for donors to know that in-kind donations can be useful in the right circumstances but very harmful in others.  This distinction gave rise to the tagline  “In-Kind Can Be Unkind.”

For survivors, relief workers, local merchants and host-country personnel, unsolicited material donations of household items frequently end up being unkind.  Many of the unsolicited materials collected by well-intentioned donors may not actually reach the disaster-affected area. Depending on the recipient country’s customs policies, unsolicited material donations may languish in a local customs office indefinitely, which may result in a sizable bill for storage to relief organizations that attempt to retrieve them.

Unsolicited materials that do reach disaster sites can disrupt relief operations by taking up space needed to stage and distribute life-saving supplies. These donations may be culturally, nutritionally and environmentally inappropriate for survivors, and managing them can divert relief workers’ time and attention.

Similarly, donors who wish to volunteer their time to disaster relief efforts can be helpful when they partner with a relief organization working on-site and have a skill set that is needed on the ground.  Conversely, offers to help from individuals who have not worked in overseas disaster relief or those who lack certain skills, while well intentioned, and are not typically accepted by relief organizations. Local volunteers and even disaster survivors themselves are usually available for these tasks, and people impacted by a disaster benefit from being actively involved in the restoration of their communities.

So when are in-kind donations truly in-kind (e.g. actually useful to disaster relief operations)?  When they meet the following criteria:

–Items are specifically requested by a charitable or local organization working on-site, and
–Items are available in sufficient quantity to serve affected populations
–Items are easily integrated into existing relief and development programs
–Items are monitored for effectiveness.
–Transportation costs are paid for by the donor
–The recipient organization has a distribution plan

Collections of canned food, bottled water, used clothing, toys, books, shoes and other household items are sometimes incorrectly referred to as “in-kind donations,” but only supplies that meet all of the above criteria are truly in-kind.

It can be very challenging for individual donors to meet the criteria listed above. In stark contrast, cash donations are the simplest for donors, most efficient for relief organizations and most effective for disaster-affected people. They can be used immediately by relief organizations to purchase exactly what survivors need, when they need it. The kindest donations – cash – satisfy survivors’ most urgent needs simply and efficiently.


More resources for informed giving

  • CIDI Toolkit


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