Why do I always hear that cash donations are best? It makes me feel that relief organizations are only interested in my money. I’m willing to do so much more.
From decades of experience through hundreds of disasters around the world, we have learned that cash contributions are by far the most effective way for people to channel their good will and help those affected by disasters overseas. Disaster situations evolve quickly and cash contributions enable relief agencies to purchase exactly what is needed, when it’s needed, and to respond to new priorities as they arise. Unlike material donations, cash donations entail no transportation costs and no customs or other fees. They do not divert relief workers’ time to receive, sort, store and distribute unneeded materials. In addition, cash donations allow relief supplies to be purchased in markets close to the disaster site, which can stimulate local economies. It also ensures that relief supplies being provided are fresh and familiar to survivors, and that goods are culturally and nutritionally appropriate. Few material donations can have an impact that is as beneficial, efficient or effective as a cash donation.
How can I be sure that I can trust these agencies to use my cash to really help disaster victims?
A number of resources are available to learn about how your donation will be used. We suggest that you start with InterAction, a coalition of non-governmental organizations involved in international relief and development. In order to acquire and maintain membership, each organization must go through rigorous financial and policy reviews to ensure that cash donations are used appropriately.
After major disasters many new, unofficial “relief agencies” begin collecting cash donations which they claim are destined for those affected by a disaster. Some are not registered with the U.S. government as legitimate charities, though they may place advertisements in newspapers and on websites. Because they are not registered, there is little follow-up to ensure that funds collected by these groups ever contribute to relief work in affected areas.
If you have doubts about a particular organization, be sure to verify its legitimacy before you donate. There are a number of watchdog organizations that analyze registered charities for financial integrity and program effectiveness. Here’s a list of some of them:
- The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance
The Bureau, along with the National Charities Information Bureau, the Council of Better Business Bureau’s foundation and its Philanthropic Advisory Service have joined to form the Wise Giving Alliance, where you can find valuable information when making informed decisions about supporting charities.
- Charity Navigator
- Guide Star
- Charity Watch
What is the appropriate rate of overhead for a relief organization?
Some relief agencies operate with very low overhead rates because of the nature of their work. A logistics organization, for example, may incur lower overhead costs because they may need fewer people on the ground. By contrast, an organization that sends personnel to the disaster site may require more overhead costs as their work may entail the transportation and distribution of commodities and managing longer-term relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction programs. On InterAction’s list of agencies responding to a particular emergency, specific information is provided about activities each agency is undertaking as well as overhead costs. These lists are accessible on InterAction’s website: www.InterAction.org.
Can I receive a tax deduction for my cash donation? How about a report on how my donation to a relief agency was spent?
Yes and yes. You may request tax forms and reports from the agency to which you made your donation. Additional information on tax exemptions and deductions is available at www.bbb.org/us/charity.
I want to give material help to survivors, not just cash. What’s the best way to do that?
One of the most widespread and counterproductive misconceptions regarding international disaster relief is that household items — principally used clothing, canned food and bottled water — are urgently needed following disasters. These commodities, and more, can almost always be purchased locally, even after disasters hit. Local purchases support merchants and economies that have also been hard-hit by the crisis. Buying items locally also provides food, water and supplies that are fresh, familiar, and culturally appropriate to people who need them. Every disaster is unique, and every response is tailored according to specific needs that are assessed by relief experts on-site. Unsolicited material donations clog supply chains, take space required to stage life-saving relief supplies for distribution, and divert relief workers’ time. Material donations should not be considered unless it’s in response to an official request made by a relief agency on the ground. When sending material donations, there must be a recipient identified in-country, and transportation must be arranged in advance. People sending items should also confirm that customs, storage and transportation fees are covered.
I’ve already collected used clothing, water or canned food, and I’ve learned that the relief agencies are not able to transport or use my donation. Now what do I do?
Unfortunately, this is a common frustration. The good news is that you have discovered a truth about unsolicited donations and can now enlighten others about how to donate responsibly. Check out USAID CIDI’s 55 Ways to Repurpose a Material Donation which may help you convert your collection into cash to support the relief effort. For a list of agencies that accept donations of specific types of used clothing and other related materials, check out www1.networkforgood.org.
I’ve heard that the U.S. government provides free transportation for donated commodities. They have planes flying overseas all the time – surely they must have some extra space for my donation?
This may have been the case decades ago, but it is no longer true. The individual or organization making a donation is responsible to pay commercial rates for the transportation and warehousing of items gathered — costs that can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the collection’s weight and volume and the distance it needs to go.
Unless the government of the disaster-stricken country has specifically requested a donation, they may not allow the plane or ship to offload it. The donor is then likely responsible for the costs of transporting the shipment both to and from the disaster site. Any call for material donations must meet these criteria or risk burdening the relief effort it seeks to support:
- A credible relief organization has identified an unmet 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.
I have some prescription and non-prescription medications that I would like to donate to disaster victims. How do I go about donating these medications?
The coordination and collection of medicines and medical supplies are best left to trained professionals who have expertise in responding to health-related emergencies overseas. The acquisition of appropriate clearances, shelf-life requirements, reliable distribution mechanisms and other factors for transport and use of medications require special knowledge and expertise. If you have no use for prescription medications in your possession, it is recommended that you dispose of them in a safe and effective manner. For additional information regarding international drug donations, please visit the Partnership for Quality Medical Donations at www.pqmd.org.
I would like to volunteer a few days of my time as an international disaster relief worker. What kinds of skills do relief organizations look for?
We appreciate your compassion for others and your willingness to help. It’s important to remember that the kinds of help that disaster affected populations need most require the skillsets of trained and experienced volunteers. When there is a call for volunteers, candidates with the greatest prospect of being selected have fluency in the language of the country, prior disaster relief experience, and expertise in technical fields such as medicine, communications, logistics, or water/sanitation engineering. In many cases, these professionals are already available in-country and U.S. volunteers are not needed.
When a relief organization accepts a volunteer, that agency is responsible for the volunteer’s well-being, including food, shelter, health and security. Some hiring agencies will require at least ten years of prior experience, as well as several years of experience working overseas. It is not unusual for organizations to ask volunteers to make a commitment to spend at least three months working on a single response.
Most offers to volunteer as “another body” help – driving trucks, setting up tents, distributing supplies, and similar activities — are not accepted. Local volunteers and disaster survivors are available, and benefit from, participating in relief and reconstruction activities in their communities.
Relief work is a profession that demands highly trained and experienced individuals who can work effectively in exceptionally difficult conditions for long periods of time. That is true for volunteers as well. Learn more by reading USAID CIDI’s tips for volunteering.
How do I get experience in international relief work?
If you are interested in becoming a qualified volunteer it’s best to start small and start locally. Volunteering in your own community will give you experience providing effective help to people in need. Your local Red Cross chapter can give you information on disaster management training courses, which are held throughout the year www.redcross.org/en/takeaclass. Your local fire department may also offer training and accept untrained volunteers. Many community colleges offer advanced training in health and other sectors that are relevant to domestic and overseas emergency work.
After you gain some of these valuable skillsets, the next step is to contact agencies that interest you; ask about the qualifications they require and inquire whether your training or experience makes you eligible to help.
For those who can make the time commitment, the Peace Corps is an excellent gateway to the experience one needs to pursue professional or volunteer work overseas: www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.howvol.
AmeriCorps is also a good pathway to disaster work for those who are interested: www.americorps.gov/about/ac/index.asp.
I work in the medical field (as a doctor, paramedic, nurse, EMT, dentist) and I know that my services must be needed for relief activities. Where do I sign up?
During most international emergencies doctors are available close to the affected region. The host country government often relies upon in-country resources before requesting outside assistance, since local doctors are most familiar with the medical systems, language, culture, and treatments required.
If you are interested in offering your services as a volunteer, make sure you are working with an agency that is operational on the ground and has authorization from the affected country’s government to bring in personnel and medications. When unannounced doctors fly into affected countries they frequently travel no further than the airport or to the capital city. If they’re not affiliated with an organization, their medical training may not be recognized, lodging may be unavailable, and roads may be impassible due to the emergency. Local health officials are likely to be fully occupied with relief activities and cannot take time to meet, train and shepherd a visiting physician.
Many medically oriented relief agencies have volunteer personnel that they have worked with for many years and can call upon at a moment’s notice. If you would like to be part of such a cadre, you must register with an organization before a disaster strikes, so that your qualifications and experience may be reviewed and your paperwork put in order.
I understand that disaster relief personnel are professionals and they must have the appropriate skills and training before they are sent on overseas assignments. I am interested in pursuing international disaster relief and humanitarian assistance as a career. Can you point me in the right direction to get the appropriate degrees and training?
An increasing number of colleges and universities offer degrees in humanitarian fields including Public Health, International Affairs, Economics and International Humanitarian Assistance Law. Within these degrees there are a number of humanitarian sectors to focus on, including health, water/sanitation/hygiene, logistics, nutrition, shelter, risk reduction and protection. A quick internet search can provide a wealth of information.
I have relatives who are U.S. citizens and are living in the country where the disaster occurred. How do I find out if they are safe? Is it safe to travel there?
The best resource is the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. General information about the Bureau can be obtained from the State Department website at www.state.gov. If you want to call the State Department, check the website first so you can be ready with the information needed by the person who answers your call.
For information regarding travel warnings and other related information, please visit the travel-related section of the State Department’s web site at travel.state.gov for up-to-date information about your destination.
I have seen on television that many of the disaster victims are children who have been orphaned. How can I adopt these children?
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the U.S. Department of State have established protocols on adoption. In most cases it is preferable to place orphaned children with members of their extended family or with other families of the same culture. For these reasons and others, many governments do not allow foreign adoptions. Additional information may be obtained via this guide on the UNHCR web site, from the State Department Office of Children’s Issues at travel.state.gov.
I work for a large corporation or for a firm that supports them. I have been asked to find out how to make a large material corporate donation. What are my next steps?
A good first step is to call USAID CIDI. Our experts can talk with you about financial, cultural and logistical matters that may be important considerations for your organization and for those you want to help. Many important details, including the quantity and quality of the donation, requirements for transportation and warehousing must be settled before you proceed.
I am interested in bidding on U.S. government contracts to be involved in international disaster relief activities. Where do I find information?
Information regarding U.S. government contracts related to international relief and development programs can be found here: http://www.usaid.gov/work-usaid