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When something is not better than nothing: Improving in-kind donations

When something is not better than nothing: Improving in-kind donations

By Matthew Morris

Every time there’s a humanitarian emergency, World Vision Australia (WVA) fields phone calls from dozens of people wanting to contribute their goods as relief. In almost every instance, we have to decline the offer–because cash is more agile and useful in emergencies, because the items most needed are pre-positioned in strategic locations and because it’s almost always more cost effective to procure goods in-country or at least in-region.

In-kind donations can, however, play a positive role in ongoing development programs, but that role has been dramatically reshaped and refined after decades of mixed results and, often, abject failure.

With private charitable donations contracting, and with the increasing need (and genuine desire) to engage the private sector in development activities, NGOs now look beyond traditional funding sources. This often takes the form of donated of physical goods.

In the 19th and early-20th centuries, sending physical goods overseas was the backbone of large charity operations–it was hoped that the shipment would cure whatever was ailing a disadvantaged community. However, providing the hardware of resources without the software of well-defined programs was largely unsuccessful, because it assumed the needs of communities and prescribed Western solutions.

But in many ways, what’s old has become new again, and international NGOs are increasingly turning to donated goods (“gifts-in-kind”) to support programming and free up cash resources. The risks associated with the acceptance and distribution of donated goods are myriad, and the failures litter development literature–as well as warehouses in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

In examining failure, motivation is key: corporate donors can often claim donated goods as tax deductions, and NGOs can often record gifts-in-kind as income. These two motivators are powerful, and often cloud the process of deciding what to accept.

Goods are often sent without consideration of local economic circumstances, and no primary producer in a developing country can compete with freely distributed items in their market. Similarly, goods can be sent without regard to local culture or need, leading to confusion and unused resources. Inferring that all failure comes down to financial incentives is too simplistic: the vast majority of corporations and organisations donating goods want to help. But without quality local staff and effective programming, the results tend to be negative.

Whilst WVA has been implementing donated goods in field programming since the early-1990s, we reached a definitive moment in 2006: there was a realisation that, in many cases, donations had become a way for corporations to offload excess stock, rather than a way to provide for priority resource needs in the field. As a result, the organisation made a comprehensive change.

The focus on the nominal income of donations was removed, and their impact was prioritised–bettering outcomes for both beneficiaries and corporate donors.

Resource donation should never emphasise a donor’s or NGO’s financial interests. For donated goods to have any meaningful impact, the focus must be on strategic acquisition and integration of resources that will genuinely contribute to achieving program objectives and bettering the lives of beneficiaries.

This acknowledgement meant the development of global standards that require continuous consultation with field staff to determine what’s most needed, analysis of local markets to prevent negative impact and a far stricter approach in assessing offered donations.

The wholesale change in operations has meant resisting financial pressures to accept ineffective but high-value items at a time when cash donations are contracting, and resisting pressure from donors who are certain their excess stock can make a difference overseas (despite evidence to the contrary). But through resisting these pressures, honestly disclosing past failures and educating internal and external parties, donated resources have begun to have a far bigger impact.

One important factor for success with in-kind donations has been ongoing partnerships with corporations who make annual donations, which allows for WVA to plan effectively. For example, by building multi-year partnerships with some of Australia’s largest textbook publishers, we are able to give field staff the opportunity to select the right titles for their national curriculum. By integrating these resources into proven literacy programs, the donations contribute to measurable impact in education outcomes, and monitoring and evaluation data supports this.

Rather than focusing solely on ad-hoc partnerships based on excess inventory transfers to the developing world from Australian manufacturers (transfers that had achieved little real impact), strategic partnerships were sought with both large corporations with access to identified in-kind needs, as well as smaller NGOs that could leverage WVA’s programming and logistics reach.

WVA forged a partnership with a volunteer group of knitters to supply durable thermal blankets to help incentivise health clinic visits for expectant mothers. A group of retired machinists and mechanics supply hundreds of World Health Organisation-standard wheelchairs every year for clinics in East and Southern Africa, implemented with the expertise of trained clinicians from an NGO specialising in disability. Through working with the Birthing Kit Foundation (Australia), 30,000 clean birthing kits (comprised of basic medical goods that enable a safer delivery) have been provided through World Vision programming to clinics and hospitals in fragile states.

This is not to suggest that every implementation has been successful. Gaps in planning have seen some donated resources kept locked away in secure spaces within communities–out of the hands of recipients–because they are so highly valued. The difficulties of international logistics, particularly in the African context, consistently challenge even the best-laid plans.

But these failures and gaps are diminishing year after year, as the provision of donated goods meshes further with programming objectives. For beneficiaries, this means better outcomes in education, health and economic development. For donors and NGOs, it means building partnerships that aren’t simply financial and transactional; it has given rise to partnerships based on transparency and shared goals and that better achieve positive outcomes for communities most in need of assistance.

Matthew Morris is a Project Facilitator with World Vision Australia’s Program Resources team, dealing in the sourcing, distribution and programming of non-cash donations of physical goods.

Featured image shows sneakers in a market in India. Photo by Sabarish Raghupathy.

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