Why should I donate money to hurricane victims?

I’m sitting in Minnesota. I don’t own a store, I don’t have a truck, I have no medical knowledge.

So, what can I donate?

I could buy a crate of cheap food at the local store in Minnesota and drop it off with my neighborhood Red Cross. Now what happens? They have enough dehydrated mash potatos for 50, but it’s at the wrong end of the country. It also requires equipment and supplies to use (stove, pan, clean water). That box of potatos isn’t doing anyone any good.

I donate the cost of a megabox of spuds to the Red Cross. They deposit the money in Minnesota, and tomorrow someone negotiates with the manufacturer of megaspuds, and they get enough for 75 for the same cost, from a warehouse in Dallas. Or maybe they use it to buy the gas that moves some volunteers into NO, or pays for medication for someone.

Cash can be in the right location
Cash can be the right commodity (medications, water, food, clothing, gas)
Red Cross can get WAY better costs then I can
Cash can be stored, to pay for what is needed next week, or next month.
Cash is something that a lot more people can donate.

If you are able to donate, efficently, something that is useful, good for you. For me, I’m sticking with cash for now.

For clarification, the big reason why it’s faster for them to buy the goods and arrange shipping or themselves is that even if that mac’n’cheese is vitally needed, there is probably a nearer source of mac’n’cheese where some could be purchased, where it could get to the victims much faster.

Correct. We don’t want all of his money, just a donation. But we need all of his bandages. So besides Joes’s generosity, we also need the generosity of others to offest joes operating costs. Joe shouldn’t be expected to go bankrupt just because he holds the lifesaving goods.

You seem to be hung up on the use of money during a time of crises and to some extent your argument has some validity. Goods and services, not money provide the relief. But the same can be said about everyday life. Goods and services, not money sustain everyday life so why not just barter everything? The answer is the same for all times. Money facilitates the flow of goods and services.

You are more cynical than I am then. Yes, Joe could do this. But if he sees it as an opportunity to unload unsold crap, then you weren’t going to get any money out of him anyway. I’m talking about letting people help best who really want to help.

I believe if you allow people and corporations to do what they do best, you will get better results than if you just try and get money out of them. Joe knows what’s going on New Orleans and the kinds of injuries likely and he should be making the bandage decisions. (Bandages are a poor example, because they aren’t really rocket science, but you get the idea.)

Try and get a truck driver to donate 500 bucks cash. Unlikely to happen. Now try and get one to drive a load for free that would normally cost $500. I bet you’d have more volunteers than you could use to drive for free, but very few who could part with $500.

Actually, we need all his money too. But we don’t expect him to give it all, so why are you expecting him to bankrupt his company by giving all his bandages? I’ve never said a non-monetary donation should be all or nothing.

I think there is some confusion over the antecedent to “them.” The cash donations to chartitable organizations doesn’t go directly to the victims.

Don’t you think a lot of those truck drivers are already working? If (A) They can’t spare $500 and (B) They’re not working, they’re not going to be truck drivers much longer!

I don’t expect random truck drivers throughout the country to drop their loads of oranges, mail, books, action figures with kung-fu grip, and descend on New Orleans. They have jobs & they need to work.

Now if we donate money, the Red Cross can hire truck drivers, who themselves can also donate money (or not, if they don’t want to). Both problems solved.

Heck, if I went and took next week to work relief in New Orleans, I might not get fired, but it sure wouldn’t help my job performance. I hope you’ll understand if I just donate money.

Because money can be pumped back into the local economy, shoring it up. If the merchants “donated” their wares and services like you would have them do, they may then end up not being able to pay wages, taxes, restock, etc. In any disaster, the goods needed and services hired are purchased as locally as possible, thereby solving two problems: reducing the logistics nightmare and propping up the economy that has taken a hit.

Besides, having been on two sides of the charity issue before (as a volunteer and as a recipient) I can tell you that most donations made by the general public are useless junk. You’d be surprised what people will toss over to a charity, all the well giving themselves a smug pat on the back. If the Red Cross did not stress cash donations, you can bet all the people in the superdome would be wearing stained, holey clothes, one shoe (which would likely be a ballerina slipper or a fireman’s boot), feather boas and winter coats (in summer, in Houston). Furthermore, the only thing they would have to eat would be sauerkraut and beets. Actually, they would only be able to LOOK at the thousands of cans of sauerkraut and pickled beets, becuase not a single soul would have bothered to throw in a can opener with their box of crap they were donating.

Perhaps you are assuming some independent trucker who owns his own truck. In this case, not only is he out the income he would have received from the days he contributes, he is also out of pocket for fuel and for tolls. If it’s not an independent trucker, he may not be able to take the time off from his company, and also wouldn’t be able to just “borrow” the truck.

Once again, using money makes things much simpler and more straightforward. As others have said, money is preferred because it is much more flexible.

I think you’re right about a very small subset of people who have specific talents or products to contribute. However, for the vast majority of us, our talents aren’t particularly helpful right now and our “products” are stuff we bought retail at the grocery store. This latter group is a lot more helpful if they just give cash.

For example, there has been discussion on a number of technical boards about contributing networking expertise to the rebuilding effort. A lot of geeks (a term I use with the utmost respect) were ready to rush in with spools of cat5 and routers to get the networks running along the Gulf Coast. While this was a romantic notion, the practical reality is that those people need phones more than they need wi-fi, and they need water and food more than they need phones. There are some very generous geeks on site setting up phone banks for the refugees, but for the rest of us, we should keep our cable crimpers at home and just send cash to provide the survival necessities. There will be plenty of time later for us to bring our expertise to bear if we still feel willing a few months from now when the heroics have worn off.

Locally, they ARE asking for items – specific sorts of items. But that’s for the shelters in and around town. We’ve got a bunch of people fresh from New Orleans who don’t have squat. They also want cash. The difference is that the local organizations know what the people here need a lot better than well-intended Minnesotans, or somewhere far away like that. Donation of items works much better on a local than a national level.

…we don’t, for the most part, do “stuff”. We provide food, clothes, and shelter, and some medical and mental health assistance.

When a family loses all of their clothes we give vouchers (now turning over to a MasterCard gift card of sorts) for new clothes. Other organizations give used clothes; we let the family pick out new clothes. This puts cash back into the local economy and allows the family to do something for themselves. No, picking out a new shirt isn’t big deal, but when you’ve been buffeted by forces beyond your control for a week, doing something on your own is awfully empowering. So we don’t want clothes.

When a family loses a home that isn’t covered by insurance we generally help them with rent or deposit on a new place, if we can. It’s hard to ship a house, I don’t care how “for free” the truck driver is working.

Our outreach teams need rental cars, gas for the cars, and cell phones. The service centers and shelters need notepads, pens, pencils, post-it notes, and telephones wired up. We all need hand sanitizer or gloves. We need to gas our Emergency Response Vehicles to get out into the community and feed people not in shelters.

Our volunteers need to be flown into the disaster area and put up someplace if space is available. In NOLA and MS they’re living in shelters with the clients; in Houston they’ll probably be put up in hotels. Some think hotels are a luxury; some think it doesn’t do any good to have the helpers as tired and strung out as the helpees.

We need to pay the telephone company for all the 800-HELP-NOW and 866-GET-INFO calls with which we’re currently deluged. We need to pay long distance charges between headquarters in DC and our people on the ground.

So that leaves food which, as others have mentioned, is either donated or bought. When people start showing up with bags of groceries we have to take volunteers who are actually helping people away from their jobs and have them sort “stuff”. A grocery bag full of Campbell’s soup isn’t going to feed a shelter full of 5,000 people, so we have contracts in place with large companies that ship food by the pallet, not the bag. All they have to do is pull up to the kitchen and let the mass care staff start cooking.

Exactly! The Red Cross has been doing this for a long, long time - more than 100 years. The organzation figured out long ago that it’s easier to convert cash into something usable than try to turn a bunch of threads into a quilt. $500 worth of “stuff” will help a very, very small group of people. $500 cash can be used, in conjunction with the $25 from MN and the $5 from ME and the $1000 from MA and turned into something that’s actually useful.

chique can I hijack this one briefly. An argument I hear a lot of is that “I shouldn’t donate to X disaster fund becuase Y% of the funds is eaten up in overhead and management and won’t get to the people in question.”

The most oft-cited figure I hear is 90% goes to overhead and etc. while only 10% gets converted into goods/services for the recipients. I assume that there is an actual statistic for this. Would you happen to know what it is?

One fact that comes out from any kind of disaster like this: Local economies can use the money.

Take Houston for example. The mayor of Houson has authorized the use of not only the Astrodome, but also several neighboring convention centers to help house refuguees from Hurricane Katrina. This means that they are admittedly giving up thousands of dollars that would normally come from conventions scheduled in the months to come, until they have found better places to house the refugees.

Now, say the Red Cross wants to provide food, clothing, blankets, and other necessities to the refugees that Houson is hosting. If the Red Cross has money to spend on these items, rather than in-kind donations, that money will go into the Houston economy, to help relieve the burden of having to support the refugees. While this may not compensate entirely for the $$$ lost by having to cancel the conferences, it does help mitigate those costs to some extent.

In-kind donations like food, clothing, blankets, etc. also have storage costs and transportation costs associated with them. Money, on the other hand, EARNS money while it is stored, and can literally be converted into any commodity needed at a specific location at a specific time. For example, a given community may have plenty of blankets and diapers that have been donated by a local retail store in the community. However, that store may not have the food supplies needed by the local refugees. If the community just receives more diapers and blankets on a truck, not only has the transport cost of that materiel been wasted, but the community will now suffer from hunger, because diapers and blankets cannot replace the food that they desperately need.

Most relief organizations learned this lesson several years ago, with Hurricane Andrew. As many will probably remember, the Red Cross and other relief organizations requested specific in-kind donations for the relief effort. However, they found that they had virtually no control over what kind of relief was being given, and the clothing and diapers they received could not provide the water and food that was really needed in specific areas. Appeals for aid since then have been primarily for either money or manpower. Money can literally be converted into whatever materiel is needed for specific sites, and manpower can help distribute the materiel that is purchased locally.

That seems really high. Er, low. Depending on how to look at it. I’ve posed the question to those in the know. They’re probably a little busy right now so it may be a while before I get an answer. We’re bringing in something like 500 new volunteers every day; the cost of airline tickets alone will be enormous.

They want money for the same reason that you don’t want to barter away your services in return for goods. Flexibility. Money gives them the flexibility to buy goods closer to the place where the problem is thus lessening transportation costs and time delays. They can also pick those goods most suitable for their needs.

Think about it a second. What makes more sense, having 10,000 people donate 10,000 cots from 10,000 locations across the country to be shipped from all points of the compass or to have 10,000 people donate enough money to buy 10,000 cots from one location near the disaster area? Now multiply that by the number of things they will need to procure and you begin to get an idea of the scope of the problem. What they need will also change as time passes. It may be cots and (shudder) body bags this week, but it may be shovels and sandbags next week. They can also employ those natives in the area who have lost their jobs to provide much of the manual labor involved in rebuilding the city. 10,000 is a small number by the way. I’m not sure what the population of New Orleans was but surely it was in the hundreds of thousands and those in need of help are surely in the tens of thousands.

A lot of things will be donated but do you really think a cot distributor could afford to give away all the cots that will be needed? They might however sell them at a discounted rate or even at cost.

Aid workers also don’t have to waste time making individual appeals to a large number of people or companies for particular things. They can make one generic appeal for money and use that to get what they need.

Having said that. The best help anyone can give is probably on an individual basis. Most people will move in with family or friends. Those that don’t could certainly benefit by someone lending a hand and offering a place to stay. There is a lot of this going on in the cities close to New Orleans. I don’t think most people are fully grasping the extent of the damage that has been done yet.

The short term answer is that the Red Cross et al can use that money to buy supplies, fund the delivery, etc.

The longer term answer is that someday it might be you or someone you care about in need of help, you that’s hoping that charities will be sufficiently funded to be able to render assistance.

Like most charities, the Red Cross has to keep its books at least semi-public. Here’s an annual report from 2004. (Warning: PDF file, 2.8 M)

It lists the following expenses:
Biomedical $2,133 million
International Relief & Development $55 million
Domestic Disaster Services $262 million
Health & Safety Services $216 million
Community Services $136 million
Fundraising $111 million
Management & General $174 million
Armed Forces Emergency Services $61 million
Liberty Fund - Sept. 11 Response $52 million

I calculate much closer to 90% towards relief programs and 10% to overhead & management. The people you hear quoting the opposite might be thinking of the United Way scandal of several years ago, and misapplying it to charities in general.

Of course, there’s more than one way to do these calculations: I thought about using their statement of functional expenses and counting employee wages and benefits as overhead, but I decided not to because if there were no employees, no relief would get delivered anyway nor would volunteers be recruited and trained. Then there’s stuff like vehicle maintenance: should it be counted as overhead? But would relief be delivered without it.

IMHO, folks who say they won’t give because X% goes to overhead are just looking for an excuse not to give (assuming it’s a reputable charity). I’m not going to try to figure out how expensive it is to run an effective organization, that’s someone else’s job. I just want there to be an effective disaster-relief organization.

I used to work for Red Cross, I went with ARC on Disaster Relief to Florida last year and worked in their warehouses in Sarasota. It’s better to give money than supplies, because ARC can use the money to buy the needed food, water, blankets, etc. in the amounts they need. If they depended solely on donated supplies, they might end up with thousands of pounds of beef jerky and no bread, soups, or bottled water, and what good would that be? ARC isn’t Jesus, they can’t transform one fish into thousands, but they *can * buy fish from local vendors and thus help out the afflicted area’s economy.

Here’s the summary page for the Red Cross from Give.org (part of the Better Business Bureau). If you want to compare to other similar organizations, here’s their list of organizations helping with Hurricane Katrina disaster relief

As for why you should give now… In addition to what others have said: a disaster of this magnitude is going to use up more resources than all organizations have planned for. I’m sure that part of the emphasis on “now” has to do with hoping that people will give while they’re focused on the impact of the hurricane. Some of the expenses won’t come until later, but at that point it will be much harder to collect additional donations.