In the summer of 2005 I worked at a summer camp, earning enough money to purchase my school uniforms and excited by the prospect of riding Metro without an adult. When not working I was glued to the television, watching events unfold after Hurricane Katrina and related flooding in New Orleans . Thousands of moms, dads, children, and elderly people were in desperate need of relief. So many thoughts raced through my mind. What could they have done to prepare for this? What would I do in their situation? What can I do to help them? As days passed, I saw more and more initiatives to support the survivors of New Orleans, yet none of them inspired me to act.

Soon, I started high school; classes and extracurricular activities occupied by mind and time until one announcement thrust Hurricane Katrina back into my consciousness. All after-school activities in the gymnasium had been cancelled or moved to a nearby recreation center so the gym could shelter survivors of Hurricane Katrina who relocated to DC.. There were no ready answers to our many questions: how were they chosen, did they volunteer to come to DC, when would they arrive, how long would they stay, and will they have beds and supplies? This sparked a conversation with a girl in my homeroom who moved to DC following flood warnings in New Orleans. Her stories about how drastically her life changed left me sympathetic and scrambling to grasp that we are all at risk of life-changing events. How can we prepare for the unpredictable?

Preparing for emergencies within our families and communities is important and potentially life-saving. So is preparing oneself as a donor, being ready to give aid to people impacted by disasters. Are you prepared to help others in the most effective and efficient way possible? When disasters strike, many people’s first impulse is to collect food or clothing; it is not unusual for community and local groups to collect thousands of pounds of material – typically used clothing, canned food and bottled water – realizing only afterward that they do not know whether it’s actually needed, how they will transport it or who will distribute it. We all want to help affected families in difficult circumstances, and it is important to remember that material donations not specifically requested by relief organizations can actually slow the process of delivering essential supplies, as they take away precious space, personnel, time and other resources from life-saving activities. For those who want to send material things, it’s important to “connect before you collect” and identify a relief or charitable organization beforehand that needs and can distribute the collection. Charitable preparedness!

Being prepared is a skill and it can be a challenge. In light of National Preparedness Month, I am reminded of that summer before high school. There was little difference between what my classmate shared and what the news recounted after Hurricane Katrina; it was the same story from two different perspectives. Both of them inspired me to think hard about priorities in preparedness. As a donor, I may be tempted to donate clothes and other things I no longer have need for, but realized that the best way for me to thoughtfully express compassion starts with being absolutely positive that what I give is needed and requested.

That’s why Cash is Best! Cash donations to relief and charitable organizations working in disaster-affected communities can be used immediately to purchase supplies that are urgently needed, while supporting the local economy. Sending coats that don’t fit any more or out-of-season shoes to disaster sites can disrupt relief operations by taking up space needed to manage and distribute life-saving supplies. Therefore, it’s important for donors to understand that in-kind donations can be useful in the right circumstances but very harmful in others. For more information on donations and why cash is best, please visit:

After having posted a contest to find the worst examples of in-kind donations, it was suggested that there are some in-kind donations that can be useful. Thus, in this post I am asking for examples of the most useful in-kind donations.

I invite you to submit examples of useful in-kind donations, research demonstrating the best types of in-kind donations, or criteria for useful donations.

I’ll start by submitting two sets of guidelines from the World Health Organization; Guidelines for Health Care Equipment Donations, and Guidelines for Drug Donations. The four criteria given in the first set of guidelines are specific to health care equipment, however donors would benefit from considering these criteria for all donations.

Sending donated items can undermine the local economy

Recently the local news featured the story of an aid group seeking donations of slightly used soccer balls and shoes to send to children in Afghanistan. Although this sounds like a great way to get involved and help out sending donated goods can actually undermine the economic recovery of the people you are trying to assist. By importing items and then giving them away for free, instead of purchasing them locally, you out compete the local shop keepers trying to sell similar goods. They, in turn, do not purchase more these items from local manufactures and farmers. If enough goods are given away for free it can bankrupt the local businesses that are struggling to survive.

Would we allow goods that would compete with items made in the US to be shipped in and given away for free?

Let’s look at this from a different angle. Suppose instead of soccer equipment being shipped by the US to Afghanistan, China, concerned about a prolonged economic downturn in the US, decides to donate fuel efficient cars to California to help the world’s 6th largest economy recover. Would the US allow China to import donated cars? Think of the effect this would have not only on the car dealers in California but also to the car manufactures and parts manufacturers throughout the US. To protect our own markets the US has import restrictions and tariffs, other countries have similar regulations.

Importing goods often costs more than buying them in country

Shipping items is also very expensive. Costs that need to be considered include air or sea transport, custom fees or tariffs, and overland transportation once in country. It is often cheaper to buy the goods in country which would put money into the local economy. Shopkeepers who are struggling after years of war would welcome the business, they may then buy more soccer balls from the factory. With increased orders the factory would have more work for their staff, which may lead to increased wages with which workers could feed their families and buy soccer balls for their own children.

Guidelines for in-kind donations

The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) has some great guidelines for in-kind donations, even if it’s not a disaster. Here’s an excerpt:

“unlike in-kind donations, cash donations entail no transportation cost. In addition, cash donations allow relief supplies to be purchased at locations as near to the disaster site as possible. Supplies, particularly food, can almost always be purchased locally- even in famine situations. This approach has the triple advantage of stimulating local economies (providing employment, generating cash flow), ensuring that supplies arrive as quickly as possible and reducing transport and storage costs.”

Buying locally supports the local economy which speeds recovery

Although the intention behind the donation of sporting equipment was good, good intentions alone are not enough to ensure good aid. Buying locally is always preferable to shipping in goods from outside. Donated goods undercut the local economy and if the markets are undercut often enough businesses will fail creating more people in need of aid.