The problem of donating to disaster relief efforts (and how NGOs can start to solve it)

Two years ago today, Haiti was struck by an earthquake leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and affecting an estimated three million people.

Unfortunately, it is far from the only natural disaster or crisis to strike within recent years. We’ve seen the outpouring of donations to disaster relief efforts in such places as Thailand and Japan (although the response has not always been consistent, as previously discussed in this whydev post on the Pakistan floods). The numbers are staggering: within ten days of the Haiti earthquake two years ago, $742 million had been committed to relief and a further $920 million pledged. The total eventually ballooned to over $3.5 billion.

The compassion and concern that people feel for strangers across the world is touching and even inspiring. Who could argue against such an outpouring of generosity?

A GOOD infographic shows the entities that had given $1 million or more to Haiti one week after the earthquake. The orange represents donations from individuals.

Well, I can, and I’m not the first. All too often, the well-intended donations to disaster relief, motivated by emotion, are not as helpful as some would have you believe. Here’s why.

Often, donations take too long to be processed to be of any use on the ground.

I can’t say it better than this excerpt from the Disease Control Priorities report on the GiveWell blog (in a post entitled “The case against disaster relief,” which is certainly worth a read):

The immediate lifesaving response time is much shorter than humanitarian organisations recognise. In a matter of weeks, if not days, the concerns of both the population and authorities shift from search and rescue and trauma care to the rehabilitation of infrastructure (temporary restoration of basic services and reconstruction). In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the December 2004 tsunami, victims were eager to return to normalcy while external medical relief workers were still arriving in large numbers.

So, if I donate my $20 to the Red Cross’ tsunami relief a few days after the tsunami occurred, and it takes a few weeks for the Red Cross to process this donation, my donation has arrived too late to meet the pressing need.

Disaster relief agencies can receive too much money to put to use.

Is your $20 really needed?

It’s a problem many other non-profits who are burned out from writing grant proposals would love to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless, and it raises questions of accountability to donors. If Red Cross is swimming in donations and cannot responsibly spend my $20 in Thailand, is it okay if it spends my money elsewhere.

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the Red Cross was not the only relief agency facing this problem, but some other charities would not publicly admit to being over-saturated with donations, for fear of propagating a belief that they would not need donations in the future, as discussed in this Times article.

This thinking gets us into a grey zone where transparency and accountability are not at the forefront of NGOs’ actions, and that leaves me feeling uneasy.

In-kind donations (such as blankets, clothing, etc.) can be unnecessary or even logistically harmful to recovery efforts.

While certainly not approaching the scale of devastation seen in other places we’ve discussed, a fire in my home country of Canada razed one-third of Slave Lake,  Alberta in 2011. This necessitated the evacuation of 95% of the town’s residents, and the events that followed illustrate perfectly the bother in-kind donations can be.

Well-intentioned donors collected things for the residents of Slave Lake with such enthusiasm that there was far more stuff than was necessary, and some of it ended up in a landfill. This caused a minor PR mess for the charities, always fun for us in non-profit communications to deal with.

This is a small and relatively harmless example of in-kind donations, but you can imagine the logistic, economic and political problems that could arise when, say, receiving donated food items in Somalia.

If I’ve made my case as well as I hope I have, you’ll concede there are many difficulties with the public’s overwhelming support for disaster relief. So, the next question is: what should disaster relief agencies do about it?

That’s not an easy question to answer, but here are some ideas for ways they can communicate with the public to minimise some of the above problems, and facilitate more sustainable and effective giving. They’re certainly not a panacea, but provide a place to start.

Facilitate structured giving, rather than one-offs.

Those who budget and plan their charitable giving donate about three times as much as those who don’t, at least in Canada. In other words, donors who give habitually give more.

This represents a fantastic opportunity for disaster relief agencies; if they could make regular giving a habit among those who give one-time donations after disasters, it would pay off.

There are many different ways of doing this. The easiest, and one that is becoming more and more common, is to make it possible for donors to give monthly donations of a set amount. For NGOs, receiving 12 monthly donations of $10 is usually better than receiving a one-time donation of $120, as it allows them to better plan their operations and ensures that when there is a disaster, there are already donations they can use. Explaining this to donors would be helpful.

Another is to make charitable giving a part of established events or traditions. World Vision’s gift catalogue takes advantage of people’s habit of buying gifts during the holiday season by encouraging donations to “purchase” a goat or other gifts for those in developing countries. Another example is Meal Exchange’s Halloween Trick or Eat campaign, where volunteers visit households in Canada to ask for donations to food banks. In both cases, the organisations take advantage of existing traditions to make giving to them part of the tradition.

A step further is for organisations to create their own regular events or traditions to facilitate donations. Movember stands out as the best example of this, as it has raised millions of dollars for men’s health initiatives while claiming November as the month for men to channel their inner P.I. Magnum/Ned Flanders/other moustachioed alter egos. Similarly, United Way does annual workplace campaigns to raise funds. In both cases, the organisations have made giving to them an annual event, and part of donors’ habits.

When necessary, decline donations.

Yes, you read that right. When relief agencies receive more donations than they need for a specific disaster, they should stop taking them. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the Japanese Red Cross clearly and admirably stated it did not need donations. (This went unheeded by the American Red Cross, which in the four days after the earthquake raised $34 million in the name of Japan’s earthquake victims.)

Similarly, less than a week after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-France stopped accepting donations for tsunami relief. When they received 110 million Euros after this announcement, they asked donors’ permission to use these funds for other emergencies and forgotten crises. To the 1% of donors who did not grant their permission for their donations to be diverted to other crises, MSF-France refunded their money.

Sadly, MSF-France’s decision was viewed with dismay from other NGOs, many of whom either denounced it outright or demanded that it be explained very carefully, so the public would not misunderstand. When the gravy train of emotional giving begins, it’s not always popular to say it should stop. (See David Rieff’s excellent article for more on this particular case and what he calls “the humanitarian circus.”)

The public often perceive NGOs as wasting donations, spending too much on overheads, and being inefficient. There is no better way to perpetuate this attitude than by accepting donations for causes where donations aren’t needed. Disaster relief agencies need to be more responsible with donations, and at times that will mean declining them.

I recognise this is not an exhaustive list of solutions, and they aren’t easy solutions. Nevertheless, they provide a place to start improving our humanitarian aid, ultimately for the better of both NGOs working in disaster relief and the people they’re trying to help. Because disasters are emotional events and people are more generous when reacting emotionally, it is easy to capitalise on a disaster to solicit donations. But that doesn’t make it the best thing to do.

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Allison Smith

Allison is a freelance writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon, and her work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia. For more Allison, visit her website at allisonjanesmith.com and follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

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9 thoughts on “The problem of donating to disaster relief efforts (and how NGOs can start to solve it)”

  1. One great thing about disaster relief fund raising is that the money can go towards longer term development projects. Money flies out the door during those times of crisis, but many disaster relief agencies are also development agencies, like the one I work for, and they can save reserves for 2-5 years of rehabilitation programming. This show communities the organization's long term intent to walk alongside them as they recover. It's also great for the donor because their donation can be seen making an impact years down the line, and it keeps the organization accountable by keeping the money in country, as assigned by the donor.

  2. In line with some of the comments, I think one of the most effective and honest ways NGOs can raise money is to not raise it for a specific cause (this is similar to your point about monthly donations). Instead of saying "give money to our Earthquake appeal", just say "give money to us." This means that when the donations are excessive, they don't need to fuss about diverting funds elsewhere, because they won't have been allocated to one cause.

  3. Interesting article. It brings up practical issues regarding effective donations and responsible use of donations by NGOs. After reading it and after reading some of the comments, I remain with the feeling, though, that Save the Children is an organization that deserves my donations and I am strongly against of supporting such a statement. Save the Children is the main representative of the aid INDUSTRY. They might be very efficient in the way they market the organization and attract donations, but they are not accountable. What people need to ask themselves and Save the Children is how they spend the money. If the malnourished, brown, little face that they show on the tv screen, tapping into my emotions, will in fact benefit from my donation. They are the best at what somebody once called "hunger porn". For an enlightening read about Save the Children, CARE, The UN System and the aid industry, please refer to The Road to Hell by Michael Maren.

  4. Yes I agree with Holly all the point were excellent I especially liked the point " The easiest, and one that is becoming more and more common, is to make it possible for donors to give monthly donations of a set amount." . I hope the organizations like NGO may consider this point as this will be very useful for them at the time of disaster. As they don't have to wait till the fund is collected and then sponsor it to the affected area. They will have some money to sponsor immediately.

  5. http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa065.html Well thought out article on the failure foreign aid by the American government since just after WWII. Although it focuses on government to government aid as opposed to NGOs raising money from individual donations, it’s still a good read. The economic implications of government to government foreign aid are troubling.

  6. Excellent points! I think a good example of facilitated giving that still manages to tap into emotions and hopefully motivate more to give is Save the Children's Monthly Givers appeal. http://www.savethechildren.org/site/c.8rKLIXMGIpI… This combines marketing savvy with a better approach to giving. Perhaps there are some other good examples of this? I think organizations need to pay careful attention to how they market these types of giving, so that they seem just as appealing as one-time donations.

    1. Thanks for your comment Holly, and excellent point about structured giving that also taps into emotions (the emotional appeal is important!) More and more non-profits are highlighting monthly giving the way Save the Children does, which is great to see. I like Save the Children's emphasis that monthly giving is more cost-effective, and enables them to put more money into programs.

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