UMCOR

United Methodist Committee on Relief

May

In times of disaster, your first impulse to donate goods may not be the wisest choice to meet survivor needs.
Stuffed animals are cute, but are they needed? Here, they fill the church pews in Salyersville, Kentucky after a tornado ripped through the state in March, 2012.
Susan Kim

By Susan Kim*

May 7, 2013–Recently a church congregation in Greenville, NC collected a tractor-trailer load full of water and cleaning supplies they wanted to donate to Hurricane Irene survivors. Irene struck in 2011, and the congregation was aware that people were still recovering. The church really wanted to help.

Unfortunately, faced with logistical challenges, they couldn't move the load of supplies into the affected area, said Cliff Harvell, disaster response coordinator for the North Carolina Conference. “So they unloaded it into a local container—at $90 a month in rent.”

There it stayed for nine months until Harvell rented a U-Haul truck for $250 to finally bring the supplies to the Irene-affected areas. “Between all the parties involved, we paid nearly $1,100 for supplies that could have been bought a lot cheaper onsite.”

Harvell appreciates the intention, especially since donations tend to fall off during long-term recovery. “I'm so appreciative they even knew we were still recovering from Irene. But it's difficult when people collect supplies and they are unable to ship them, or if they ship supplies and there's no place to put them.”

What was the first misstep? It was collecting supplies that weren't specifically requested. But when people feel strongly committed to helping, sometimes it's hard to direct them away from their initial “inspired” donation, said Harvell. “People have an emotional trigger and their feelings of wanting to help are very strong.”

The primary puller of that emotional trigger? Dramatic news media coverage of the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

After watching the latest national news segment on a recent disaster, emotionally based giving might feel good, but it sometimes results in a mismatch of giving versus need, agreed Jackie Watkins, a member of the Trietsch Memorial UMC in Flower Mound, Texas.

Watkins has been a leader in planning events that help educate youth about what to expect in the wake of a disaster.

“In my humble opinion, savvy donors do their research,” she said. “They take the time to investigate the cause and the beneficiary before giving.”

Try considering yourself a “partner” with your chosen organization, she added. “Less savvy donors are more emotional givers [with a] knee-jerk, immediate response for perceived immediate relief and no follow-up.”

A savvy donor. Are you one? Take our quiz, below, and find out...

TRUE OR FALSE?

1. It's best to start a collection drive right away in the wake of a disaster because it takes too long to figure out what's really needed.

2. Disaster survivors who have lost everything must need everything.

3. It's best not to be really specific about the kind of recipient you want to receive your donation.

4. You call a UM disaster relief center to offer your donation—and they turn it down because they don't need it. It's best to take it in stride and ask for a referral to another organization that could use your donation.

5. You receive a beautiful catalog and then see a well-known celebrity promoting a certain type of donation. Surely, these signal something disaster survivors really need.

6. There are donations that are always appropriate, no matter the disaster.

ANSWERS

1. FALSE. Wait before you collect. Find out what's needed. After a spontaneous collection drive, unfortunately, donors often insist that the affected community take the collected items. “And, in fact, many communities do!” said Pam Garrison, disaster response manager for the Florida Conference.

That creates a secondary disaster. “Volunteers who were helping in the community may now be pulled in to offload supplies that aren't needed, sort them, and try to figure out what to do with them,” she said.

2. FALSE. Though news media outlets may depict disaster survivors who appear to have lost everything, that portrayal doesn't always reflect reality. “Just because you think they need what you have to offer, it isn't your agenda but theirs that determines your ministry,” advised Garrison.

3. TRUE. Don't be extremely specific about what you want to donate to the point that it makes it difficult for your donation to be used, explained Bobbie Ridgely, director for the Sandy Recovery Program in New Jersey. “For example, if you want to specify a financial donation, specify your donation to 'a local home owner' rather than 'a local home owner with three children, two cats, and one canary!” she said.

4. TRUE. “If the organization is not accepting the item you are willing to donate, don't be angry, simply ask for a referral to a different organization,” advised Ridgely. Garrison agreed: “A savvy donor can hear and receive a 'no thanks' without offense because it's not about them. They aren't trying to meet their own personal need; they just want to help if they are needed.”

5. FALSE. It's easy to get caught up in large relief efforts that make national news, or ones that hold celebrity-filled benefits, said Kristin Pratt, who handles disaster response communications for the Asbury UMC in Petal, MS. “Do some research,” she advised. “You need to make sure that the organization you choose has reliable distribution methods for its aid and has the cooperation of the local government, otherwise goods can be left to rot without ever reaching those who need them.”

6. TRUE. A cash donation to UMCOR will always go directly toward helping a disaster survivor. Another always-appropriate route? Assemble relief-supply kits to ensure UMCOR's depots are ready to distribute supplies quickly when disaster strikes.

Help UMCOR spread the message about appropriate giving. Give to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.

*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to UMCOR.org.

Help UMCOR spread the message about appropriate giving. Give to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.