Donations on Curb

By Mary M. Nelan, Samantha Penta, and Tricia Wachtendorf

The outpouring of charitable acts following a disaster can reveal humanity at its best. But this can also take the form of spontaneous acts of generosity that flood supply chains with unwanted or low priority goods that slow down the distribution of supplies most needed by disaster survivors. The challenges of sorting and distributing donations as well as disposing of inappropriate donations can be so bad that it is sometimes referred to as the disaster that follows the disaster. To understand how to prevent this, we interviewed donors, donation collectors, and disaster relief distributors following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and two tornadoes that struck near Oklahoma City in 2013. Our observations showed that misalignments between the needs and motivations of these groups leads to the “second disaster” caused by the influx of donations.  

A Disaster Donation Disconnect  

Donors give to disaster relief for many reasons including that they receive tax breaks, that charitable giving feels good in an altruistic way, that people can gain social status by appearing generous, or because people have a desire to clean out unwanted items from their closets and basements. Donors, of course, also often are driven by a strong desire to connect with and help disaster survivors. Yet, donor desires often conflict with the needs of the organizations that distribute disaster aid.  

Large non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the American Red Cross recommend monetary donations because they can be used to meet whatever needs disaster survivors might have, and they don’t pose the logistical challenges that physical donations can create.  

Many donors in our study, however, reported that they felt monetary donations were impersonal, so they were not able to feel a connection to the people harmed by the disasters. There was also a fear that monetary donations would be spent on overhead costs rather than directly helping survivors. One donor said, “You donate money, you have no idea where it’s going, who it’s affecting.” The interviewee continued, “But when you donate items, especially when you can see the delivery, you know you that you’ve had an impact on those people’s lives.” Our interviews with donors showed that they prioritized their needs to feel useful, to have a connection with survivors, to come together as a community, and to get rid of unwanted material goods. 

People who collect goods through donation drives also reported preferring material goods to donations of money. Some lacked the capacity to process financial donations or did not want the responsibility of being accountable for how the money might be spent. A desire for transparency in how donations are used led both donors and drive coordinators to prefer material donations or monetary donations that were earmarked for a specific purpose. Both can lead to the problem of having too many resources devoted to one type of need, such as water or diapers, and not enough to meet other needs.  

The disconnect between donors and drive collectors on one hand and relief distributors and disaster survivors on the other led to situations where no ones’ needs were met. Without knowing what a disaster-stricken community might need, donations of material goods can quickly create problems. One example occurred at a small mobile home community in Oklahoma that turned into a dumping ground for donations. With no clear guidance on where to take their donations, the desire to connect with survivors transformed into a need for the donors to get rid of their goods. The mobile home community ended up with more diapers and hygiene supplies than they could possibly use but lacked access to financial contributions that could help them begin to rebuild their lives.  

The desire to purge unwanted goods motivated donors in the aftermath of both Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma tornadoes. Many donors used the phrase “getting rid of” to describe their motivation for donating items. “Purging with a purpose” was a recurrent theme in our interviews, but it led to the collection of large amounts of inappropriate items including unwashed or worn out clothing, and expired food. One volunteer in Oklahoma described the donations there as a “yard sale dump.” A common statement by relief distributors about donated goods was, “if donors don’t want them, we don’t either.” 

While material donations are thought of as more desirable by donors and collectors because they give them more control and foster a sense of connection with disaster survivors, the lack of coordination between them and relief supply distributors can slow down high-priority goods from reaching survivors. A lack of communication between different parts of the disaster relief supply chain was a major contributor to this problem.  

Giving for the Greater Good

We recommend that disaster organizations should continue to explain why monetary donations are preferable to material donations. Testimonials by disaster survivors saying how monetary donations benefited their communities may provide a way for donors to feel a greater connection to them and to further understand the importance of sending funding instead of physical supplies. Another possible solution is to encourage donations of gift cards, which can be easily transported while also giving the donor a measure of control over how their donation is used. Ultimately, all actors in the disaster relief supply chain need to be included in a conversation with disaster survivors about what an affected community’s real needs are, and they need to be empowered to create an effective supply chain strategy to meet their immediate needs.

About the Special Collection

This special collection of Research Counts grew out of a longstanding collaboration between the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (IJMED) and the Natural Hazards Center. Our commitment in this special collection is to bring key findings and ideas from recent IJMED articles to a broader audience of emergency managers, disaster risk reduction professionals, and policy makers in the hazards and disaster field.

This Research Counts article was written by freelance science journalist and editor, Zach Zorich. It is based upon the following publication:

Nelan, Mary M., Samantha Penta, and Tricia Wachtendorf. 2019. “Paved with Good Intentions: A Social Construction Approach to Alignment in Disaster Donations.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 37(2): 174-196.