Harvey by Texas Military Department Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Harvey by Texas Military Department Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

First, it was Hurricane Harvey, which damaged the homes of close to half a million people, including my own, in southeast Texas. Now, barely two weeks later, Hurricane Irma is causing widespread damage in Florida.

When natural disasters of this magnitude strike, they bring out the best impulses in many of us. We feel empathy for the victims and an urge to reach out and help them in any way we can.

In this blog post, I want to explore how to maximize the chance your donations will have a positive impact on those affected by natural disasters. Here are three tips to donate effectively after a natural disaster endorsed by psychological research.

1. Give cash (first), and your time and labor (second). Giving things (goods and services) is a distant third preferred way to donate after a disaster.

I feel like

this is the most important rule of effective post-disaster donation:

If you can afford it, donate money. If you can’t donate money, donate your time by volunteering in any number of productive, well-considered ways.

Compared to a financial donation, tangible products of the same or greater value may not be as useful after a natural disaster. While many of us naturally feel the urge to share what we have with those who have suffered the calamity, giving things such as clothes, shoes, jackets, toys, canned goods, or bottled water often backfires for two main reasons.

First, donating goods produces a “matching problem” during a natural disaster. You may give a whole bunch of men’s clothes to a shelter in good faith, but what the shelter may really need is clothes for toddlers and young children. In this case, instead of helping, your donated clothes become a burden that relief workers and volunteers have to deal with. This is the case even for goods that sound imminently reasonable and useful such as baby formula, pet food, or diapers. Simply put, the specific needs may not match with what is donated.

The second reason is the “logistics problem” associated with tangible goods such as clothes, food, and toiletries. These items have to be collected from the place where you dropped them off and delivered to where they are actually needed. During a disaster like a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami, regular distribution channels are disrupted, and sometimes completely shut down. Getting your donated items to the point where they are needed becomes a thorny challenge that reduces the value of your donation.

Giving money instead of goods solves both of these problems. In the words of Bob Ottenhoff, President and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy:

“This is not the time to be donating products or even services. That's frequently the urge, and most often that is the wrong thing to do. ...With the floods blocking off streets, when warehouses are not available, there's no place for these products — there's no place to store anything, there's no place to distribute anything. And that's going to be the case for some time.”

If you cannot afford to give money, no problem. The next best thing to do is to donate your time and labor towards specific activities that will help disaster victims. Whether it is helping out at a shelter, “mucking” someone’s house by removing wet carpet and drywall, or making and delivering meals to first responders, personal time and labor is easier to customize and deploy as and when needed than material things.

2. Don’t give all at once. Stagger your donation over a lengthy period that corresponds to the victims’ recovery period.

The second rule of effective post-disaster donation is not to give everything you wish to donate all at once, but to stagger your donations over a longer time frame. Ideally, the duration of your donation should correspond to the recovery period. But even if it doesn't, stagger your giving over a longer period than simply making a one-shot donation.

Flood at Cedar Lake 1915 by Seattle Muncipal Archives Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Flood at Cedar Lake 1915 by Seattle Muncipal Archives Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Victims of a natural disaster take a long time to recover. After Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans, for example, the city took 10 years to recover. Similarly, experts estimate Houston will take several years to recover after Hurricane Harvey. Yet the world’s attention and sympathy on a disaster’s victims is short-lived, being in the order of days or weeks. As soon as mainstream and social media move on to the next news story, so does the attention of donors and helpers. In one study, for example, there was a sharp drop-off in giving six weeks after a natural disaster, and by week 14, donations had dried up completely.

How can you avoid this? First, decide how much money you want to donate. Then divide it into monthly installments that cover a lengthy time frame, say a year or more. Give the installment each month or set up a recurring donation schedule.

3. Avoid donating impulsively. Do the due diligence and choose a charitable organization that will put your donation to good use.

After a major disaster when your impulse to help others is triggered, you’ll want to donate right away. Unfortunately, however, disasters also bring out their share of scammers and con artists. Donating impulsively to an unknown person or organization, in response to an ad or appeal on social media, may not be the best approach. Even within known charities, there is considerable variation in how efficient they are with using donated money. Giving to an established charity and making an informed choice based on ratings designated by a rating agency, such as Charity Navigator, to assess the organization’s effectiveness in using donations is important. It will ensure that every dollar you give will result in the maximum benefit for disaster victims. Charity Navigator provides a list of recommended local and national charities after a disaster.

The main point of this post is that your decision to help disaster victims, although fraught with emotion and goodwill, is like any other consumer decision. It can lead to positive outcomes that you intended to have happen. Or it could result in frustration, waste, and a missed opportunity, defeating your purpose. This range of possible outcomes makes it important for you to understand the process and the options of the donation decision that will result in the best possible outcomes for disaster survivors, and to choose thoughtfully.

My latest book is How to Price Effectively: A Guide for Managers & Entrepreneurs. I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedInFacebook, or Twitter @ud.

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