This article originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle.
With wildfires still ablaze in California, thousands of homes and dozens of lives lost, millions of Americans are asking how they can help. But, far too often in the wake of disaster, good intentions lead to misguided donations that do more harm than good.
Last fall, when the Wine Country fires ravaged my hometown of Napa, I visited Puertas Abiertas, a nonprofit that does outreach to the Latino community, to see how I could help. The executive director led me to their backyard to show me the mountain of dog food they had received from donors in the days after the fire. She said, “What can I do with this? Most of our clients don’t have dogs. They need money to buy groceries and deposits for new housing.”
She’s not alone.
In Newtown, Conn., when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the community had to rent a warehouse to fit 67,000 stuffed animals donated from across the country, most of which ultimately got sent away.
In China, after a major earthquake shook Sichuan Province, leaving millions homeless, volunteers clogged the tiny mountain roads trying to donate blood and bring in donated items, preventing emergency supplies from reaching the people and organizations who needed them most.
As someone who has worked with nonprofits, time and again I’ve seen people get so obsessed with the idea of “helping” that they often fail to stand back and consider whether what they’re doing is effective. Good intentions simply aren’t enough.
If you truly want to help victims in the aftermath of disaster, then take the time to educate yourself before you give.
Consider donating cash instead of goods. During the 2017 Wine Country wildfires, just 1 to 2 percent of the donated goods were used. In less than a week since the outbreak of the California fires in Butte and Ventura counties, the same scenario is playing out: Camp Fire evacuation centers are filling up with used and unusable items. While donors mean well, they don’t realize that this stuff is taking up valuable space and requiring desperately needed volunteer time to clear.
Instead, in the aftermath of disaster, cash donations that benefit victims can be one of the most powerful ways to make impact. As one victim of the 2017 fires described, “Some people think that $10 isn’t a lot, but when 10 people donate just $10, that fire survivor now has $100 to buy new clothes and underwear for their kids.”
You can find victims to support directly on GoFundMe by searching the name of the disaster. Or find an evacuation center in the area to deliver gift cards from Visa, large grocery store chains, gas stations and drugstores.
Donate to local nonprofit organizations that provide crucial social services to victims. Emergency relief isn’t just about getting through the immediate aftermath of a disaster, it’s also about addressing long-term needs like housing, employment and mental health — in the months and years to come. This is especially true for those who were living close to the poverty line before the disaster, who are likely to be most adversely affected when tragedy strikes. Local poverty-fighting organizations are in the best position to support poor populations because they have close relationships and trust with the communities they serve.
If you aren’t familiar with nonprofits in the area, you can donate to community foundations — like the North Valley Community Foundation, based in Chico — that work directly with local nonprofits to serve the greatest needs.
Give collectively with your friends, colleagues and your own community to enlarge your contribution. Last year when fires struck, the Petaluma Mothers’ Club put out a call on Facebook that it was raising funds for $25 gift cards to distribute at local shelters, and money poured in from mothers around the country. The group raised nearly $45,000 for families that had lost everything.
Companies can play a role. In 2017, big tech companies including Salesforce and Twilio teamed up with a leading foundation — Tipping Point Community — to present a benefit concert and raise $33 million for nonprofits that were providing crucial support for those affected by the Northern California fires. The companies encouraged their employees to contribute by matching their donations.
If you do feel compelled to give goods instead of cash, make sure you are in direct communication with organizations distributing donations, and donate new as opposed to used items, to avoid sending useless items and creating costly cleanup. By taking the time to educate ourselves before we give, we can turn good intentions into desperately needed disaster relief for the most vulnerable among us.