Giving Wisely

Sometimes, despite what the etiquette experts say, the very best thing you can give is money – at least when it comes to giving to disaster relief and rebuilding efforts.

This morning I watched a news clip that showcased a neighborhood effort to collect clothing, food, formula and other items to send to Haitian earthquake victims. While I applaud their generosity, it highlights something that Stephanie Strom, in an article in yesterday’s New York Times, wrote:

Don’t send shoes, send money. Don’t send baby formula, send money. Don’t send old coats, send money.

The reasons? First, it is almost impossible for anyone thousands of miles away to know what the true needs of even a functioning community are. It is easy to get caught up in the spirit of doing good and go overboard – sending remnants of items from our closets and pantries to those who truly are less fortunate. Sadly, very often such generosity is completely unusable.  In 2005, just a few months after the devastating tsunami swallowed up whole villages along the Indian Ocean’s coastline, an Operation Kids Foundation representative went to Thailand to do an on-the-ground assessment of a rebuilding project for a client. He noted:

The first trip to Thailand revealed instance after instance of well intended but rushed and ineffective generosity. One illustration: we toured a small private airport and saw a mid-size airplane hangar full to the ceiling with boxes containing thousands of coats and scarves – donated by generous people in the northern hemisphere who were, at the end of December, in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, in the subtropical southern Thai climate, coats are never a necessity and this large inventory sat, unusable, while people lacked day-to-day necessities of food, clothing, water, medical care, housing and a way to support their families. This example is indicative of people so anxious to help, that they didn’t take into account the specific needs of the affected areas.

Second, “stuff” takes up precious cargo space – space that could otherwise be used for medical supplies, specific relief aid and relief workers.

More than what to send or not send, however, is the notion Rick talked about in Tuesday’s blog, “Rethinking Giving.” In an age where we as citizens are calling for more transparency, more accountability and greater impact among the global nonprofit community, we would do well to first evaluate our own giving. We all have limited time and money. As we seek to make the world a better place, let us evaluate where our charitable dollars are going – not just how a nonprofit uses them, but how we give them. If we seek to fund particular initiatives, activities or causes, let us give to to an organization that specializes in that area. If we want improvement, let us begin with ourselves as donors.

By giving wisely, we  help organizations improve their efficiency and their effectiveness. Nonprofits, especially in tough economic times, continually try to do more with less. The more we as donors are able to ease their burdens through responding to a community’s needs rather than our wants, the more organizations will be able to focus on the task at hand – improving people, communities and lives.

If your heart aches like mine does for those in Haiti this week – the greatest gift you can give is a recurring financial gift to an organization well-versed in what is going on on the ground. A little for now to aid in immediate relief, and some for later when the rebuilding begins.

-Sara Brueck Nichols

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