Thursday, June 16, 2011

How Not to Declutter: Donating Stuff After a Disaster

Photo by Walt Hubis, licensed under Creative Commons.

Tornados. Floods. Earthquakes. Fires. Tsunamis. Hurricanes. We read about these things, and often think: I've got extra clothes, or toys, or food, or home furnishings I could donate to help people out.

And that's a generous impulse, and sometimes it's useful to act on it. We had a huge explosion and fire in my part of the world last September, and such donations were solicited for a while. But rather soon the requests changed: Please, no more stuff. If you want to help, donate money.

Especially in cases of disasters occurring outside of the area you live in, donations of "stuff" are discouraged by aid agencies.

The American Red Cross will not accept such donations, as it explains:
The American Red Cross does not accept or solicit small, individual donations of items for emergency relief purposes. Small items such as collections of food, used clothing, and shoes often must be cleaned, sorted, and repackaged which impedes the valuable resources of money, time, and personnel that are needed for other aspects of our relief operation. ... The best way to help a disaster victim is through a financial donation to the American Red Cross. Financial contributions allow the Red Cross to purchase exactly what is needed for the disaster relief operation. Monetary donations also enable the Red Cross to purchase relief supplies close to the disaster site which avoids delays and transportation costs in getting basic necessities to disaster victims.
The Salvation Army explains it this way:
Anytime a disaster strikes there are two inevitable things that will happen. One is that people’s lives will be affected in some way, shape or form. The other is that people will want to donate “stuff.”

After every major disaster I have been part of, we have been inundated with donated goods. One thing is for sure … people have big hearts and good intent. On the surface cleaning out a closet to donate your no-longer-needed pair [of] pants, or t-shirts that you wore that one time only, seems like good idea. The reality is this can be a huge burden on the disaster response. ...

With in-kind goods a lot of infrastructure is required to make those gifts manageable and able to be delivered to those in need. Warehouses must be secured, trucks lined up to transfer the goods, mechanisms in place to get the goods to the disaster survivors … and the list goes on.
And Good Intentions writes:
After the tsunami tons of used clothing were donated, much of it inappropriate to the climate and culture. There were winter hats, coats and gloves donated to southern Thailand and mountains of donated clothing dumped beside the road in India. Donated goods can clog ports and prevent more critical relief items from getting through. Ports can only hold and process so many goods and often the port authorities have difficulty sorting through everything arriving to get it processed and out the doors.
But there are plenty of other ways to donate your excess items to good causes. You can give to Goodwill, a local thrift shop whose sales benefit a local charity, a homeless shelter (after checking on its specific needs), a food bank, or Soles 4 Souls — to name just a few worthy organizations. Or you could offer the items to others on Freecycle, or pass child-related items along to a family with children younger than your own; some mothers groups coordinate such passing-along efforts.


Louise said...

Thanks for this post, Jeri. At the Red Cross, we struggle with how to handle generous donations of items that we can't really use. When in doubt, call the agency first and ask if they can use your "stuff," and please don't be offended if they politely decline and ask for cash instead.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Once again, Jeri, we're on the same wavelength!

I do wish it wouldn't take a disaster to prompt us to donate. Of course, I also wish for world peace and chocolate without calories, so I guess I'm just a hopeless dreamer!

Jeri Dansky said...

Louise, I was thinking of you and Sean as I wrote this post.

Cynthia, I was inspired to write this post by reading, once more, about some group collecting stuff to send off in response to the recent tornados - and wishing I had a succinct response to send to them, suggesting that might not be the best way to help. But I could have just sent them to your excellent post!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thank you, Jeri. Very kind.

JustGail said...

I suspect it's a way for people to fool themselves into thinking they've helped out others when all they've really done is help themselves. I've seen what places like Salvation Army, Goodwill and the mission where I donate items sometimes have to deal with. Not good, even when they are not dealing with a disaster situation.

I guess the only vaguely redeeming thing I can say about those people is that they didn't haul it out to a rural road to dump it.

Jeri Dansky said...

JustGail, I know my little local thrift store also gets lots of inappropriate donations. I'm sure that happens to all places accepting such donations. It's a shame, they then have the added work of disposing of this useless stuff.

But while sometimes the reason is self-delusion (and/or laziness), I think other times people simply don't realize what makes a useful donation. People may want to donate items in fine condition to help with a disaster, not realizing the logistical nightmare that can cause.

And sometimes people cleaning up a closet in a hurry don't look at their clothes carefully, and miss a stain or a tear. Or they don't realize that many places can no longer accept donations of toys.

Or sometimes people are trying to be green, and think "surely someone can make some use of this" - when the answer is "no, sadly, this just needs to go into the trash."

Hilary said...

Hi Jeri, I'm in Australia and as you know we have our fair share of natural disasters in the past few years. There has been a fantastic website set up here called it basically matches up donations to charities. So if you have stuff you no longer need you can post it on this website where charities search through and will pick it up if they want it. There is also a weekly list outlining what charities are looking for. As I said it's only here in Australia but may be useful to any of your other Aussie followers.