The GiveWell Blog

From the archive: 6 tips on disaster relief giving

We’ve received several questions about donating in response to Tropical Storm Harvey. We wanted to share this post, which was originally published in 2013, with our advice for disaster relief giving. We’re unsure if bullet points #4 and #5 still apply, as it has been a few years since we last investigated giving opportunities for disasters, and we have mostly considered international disasters.

Our general advice on disaster relief giving:

1. Give cash, not clothes (or other goods). Giving away unwanted items makes donors feel good, and relief agencies can be under substantial pressure to accept their gifts-in-kind. But shipping and sorting these gifts can be a substantial expense and hassle, and such gifts can literally get in the way. If you have items you don’t want, consider selling them and donating the proceeds. Gifts-in-kind burden relief organizations with figuring out how to use what they have; cash allows them to quickly get what they need. More

2. Support an organization that will help or get out of the way. Logistics can be a major challenge in disaster situations. For example, when we followed up on the Haiti earthquake relief effort a year after the incident, we found that much of the disaster relief money had still not been spent, and that ~80%+ of the rubble had still not been cleared. A highly professional, experienced organization with a pre-existing presence in the affected country will likely help where it can, and stay out of the way where it can’t. But a less professional organization could easily detract from the relief effort.

3. Give proactively, not reactively. Don’t give to a charity just because it calls you on the phone, advertises on your Google search or otherwise connects with you first. That rewards the most aggressive organizations instead of the most competent and responsible ones. Instead, give not just money but thoughtfulness – take the time to find the best giving option you can.

4. Allow your funds to be used where most needed – even if that means they’re not used during this disaster. Disasters attract a great deal of media attention and money, yet in many cases the biggest challenge is logistics. The result can be that money isn’t the limiting factor in the immediate relief effort. We found evidence of this both for the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Japan tsunami.

That doesn’t mean money isn’t needed. The rebuilding effort can be very expensive. Beyond that, there are many disasters – and cases of everyday suffering – that aid organizations struggle to address, without being able to raise nearly as much funding for them as they can for a media-dominating disaster. It’s common for charities to use a disaster as an opportunity to raise funds for their other work.

We recommend giving to an organization that does outstanding work around the world (not just in the affected area), with no strings attached.

5. Give to organizations that are transparent and accountable. In general, we’ve found that relief organizations disclose very little about what activities they undertake and how they spend relief funds (more at our reports on the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Japan tsunami). In general, when a disaster strikes, the first organizations we turn to are:

  • Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has distinguished itself with well-above-average transparency in both of the cases listed above. In the case of the 2011 Japan tsunami, it straightforwardly disclosed that it was not seeking more funding for use in the relief effort, and was one of the only organizations to do so. We believe it’s worth rewarding MSF for its unusual transparency, and if it doesn’t use your money on this disaster, it will likely use it to address a less-publicized crisis.
  • The local Red Cross. The Red Cross generally takes a leading role in a relief effort and (it seems to us) is assigned credit/blame for how the overall effort goes, to a greater degree than other nonprofits. The American Red Cross will often redirect donations to the local Red Cross, minus a sometimes-substantial fee.

We wrote more about these two options when we made recommendations about how to respond to the 2011 Japan earthquake/tsunami.

6. Think about less-publicized suffering. Every day, people die from preventable and curable diseases, in many cases because they lack access to proven life-savers such as insecticide-treated nets. Their day-to-day suffering isn’t well-suited to making headlines, and they generally don’t attract the attention and dollars that disaster relief victims do – yet we believe that donations targeting these populations do more good than disaster relief donations.

If a recent disaster has given you a strengthened desire to reduce suffering and help others, consider asking whether you might be able to broaden this desire and make it part of your everyday life. Consider joining the community of effective altruists seeking to make their hours and their dollars go as far as possible toward making the world a better place. GiveWell’s role in that community is to put thousands of hours of research into identifying the best giving opportunities possible – not the ones that make the news, but the ones that will make your dollars go the farthest.

For more advice, see:

Comments

  • Adam Long on August 30, 2017 at 12:57 pm said:

    First, thanks for posting this. Second, if I could humbly and respectfully make a suggestion, I think that if you guys were to provide updated guidance re: the best way to donate specifically to the situation in Houston, this would be EXTREMELY well-received. I think it would also be something that, I, for one, would LOVE to share with my friends on Facebook and elsewhere who do not know about you guys. So it would have the twofold benefit of (1) giving people great advice about how to channel their charitable urges right now and (2) providing a great opportunity to spread the word about the WONDERFUL work that givewell does to make giving more effective.

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on August 30, 2017 at 2:25 pm said:

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks so much for your kind words. Unfortunately, we don’t think we’re well-positioned to offer recommendations for specific organizations to support in response to the disaster in Houston. We haven’t investigated disaster relief organizations for several years and have primarily focused on international disasters in our past work; we don’t think we could quickly come up with a recommendation in response to this disaster that we’d be confident in. We’re sorry to not be of more help and we hope the above advice is useful in considering where to give.

  • The Good Intents link at the end of this article is broken. Here is an archived version:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20130728075009/http://goodintents.org/choosing-a-charity/the-dos-and-donts

  • Catherine on September 5, 2017 at 10:56 am said:

    Thank you! We updated the link in the post.

  • Linda Brent on September 14, 2017 at 10:09 am said:

    Thank you for sending this message. As someone who has lived through hurricane Harvey (just north of Houston), I agree with your recommendations. I would also add that the needs following a disaster of this magnitude will last for months (long after the media frenzy is gone). Volunteers continue to be needed and funds expended. There are great lists of local and national organizations working in the disaster areas from NPR and New York Times that are easy to find on a quick Google search. Thanks to all who have donated so generously!

  • Kenneth Fredrick on December 11, 2017 at 2:39 am said:

    Thanks for sharing this amazing tip! It is really helpful. Everyone should be prepared for the emergency situation because no one can predict when the disaster strike and causes major loss. To save the humanity, we can help the people who are suffering from a huge loss due to disaster by joining different NGO’s like mission humanitaire( http://www.mission-humanitaire-afrique.org/ ) and help to restore the lives.

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