Why financial donations are the best way to help

The American Red Cross does not accept or solicit small quantities of individual donations of items for emergency relief purposes. Items such as collections of food, used clothing, and shoes often must be cleaned, sorted, and repackaged which impedes the valuable resources of money, time, and personnel that are needed for other aspects of our relief operation.

–National Red Cross Website

Here in the offices of the Southeastern Pennsylvania American Red Cross, I sit very near two lovely young women who are in charge of managing donations, large and small, for our disaster relief efforts in general and, more recently, our efforts to mitigate the suffering caused by Hurricane Sandy. They also take calls from people who wish to hold fundraising efforts of their own and then donate the results to the Red Cross.

These women do essential work. Without them, we would have been much less successful in collecting funds for this enormous project. They also face a surprising challenge. Citizens call all the time and want to donate stuff. By “stuff”, I mean things, items, objects they already own but no longer have need of. Judging by the quantity of these calls, mountains and mountains of “stuff” awaits redistribution.  And, it’s human nature that our generosity immediately finds a focus on items we no longer need. It’s much easier to give away a winter coat that’s been living in the attic for ten years, or the paper towels we overbought at Costco, than the cold hard cash we need for our own future purchases.

Unfortunately for those kind-hearted folks on the other end of the phone, the Red Cross cannot accept material donations. There are many excellent reasons for this policy. First, material donations require warehouses for storage before they can be redistributed. Second, these donations do not always meet the needs of those we serve. (When you collect the winter coat from the attic, you might also be tempted to throw in that old Fisher Price Playhouse Kitchen – a sweet and generous gesture, but not much use in an emergency). Third, material donations need to be sorted carefully, cleaned and showcased in a way that allows those in need to access them without too much trouble. This is a very difficult task to accomplish and takes away resources from meeting the urgent needs of those affected by the disaster.

Here at the Red Cross, our goal is to provide effective disaster relief to victims of terrible events. Please check out the “what-we-do” section of our website if you would like more information. The components of our mission are food, shelter and relief from suffering.  When Hurricane Sandy struck, we needed volunteers to set up and man shelters and meet the physical and emotional needs of displaced residents. We needed spaces to house relocated citizens and, most importantly, money to purchase and deliver blankets, cots, pillows, food and other daily life essentials. This is a great article about why material donations can sometimes do more harm than good. There are many others.

We have been astounded by the generosity of the people of our region.  We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. The two young women who sit near me are inundated with offers to give money and offers to fundraise even more. These donations will help us do our work in the most effective way possible. To those, who call with material donations, we commend your impulse to help. Please understand when we say we cannot take your material donations and refer you to agencies that do.

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