Hurricane wreckage

June 1 marks the start of Atlantic Hurricane Season – and as we know, it only takes one storm to cause significant damage to communities in the United States and around the world.

When disaster hits, many generous people start looking for ways they can help.

If you are one of them, you should use the start of Hurricane season to pre-plan your generosity too! It can make a big difference for people trying to get back on their feet after disaster.

How can you make the greatest impact in the lives of others this hurricane season? The answer is surprisingly simple: give cash to relief organizations that work directly with people affected by disasters.

Disasters evolve quickly as people move to safety and start receiving emergency services and humanitarian aid. Cash donations allow relief organizations to respond to changing needs quickly, which enables them to deliver essential supplies that are fresh and familiar to the people they are helping. Donating clothes and household items might seem like the right thing to do, but these items rarely reach the people they’re intended to help. In fact, unsolicited donations can hinder relief efforts by diverting relief workers’ attention, clogging up already-limited work space and requiring equipment and time to manage. In stark contrast, even small financial donations can make a huge difference because of charitable organizations’ bulk purchasing power. For example, relief organizations can provide safe drinking water to more than 32,000 people for one day for the same cost of shipping one 6-pack of bottled water to a disaster site.

Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June 1 - Nov. 30
Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June 1 – Nov. 30.

As we mark the start of Atlantic Hurricane Season, keep in mind these three ways you can help people in need:

  1. Decide ahead of time where your money will go. Choose a charity doing work you feel strongly about in hurricane-affected areas. You can make sure your donation is used effectively by consulting charity watchdogs such as Charity Navigator or Give Well.
  2. If you’ve already collected material goods, repurpose them! Your garage may be full, but fret not. Here are 55 ways to repurpose a material donation, or you can donate locally to people in need.
  3. Help spread the word about hurricane season, and cash donations. Many people aren’t aware of the positive impacts associated with giving cash to relief organizations after a disaster – or about the hazards of sending unsolicited material donations. Help us spread the word by directing people to, following us on – Twitter and liking us on Facebook. You can also share the wonderful “Cash is Best” ads from our 2019 PSAid student contest! Visit to see the winning entries.

If you’re still unsure about giving cash, check out our Greatest Good Donation Calculator to determine the cost of material donations like canned food, bottled water and clothes versus the good that the same amount of money can do in the hands of an experienced relief organization.

Save lives, save money – donate cash!


When people hear I’m writing a book on aid I immediately get asked about specific aid agencies they gave to. Unfortunately, I cannot tell them the quality of those aid agencies without spending time to research them. What I can tell them is how they can research the aid agency themselves.

Evaluating aid agencies before donating is critical

If you don’t have time to research an aid agency, then I would suggest not donating. There is no body that regulates aid and no outside entity ensuring that the aid agency is providing quality aid or working in the best interest of those you want to help. Without properly vetting an aid agency before giving, you risk your donation being used on programs that may do more harm than good. To ensure that your money is doing the good you intended you have to look past aid agency advertising, name recognition, and “happy stories”, and instead look for evidence that the aid agency is following best practices and constantly improving their organization.

Do the aid agency photos show the aid recipients as people with dignity and ability or do they show them as helpless victims. We’ve all seen photos of people in tears looking at their destroyed homes or emaciated African children covered in flies. If that was your child or your sister in that photo would you want it used for an international fund raising campaign, or would you feel it was exploitative? There are guidelines being developed for these photos. The gist of the guidelines is that aid recipients should be shown as people with dignity and ability, rather than hopeless and helpless.

In general I find that if an aid agency uses a photo that shows the aid recipient as having dignity and ability, then the aid agency is likely to have the organizational philosophy that aid recipients are able people, and the projects they develop are more likely to treat them as such. If an agency uses photos that show the person as helpless and hopeless, then they are likely to have a similar organizational philosophy and treat them as such. Which way would you rather be treated?

I have a lot of respect for aid agencies that regularly evaluate their work and share the findings, both positive and negative, with the world at large. If evaluations are rigorous and then acted upon by the agency, it can lead to real improvements in the organization, ActionAid is a good example of this. It is not easy for an aid agency to share their negative findings because it puts them at a disadvantage in competing for donor dollars with those aid agencies that do not share their negative findings. However, it is critical for the industry to grow and improve as well as for donors to be able to hold aid agencies accountable for that improvement.

Evaluations should be done on a regular basis. Either yearly as ActionAid does or at the end of each major operation. Annual reports or “happy stories” do not count for evaluations because their is no independent evaluation of their accuracy, therefore it is far too easy and tempting to focus on the positive or disregard the failed projects.

Some aid agencies may argue that project evaluations are too expensive and donors don’t want to pay for operational costs. While I agree that evaluations can be expensive, there are ways to have a less expensive evaluation done, for example working with a local university to have college students perform the evaluation. If it is not possible to find affordable ways to evaluate your project then share what you have tried with the donor so they understand what you have and have not been able to evaluate. Unfortunately, far too much emphasis has been placed on rating aid organizations by their operational costs, leading to donors unknowingly preventing aid agencies from paying for things such as evaluations. This will only change as donors begin to understand the negative impact of not covering operational costs.

If an aid agency does not have the findings from independent evaluations available on their website you should consider whether you want to donate to them. If they haven’t conducted evaluations they are not being professional, and if they have conducted them but have not shared them they are not being transparent. When donors begin to give preferential funding to aid agencies conducting and sharing needs assessments, they are rewarding aid agencies for evaluating their work and financially encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, read the most recent evaluation findings and then check that against the current work or funding proposal of the aid agency. Do they appear to have made improvements to their work based upon their evaluations?

If an aid agency is asking for your money, you have the right to know that they will use it responsibly. Unfortunately, in the past this has meant primarily focusing on the amount spent on administrative or operational costs. As stated above this, unfortunately, can do more harm than good.

Instead, I’d recommend looking for audit results from the past three years. A recent posting focused on one of my articles where I made this same suggestion. One of the comments posted was that audits were only legally required for large charities, and therefore didn’t apply to most organizations working in the field. I would argue that it is good financial practice to have annual audits regardless of the size of the agency.

If the audit results are not available on the website you may need to request them. If an aid agency refuses your request consider carefully whether you want to donate to them. If an aid agency has not conducted some sort of audit they are not actively reviewing and improving their internal processes, if they have conducted an audit but are will not share the results, they are not being transparent. If donors begin to fund only those aid agencies performing annual audits and sharing the findings, they are rewarding aid agencies following sound financial practices and encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, look for aid agencies that share their financial information with aid recipients. The aid agencies that have tried this admit that it was difficult at first because the local people may not agree with how an aid agency spent money, but in the long run it made their projects use funds more effectively and reduced fraud.

Often the aid agency will not share their needs assessment, which is unfortunate. However, regardless of whether they are willing to share the actual needs assessment, they still need to demonstrate that they have taken the following factors into consideration.

  • What similar services are provided by the government, why are these services inadequate to meet the needs, have they evaluated how to best support government services instead of duplicating or undermining them.
  • What other aid agencies are in the area and what projects are they implementing. This should focus on areas where there is potential problems with overlapping the work of other agencies or the potential to collaborate with other agencies.
  • Information on the situation of similar schools/health centers/orphanages in the wider area. If you know the general situation you will be better able to evaluate whether the aid that is proposed is appropriate.
  • Information on national standards. What does the government consider to be adequate?
  • If there is no needs assessment, if the needs assessment seems inadequate, or if the project they are proposing does not match the needs identified in the assessment consider carefully whether you want to donate to the agency. If an aid agency has not conducted an adequate needs assessment or is proposing a project that does not appear to meet the needs identified in the assessment, then they aid they are giving may not be needed. If donors begin to fund only those aid agencies that conduct adequate needs assessment and share the findings, they will reward aid agencies that following good aid practices and encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

    If you want to take this one step further, look for evidence that the results of the needs assessment are shared with other aid agencies as well as the local government and the aid recipients. A common problem in aid is the lack of information sharing between agencies and with the people they are trying to help. This wastes donor dollars by forcing each aid agency to pay for separate needs assessments and frustrates aid recipients who take their time to answer aid agency questions but never hear back as to whether or not they will actually be receiving aid.

    Once you have looked at everything suggested above, if you still feel comfortable about the aid agency, then it’s time to see if there have been any complaints lodged or negative research on the organization. Although this information can be hard to find, two places to look include the BBB and AIP.

    The Better Business Bureau’s Charity Reviews gives BBB ratings for aid agencies registered in the US. Unfortunately, since aid agencies are registered by state, it can be a little confusing because a single agency may have multiple entries. Part of the aid agency rating includes a section stating whether or not any complaints about that charity have been filed to the BBB.

    The American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP) Articles page has a listing of charities mentioned in AIP articles. It’s worth seeing if the agency you are considering is mentioned at all.

    There are other charity rating systems that can easily be found on line. In general rating systems are based on the 990 tax form and information on the governing board. Several charity rating sites are working on ways to better evaluate aid agency work, unfortunately, none of them currently evaluate an aid agency on any of the factors recommended in this article.

    One commenter states that it is unrealistic to expect the average donor to take that much time to evaluate an aid agency. The commenter points out that the average person doesn’t even do that much research before voting or investing in stock. While this may be true, the unfortunate end result is that people vote for politicians that do not look out for their best interest, lose their life savings on the stock market, and perpetuate poor aid practices that may do more harm than good. Don’t let this be you. For the sake of the people you are trying to help, please take the time to be an informed donor or don’t donate at all.

    Happy International Mother Earth Day! No longer a day that evokes images traditional hippies at the first celebration in 1970, it is now a globally coordinated day celebrating support for environmental protection in more than 192 countries. This has meant wide scale efforts to curb deforestation in Brazil, address desertification in China, and build global responsibility around CO2 emissions.

    . These charitable and humanitarian instincts among Earth Day activists are not unlike what we at CIDI find in those wishing to alleviate suffering in the wake of natural disasters. We are inundated with calls, email, and other inquiries about how concerned Americans can help disaster-affected people. Many times, compassionate people turn to their own pantries and closets, packing clothes and household items with a heart full of hope that a disaster survivor will happily open the box on the other end. While well-intended, collections that are not coordinated with a relief organization only infrequently reach beneficiaries. Many remain in the US because transportation costs and other fees are prohibitively expensive. Others are turned away at their destination because they are not tied to a response organization or are culturally inappropriate. We at CIDI work to turn donor good intentions into Smart Compassion.

    Part of Smart Compassion is understanding that monetary donations to credible relief organizations are the most effective and efficient way to help disaster survivors. Each disaster is unique and affects people and infrastructure uniquely. Monetary donations enable relief workers to respond to people’s evolving needs as they migrate to safety, resettle, and eventually rebuild their communities.

    Our Greatest Good Donations Calculator, created by the Colleges of Engineering and Business Administration at the University of Rhode Island, illustrates the costs to donors of sending unsolicited donations: A donor purchases a teddy bear for $19.99 in Washington, D.C., intending to send it to Western Samoa. Transportation costs and other fees will total $273.43 to send a teddy bear! The same amount of money could be used by a relief organization to purchase 54,686 liters of clean water locally, giving 27,343 people 2 liters of clean drinking water each.

    Incidentally, Smart Compassion also supports environmental protection. The above estimate only takes into account the cost in money; it considers neither the CO2 emissions from transportation overseas nor the electricity used to stabilize the temperature in storage. It also does not address environment impacts that unsolicited donations can have on communities: boxes of inappropriate donations including food or medicine delivered past their expiration dates often have to be disposed of through bulldozing or burning, both negatively impacting the environment. The sheer bulk of clothing donations are so burdensome, costly to manage, and harmful to the environment in recipient countries that over 34 countries have banned by law the importation of used clothing.

    Smart Compassion involves being aware of the unintended consequences of giving, and choosing to make a donation that has a positive impact on disaster survivors and their communities, whether economically or environmentally. Monetary contributions to established relief agencies in affected areas purchase exactly what survivors need when they need it. They support local merchants and local economies, and ensure that beneficiaries receive supplies that are fresh, familiar, and culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate. More benefits to more people at lower cost and while protecting Mother Earth – done!

    For more information on effective donations, visit USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information.

    Earthrise, William Anders, 1968

    Earthrise, William Anders, 1968

    “I am confident that the International Day of Human Space Flight will remind us of our common humanity and our need to work together to conquer shared challenges. I hope it will also inspire young people in particular to pursue their dreams and move the world towards new frontiers of knowledge and understanding.”

    –Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

    What does the Center for International Disaster Information have to do with the International Day of Human Space Flight? Do you know who Michael Collins is? The Apollo 11 mission, which put the first humans on the moon, had a 3-person crew. While Collins continued to orbit around the Moon in the spacecraft, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left in the Lunar Module to make the first manned landing on its surface.

    Michael Collins is an equal partner and unsung hero in the mission to land on the moon. Just as Ban Ki-moon reminds us of the importance of teamwork, we at CIDI understand that everyone who donates to disaster relief is a partner in helping survivors. To save lives, alleviate human suffering, and reduce the social and economic impact of disasters, the American public donates in support of organizations working directly with disaster-affected people. Those in the field use monetary donations to give survivors what they need, when they need it. It’s a beautiful partnership.

    While sometimes it may feel as if you are in orbit like Michael Collins – only observing the action, when you donate money to your favorite relief organization you become an indispensable partner in saving lives.