“What is altruism without effort?”

As a researcher at USAID CIDI, I have spent a great deal of my time conducting research on humanitarian supply chain logistics.  As a result, I now know that the effectiveness of the humanitarian supply chain is critical to the success of disaster relief efforts. We as donors can help logisticians working for professional humanitarian organizations more effectively plan disaster relief operations and better serve survivors by making more effective donations.

When we contribute unsolicited material donations, these can create “logistical bottlenecks” in the humanitarian supply chain that can slow down the provision of aid to those in need.  For this reason, I donate cash to professional humanitarian organizations responding to international disasters because I want to provide them with the opportunity to respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.

While it’s not always easy find NGOs that are trustworthy, actively involved in a relief effort, or participating in a way that we as donors want to contribute to, the internet is making it easier for us as donors to do our homework and identify professional humanitarian organizations that we want to support. Websites like GuideStar or Charity Navigator allow us to read reviews from other donors that share their experiences with donating to a particular NGO and offer donors the ability to measure an NGOs legitimacy by evaluating their financial statements, tax returns, and more.  This process does require some time, but what is altruism without effort?

As donors, we rarely consider what happens to our donations after we make them. When I think about what would need to happen for an item to leave my hands and enter the hands of an international disaster survivor, it becomes clear that an incredibly complicated and expensive journey must ensue. How much would it cost to send a pair of jeans from Los Angeles, California to Kabul, Afghanistan?  The answer is roughly $202.05 if you bought the jeans at WalMart and sent them to Afghanistan through FedEx.  Though this isn’t the primary method donors choose to send donations, the process for NGOs that receive unsolicited in-kind contributions is much the same and equally costly.

Monetary contributions, by contrast, provide NGOs with much greater flexibility in the way they can carry out disaster relief operations.  NGOs can exercise bulk purchasing power in countries where the cost of goods in general is considerably less than the cost of the same goods in the United States.  With monetary contributions, NGOs can more easily respond to changing needs on the ground, which is a common occurrence in the wake of severe natural disasters.

I donate cash to international disaster relief efforts for all these reason and simply because monetary donations allow efficient humanitarian supply chains that provide goods and services to disaster-affected people faster.

Eric Chavez (second from left) Senior Research Analyst for The Center for International Disaster Information

Eric Chavez (second from left) Senior Research Analyst for The Center for International Disaster Information

“Just because you didn’t receive a tax write off, recognition from a local organization, or a thank you card doesn’t mean your efforts were unnoticed.”

So if you haven’t heard, #GivingTuesday is all the rage around the holidays! Recognized globally on December 2nd, this day is dedicated to bringing communities, families, organizations, causes and students together for one common goal: to give.

There are so many ways to give back;  whether it’s done anonymously or intentionally, the warm feeling you’re rewarded with is indescribable. The holidays are a time where you are around people you care about the most and every memory is special and imbeds itself into your psyche. That’s what makes it the best time to start traditions; giving a reoccurring role for all to take on and share with their other communities and families.

Whether you choose to give your time, talent, or money, giving back can be done in any fashion. This day fits perfectly between Thanksgiving and Christmas time. So with one day encouraging you to give thanks, another infecting you with cheeriness and acts of generosity, and the one in between actively encouraging you to give, why not donate the best way possible?

Giving money assures that you’ve done your part, and the recipient, who knows the situation best, has comfort in knowing a need is about to be met. I think that is the most important position to view donating from: the position of the recipient. Maybe the need is food and not clothing? How much? What do people need or want to eat? These questions will circulate through the head of the giver who practices #smartcompassion, a giver who channels the desire to give back in the most effective way.

We’re no strangers to donating and giving back. Just because you didn’t receive a tax write off, recognition from a local organization, or a thank you card doesn’t mean your efforts went unnoticed. I think giving money to a friend or family member and not expecting it in return is considered donating. To me, the act of giving itself is what is appreciated by the donor, the recipient, and everyone else.

If you stop and think about it, money travels faster than goods. Cash can meet any need and fill any gap in most circumstances. I think when giving cash, it feels just as good learning that I was responsible for helping build the infrastructure of the organization that feeds children after school as it would feel being responsible for the food they are eating.

With hash tags like #unselfie and #GivingTuesday, this holiday is an excellent way to help push social impact while also giving millennials a chance to be a part of something emerging before our eyes on the platforms we know and love! Great job New York’s 92nd Street Y.

Lauren Chatman, Online Communications Specialist for The Center for Disaster Information.

Lauren Chatman, Online Communications Specialist for The Center for Disaster Information.

As director of D-TRAC I was often asked to orient heads of aid agencies and donors on the tsunami recovery efforts. As part of this there was usually a request to visit temporary camps and villages to see things in person. I was always torn as to the right thing to do. Was it more important for that person to see the situation on the ground, or was it more important for people who have just lost their homes and loved ones to be able to care for their children and rebuild their lives without having strangers walking through their village looking at them.

What is interesting and educational to you may be intrusive and demoralizing to them

Recently, a reader argued that the donor’s needs for understanding and education are just as important as the needs of the aid recipients. I would disagree with that. I strongly believe that the needs of the aid recipients should be paramount, with the needs of the donor accommodated only when it is appropriate. What is interesting and educational to the donor may be intrusive and demoralizing to the people they are trying to help.

Feeling like an animal at a zoo

Perhaps I am hyper-aware of this issue because of my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the late 90’s. I was one of the few westerners in my province and many people had never seen a westerner close up. As a result of this I was regularly stared at in the market place with parents pointing me out to their children saying “farang, farang” (westerner). When I sat on my front porch at night cars would slow down as they drove by. Old women on buses would rub my arms telling their friends my hair was like gold. All of this made me feel like an animal in a zoo rather than a real person. How then, must aid recipients feel with foreigners walking through their neighborhoods or temporary camps, staring at them, and talking about them.

In addition to being stared at and touched, many Thais used me as an educational tool for their families or students. Although my job was to train teachers on environmental education techniques, most principals just wanted me to visit their school so the children could see and hear real westerner. There were far too many times when I had to stand in front of a classroom, or an entire school, while the principal pointed out my straight nose, blue eyes, and “gold” hair to the students. This was usually followed by having me speak in English, to the amusement and astonishment of the students.

None of this had anything to do with my skills, my experience, or my job responsibilities, but it had to be endured to get the support I needed to get the job done. How often do aid recipients feel as though they are not respected for their knowledge and abilities, but instead have to endure being viewed as an educational experience or cultural exchange by the myriad of people attracted to a disaster. I choose to become a Peace Corps volunteer and knew that this was a price I paid for that experience. For them it must be worse because they did not choose to become disaster victims, instead it was thrust upon them.

How would you want people to act in your own neighborhood?

Imagine having just lost all of your possessions, your job, and members of your family. How would you feel about the stream of people walking through your neighborhood? There would likely be foreign and national aid agency staff, researchers, photographers from corporations and aid agencies wanting pictures of you or your children, dignitaries garnering a little PR, donors wanting to understand the situation or check up on aid agencies, volunteers looking to be helpful and to have a cultural experience, and plain old tourists wanting to see the impact of the disaster. Which of these people would you feel were appropriate and which would you feel were intrusive. How would you want them to behave?

Before becoming a disaster tourist, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is visiting this site crucial to your decision making, or will it just satisfy personal curiosity?
  • Is visiting temporary camps and newly built villages necessary, or would visiting destroyed areas  provide you with the information or photo ops you are seeking?
  • If you must go into the village, how would you want a person of equal standing to act when walking through your own neighborhood, near your children, or watching you in the unemployment or food pantry line?
  • If you want to speak with disaster victims, then under what circumstances would you feel it was appropriate for someone of equal standing to take up your time with questions?

I would argue that these same guidelines should be used by anyone thinking of becoming a poverty tourist as well. But I’ll leave the debate on poverty tourism to others (see Aid Watch).

Good aid puts the needs of the aid recipients before the needs of the donor

As in all cases, it is crucial to evaluate an aid activity not from the standpoint of what is good for you as a donor, but from the standpoint of what would be good for you as an aid recipient. How would you want others to act if you were an unwitting part of disaster tourism?


Do you agree or disagree? Do you have any research or guidelines on this? I look forward to your comments.



“You wouldn’t want to receive something you didn’t ask for or need at Christmas, let alone during a humanitarian crisis.”

It is Christmas eve and presents are lined beneath my family’s tree. Do you remember that present from a distant relative last year that you opened, cringed and never used? For me it was Barbie dolls when I was sixteen. I appreciate the thought that my relatives put into gifts but sometimes I receive ones I know I will never use. It led me to ask for cash.

Now raise the stakes exponentially. I’m not talking about holiday gift giving but donations given during times of crisis.

In Ebola-stricken areas, healthcare workers may give more than a cringe upon receiving in-kind donations of canned food or used clothing when they are not needed or when those needs have been met. You wouldn’t want to receive something you didn’t ask for or need at Christmas, let alone during a humanitarian crisis. Just as I would hate to give a gift I know would be discarded, I would never want to donate goods that would impede a relief effort. Instead, I donate cash.

It’s difficult to anticipate the needs of a relative; it’s even more difficult anticipating the needs of those in a humanitarian crisis. Cash is best.



This year’s Christmas tree! (an image from Margot Morris, Program Assistant for The Center for International Disaster Information)


Smart Compassion has recently been an important issue at the “Ocean State” of Rhode Island.  At the University of Rhode Island’s College of Business Administration, students of the introductory Operations and Supply Chain Management course – BUS 355, taught by Professor Koray Özpolat, have been offered an optional semester-long project called “Humanitarian Logistics Project”

Building on their logistics and supply chain training, teams of three to four students design public service announcements (PSA) to inform the American public about the most effective way to donate in response to the international disasters. These PSAs are then submitted to the national PSAid contest run by USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI).

The outcome has been fantastic. In 2012 and 2013, four URI teams were nationally recognized in this contest which created lots of buzz in the university and state media (below, see a PSA that was awarded the 2nd place in 2012). Not only the winning teams but many other students doing this project received satisfaction. A student evaluated the project as follows:

URI info

Educators willing to adopt a similar project may take a look at the Özpolat et al. (2014)* paper recently published at the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education.

Overall, contests, similar to PSAid, can successfully be integrated into syllabi of college courses as semester-long team-based projects. While only six PSAs are recognized annually, all contestants are actual winners because their entries are ever-green at the contest website serving the humanitarian relief community in educating their donors.

* Özpolat K.,Chen Y., Hales, D., Yu D., and Yalcin M. G., 2014. “Using Contests to provide Business Students Project-Based Learning in Humanitarian Logistics: PSAid Example”, Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 12(4), 269-285.


The following is a copy of the comment I posted in response to the Wall Street Journal’s article Charities: Tough Times Call for Smarter Giving.

While proposing to provide information on smarter giving, your article will, unfortunately, only perpetuate poor donor practices. I’ve addressed some of the problems with the advice given in Ask Before You Give.

Question 1 – What portion of spending goes to programming (versus operational costs)?

The reason this question doesn’t work:
Although it seems to make sense that the higher percentage of money spent on programming the more money goes directly to those it is meant to help. However, this has not been proven to be true. Operational costs are needed to ensure the money gets where it is most needed. Needs assessment, which are an expensive operational cost, ensure that money is not wasted on building orphanages without any orphans, as happened more than once after the tsunami.

Additionally, what constitutes “program” spending versus “operational” spending is rather fungible. Aid agencies know they are being rated on this, so they quickly learn how to massage the numbers.

Request this instead:
Ask for a copy of last year’s audit findings. Even if you do not understand the audit this will tell you whether the aid agency does yearly audits and whether they are willing to share financial information. A step further would be to request evidence that the aid agency is financially transparent about their expenditures to both donors and aid recipients

Question 2 – What have its accomplishment been? What challenges does face?

The reason this question doesn’t work:
We all know these as classic interview questions, and we all know how to answer them. Aid agencies are essentially applying to you for money, so any answer they give would gloss over their failures. Instead you would likely be told about mild problem that has already been solved.

Request this instead:
It would be far better to request the results of several independent evaluations of the aid agency’s work. Look at the dates and frequency of the evaluations to ensure that the aid agency is actively trying to evaluate and improve their practices (evaluations are, of course, operational expenditures).  Look for evidence that senior management has developed ways to address whatever negative findings were in the report, and that the solutions have been implemented in the field.

Question 3 – Can I direct my gift to one of the charity’s particular programs if I want?

The reason this question doesn’t work:
Earmarking funds for specific projects leads to far more wasted funding than the average donor realizes. Earmarking means that “sexy” programs, such as houses, boats, or orphanages, receive far more funding than non “sexy” programs such as legal aid to help people get the documentation they need to access government services. Earmarks may also require aid agencies to provide aid far in excess of the actual need.

After the tsunami, “mini-mansions” were built by some aid agencies because they had to spend all the money earmarked for housing. Not only did this waste donations, but it also caused a lot of acrimony between the aid recipients that received these houses and those that received houses built to the minimum Sphere standards. Boats were also “sexy” programs which received too much money. Due to the glut of boats being built in Thailand one international aid agency decided to halt their boat making project until it could be determined whether or not more boats were actually needed. The program was forced to restart by headquarters because donors wanted boats and so boats had to be built.

Request This Instead:
Request the results of the agency’s needs assessment. This will tell you if a needs assessment has actually been done, as well as whether it has covered a wide enough area and took into account the assistance provided by other aid agencies and the government (so as not to duplicate assistance). If the aid agency has not yet completed a needs assessment then they should not be developing programs and requesting funding.

Aid practices cannot improve until donor practices improve
Everyone has heard of aid agency waste and poorly implemented programs, but few people understand the underlying causes. Attempts from within the aid world to improve the quality and professionalism of aid have thus far had minimal impact because donors continue to prioritize their funding based on recommendations such as those just provided by WSJ. Aid cannot improve until donors have a greater understanding of good aid practices and donate their money accordingly.

For readers that are interested in learning more I’d suggest the following four resources:

1.    MANGO (Management Accounting for Non Governmental Organizations)
2.    The Listening Project country and issue reports on the CDA website
3.    Lessons learned, evaluations, and meta-evaluations on ALNAP’s website
4.    My blog on the impact of aid at


We’ve all heard of, or even volunteered for, popular non-profit organizations like United Way, Salvation Army, Goodwill, American National Red Cross, and YMCA to name a few. Non-profit organizations rally around a common principle, using profits to invest back in projects that address the organization’s interests. The ones we are most familiar with have a charity or a public service component. They welcome and enable people to contribute their time, skills, efforts, and money for a greater good. Organizations that do this play an integral role in the general welfare and economic and social interests of our communities – solving problems and enriching the community. Non-profits can work domestically or internationally on a range of issues, from addressing immediate hardships for people to preserving macro and micro aspects of cultures.

Do you have an interest in working for the greater good? Human rights, gender equity, environmentally sound development, assisting refugees – I bet there is an organization that exists to address what you care about! Are you interested in giving to or volunteering for a non-profit but you’re not sure what charities are nearby and who needs help? As part of my focus on the Back-to-School season, I’ve compiled a list of non-profit organizations, both domestic and international, that address some of the issues related to going back to school like access to food, books, and a well-rounded education. Thanks to websites like Global Giving and InterAction, we have the resources to explore and support trusted organizations that serve nearly every country and every cause in the world.

Here are some organizations and projects that I have learned about that might interest you:

Help 95 DC Kids Extend Learning After School: New Community for Children plans to serve students from Kindergarten through 12th grade and support them in reaching their full academic potential, preparing for college, and giving back time and talent to their communities.

Increase Graduation Rates In Little Rock: City Year, of Little Rock, Arkansas, is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for low-income youth. City Year’s Long-Term Impact goal is to ensure 80% of the students in the schools they serve reach the 10th grade.

The Lunch Box Expansion Project: Chef Ann Foundation believes by changing the way children eat and think about food, we are helping to create a future generation of informed consumers and parents whose food choices will support sustainable, healthy food systems.

Goods for the Greater Good: Good 360 transforms lives and strengthens communities by mobilizing companies to donate needed materials. The non-profit leader in product philanthropy distributes goods to a network of more than 32,000 prequalified charities, schools and libraries on behalf of America’s top brands.

Pact:Pact’s vision is a world where those who are poor and marginalized exercise their voice, build their own solutions, and take ownership of their future. Pact accomplishes this by strengthening local capacity, forging effective governance systems, and transforming markets into a force for development.

Donating money to a non-profit enables it to utilize the funds in a manner that best serves its goal. Donating your time and skills to an organization locally means you understand the importance of the cause and think it is valuable enough to your community for you to contribute. However you choose to start the year, I encourage you to donate your time, effort, skills, or money to an organization you believe supports the future you want to see.

Class is dismissed! You’ve successfully completed the final course in giving back for back-to-school. What did you learn? What do you plan to share? I want to make the final lesson more active than the previous two and hope that my reflections on the fundamentals in starting the school year encouraged you to reminisce as well. I have a couple of questions for you!

How important can a great foundation be for a student to succeed?

How do you define foundation?

What’s your favorite organization? Is it one of the non-profits we mentioned above?

Share with us below, on your Facebook, or on Twitter! We’d love to hear from you.





Going back to school always gave me mixed emotions. Not every year, but at every stage of my education, I felt like expectations of me were bumped up a notch or two. Like going to elementary school after being in daycare, I remember feeling that routine was everything and as long as I remembered how each day was ordered I would be fine. Moving on to middle school after elementary, my new routine included remembering my locker combination and the order and location of seven subject periods. In high school I balanced finding time for my social life while remaining steadfast in my studies. As for college, routine went out the window and time management took over as a preeminent skill to have. Actually, practicing time management in college enhanced lots of other skills for me, including critical thinking, weighing options, and strategizing. Ultimately I realized that while every school year would require an increasing level of life-skills, each year would also involve a lot of repetition.

I am thankful for the things I knew would ensure my success in school. Taking care of updating my immunization records, keeping a supply of crisp uniforms, and enjoying a hot breakfast each morning gave my parents confidence that I would succeed. New school supplies, new shoes, and a fresh learning environment gave me higher heights to reach. A new grade level, more friends, and increasing responsibilities made me feel like I was in a perfect position to excel. Looking back from elementary to undergrad I’m reminded of that old saying that “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. I understand now that repetition of familiar routines helped to ease my nervousness in each new environment, and each new success builds on prior successes.  Fortunately for me, I had familiar and new things to look forward to every year. But many of us don’t.

I can imagine the disappointment felt by a student who starts a new school year feeling unprepared and without many successes to build on. There may be concern for the health of a child who doesn’t have updated immunizations and records. There may be feelings of embarrassment for students who return to class with uniforms that have more wears than those of classmates. And I’m pretty sure it’s hard to focus on the lesson at hand when your tummy is rumbling. New school supplies and new shoes are so exciting to return to school with and many of us don’t fully appreciate how blessed we are to be able to have those things. Determined is the child who manages to complete each grade level, make new friends, and handle new responsibilities despite these obstacles.  Try to imagine the difficulty of not having these resources year after year. Repetition of their absence becomes disturbing over time. The repeated cycle of a lack of preparedness at each stage of your educational career can easily become disturbing. Disturbing and discouraging.

For me, the repetition has changed. This year isn’t about new uniforms or new grade levels, or even a hot breakfast when I’m battling the clock. This year is about new responsibilities, new dreams, new lessons, and maybe most important, new ways of compassion toward others. I’m learning that there are many nonprofit organizations that understand a child’s foundation of success in education goes a long way. They understand that without the proper tools for success children will have more distractions than just their classmates. The distractions hold them back from learning, which sometimes causes a lack of desire to learn.

Helping others and giving back is a substantial way to contribute to your own success, in education and otherwise. Instead of purchasing uniforms for myself, I could donate to an organization that provides uniforms for students who can’t afford them. I could donate to a back-to-school drive that provides students with the right course materials. Or even donating to a favorite health organization that gives free immunization shots could help.

Repeating something good over and over again can make it a habit. How amazing would it be to make a habit of donating to your favorite organization when the back to school season arrives? Cool right? Need help finding some?

Stay tuned for third period where we discuss nonprofit organizations who agree with the fundamentals of back to school.

Donations can be misused and ill-spent despite the best intentions of donors
Deciding whether or not to donate and which agency or project to donate to can be a daunting and frustrating task. Although donors choose aid agencies that they think will have the greatest impact, aid donations often are misused and ill-spent. This occurs both despite of and because of the best intentions of donors.

How does this happen?
Concerned about aid reaching those who need it the most, many donors give to aid agencies that work quickly and cheaply. Dependent upon donors for funding and survival, aid agencies feel pressured to develop programs that are fast and cheap. Unfortunately, projects with low administration costs and fast implementation rates often have unintended consequences.

This posting is from a journal I kept as a Crisis Corps volunteer working on the tsunami recovery in Thailand.

Boats are “sexy”Donated boats - Thailand - photo by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

Boats have become the “sexy” projects of the tsunami recovery.  Go onto the web site of most aid organizations and odds are that somewhere they will talk about boats.  Some days it’s seems as though you can’t turn around without running into another organization working to give boats to villagers.

Don’t get me wrong, boats are very important for these coastal villages.  They are also extremely difficult for the average villager to replace because, as a general rule, they cost around 120,000 baht (to put this into perspective, as a crisis corps volunteer I would make about 96,000 baht a year, and our salary is based upon local wages).  This means it’s almost impossible for villagers to replace their boats on their own, especially now that many of their livelihoods have been destroyed.  So boats are desperately needed.  But there is a growing belief (unsubstantiated because of the difficulty of collecting data from the multitude of aid organizations) that there will be more boats in this area after the tsunami than there were before the tsunami.  There is also a fear that some people may well receive 2 or 3 boats.

Menus vary according to local taste and preferences

Craving beef I stopped by a McDonald’s in Indonesia looking for a hamburger. I was surprised at the menu filled with fried chicken and only one hamburger choice. Both McDonald’s and international aid are affected by market forces. At McDonald’s local tastes of the diners affect what’s on the menu. In international aid the “menu” is too often based on the taste of the donors, not the diners.



I love watching Alyssa Thomas play basketball. Not only because the University of Maryland three-time ACC Player of the Year is an uber-athletic, ridiculously talented, beautiful monster stat machine, but because she is also a giver. Watch her sometime; her focus is always on her teammates, the ball, the basket, and scoring. She applies her imagination and skill over every obstacle in a relentless pursuit of the win. And from her completeness and purity of effort ripples wave after wave of inspiration, to her teammates, the fans, the announcers, and those who witness.

Alyssa Thomas

Alyssa Thomas holding a ball with her teammates. Photo credit to Maryland Athletics.

All players give effort but not all give wisely. The ball-hogs, the floppers, the hackers— perhaps owing to impatience or inexperience— push winning a little farther away through sub-optimal use of their talent and time.  But Alyssa always seems to give her best; even under formidable demands, pressure and opposition, she gives wisely.

In the humanitarian arena, givers like Alyssa are needed and admired. Analogous to epic ball skills, charitable donors demonstrate focused, intelligent giving when “winning” involves helping people who are going through very tough times. On USAID CIDI’s home court of disaster relief, we cheer on donors who give essential aid through monetary contributions to relief and charitable organizations working directly with disaster-affected people. Cash donations play to the strengths of these organizations by optimizing their expertise and bulk purchasing power, which enable them to help more people quickly and for a longer time. Monetary donations are the alley-oop of charity.

As the college basketball season ends, Atlantic Hurricane Season approaches, and there may be occasions this year when others need an assist.  During the hard challenges, disaster-affected people are most effectively supported when donors team up with charitable organizations and follow-through with perfect form—just like Alyssa.