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.