Guidelines for Appropriate International Disaster Donations

CIDI provides information guidance on the best way to help support international disaster relief efforts. With 20 years of experience, CIDI knows that Cash is Best to help victims of international disasters. Our goal is to ensure that America’s generosity results in effective relief. Those interested in helping to support international disaster relief efforts should review these guidelines in order to make an informed decision about their support.

Monetary Contributions to Established Relief Agencies are Always the Most Productive Public Response to Disasters

When disaster strikes overseas, people who want to help may begin collecting items intended for use in relief operations. It is not unusual for community and civic groups to have collected thousands of pounds of material – typically used clothing, canned food and bottled water – realizing only afterward that they do not know to whom to send the collection, what their transportation options are or whether the items are actually needed. Reasons why these donations are frequently counterproductive are given below. The good news is that the simplest and easiest way to support response efforts is also the most economical and efficient – through cash donations to relief agencies.

Financial contributions allow professional relief organizations to purchase exactly what is most urgently needed by disaster survivors, when it is needed. Cash donations allow relief supplies to be purchased near the disaster site, avoiding the delays, steep transportation and logistical costs that can encumber material donations. Some commodities, particularly food, can almost always be purchased locally – even after devastating emergencies and in famine situations.

Cash purchases also convey benefits beyond the items procured. They support local merchants and local economies, ensure that commodities are fresh and familiar to survivors, that supplies arrive expeditiously and that goods are culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate. In contrast, unsolicited household donations can clog supply chains, take space required to stage life-saving relief supplies for distribution, and divert relief workers’ time. Collections of household goods serve no useful function in the acute phase of an emergency operation. Managing piles of unsolicited items may actually add to the cost of relief work through forcing changes to logistical and distribution plans and creating more tasks for relief workers. Cash contributions to established, legitimate relief agencies are always more beneficial to survivors and to relief operations than are unsolicited donations of commodities.

Trust the Experts

Every disaster is unique and every disaster response is carefully tailored according to population needs that are assessed by relief professionals on the ground. Relief organizations that have personnel working in the disaster area coordinate with each other, with government entities and with local groups to make accurate assessments. These appraisals evolve daily as survivors migrate to safety and normalcy returns. Unsolicited, unneeded commodities are never what is required at this stage and compete with priority relief items for transportation and storage. Relief organizations that request material donations through public appeals will communicate specifically what items are desired in order to avoid these problems.

Some foods, particularly in famine situations, can cause illness or may be culturally inappropriate. Donations of canned goods are rarely beneficial and the collection of bottled water is highly inefficient, as both food and potable water can be purchased more inexpensively through local merchants near to affected populations. In every case, survivors are most effectively helped when an accurate assessment of need leads to thoughtfully selected, appropriate commodities.

Before Items Other Than Cash Are Collected, Confirm That There Is a Need

Some people feel a strong desire to give materially in addition to cash. Opportunities to do this are rare but do come up, usually through appeals by relief organizations. In those cases, the organization will give specific directions on exactly what to collect, a time frame in which to collect it and directions on transportation. Appeals will be advertised but interested parties can search the internet proactively. A leading source of information on relief and development agencies, where they work and what they’re doing is

  • Any call for material donations must meet these criteria or risk burdening the relief effort it seeks to support:
  • A credible relief organization has identified a need for items being requested;
  • An organization is prepared to receive, manage and distribute the items;
  • Costs of transportation, shipping, warehousing, and distribution are covered;
  • Management of customs tariffs, fees and other cross-border requirements are covered;
  • Quality assurance requirements from the host government and the recipient are met and are available for disclosure.


Volunteer Opportunities Are Extremely Limited

Volunteers without prior disaster relief experience are generally not selected for overseas assignments. Candidates with the greatest likelihood of being chosen have fluency in the language of the disaster-affected area, prior relief experience, and expertise in technical fields such as medicine, communications, logistics, water/sanitation and engineering. In many cases, professionals who meet these requirements are available in-country, not far from disaster affected areas. Most agencies will require candidates to have at least ten years of relief experience, as well as several years of experience working overseas. It is not unusual for a hiring agency to request that volunteers make a commitment to spend at least three months working in a particular area.

Though kindhearted and well-intended, offers of another body to drive trucks, set up tents and feed children are rarely accepted. Relief agencies that hire volunteers are responsible for volunteers’ well-being, including food, shelter, health and security. Resources are strained during a disaster, and a person without technical skills and experience can be more of a burden than an asset to a relief effort.

Those who lack necessary training can participate most constructively by volunteering vicariously – through raising funds and fostering community awareness of organizations that support trained personnel on the ground. No donation is too small and every dollar contributes to saving lives and reducing human suffering in the most economical, efficient and appropriate ways.

Excerpts from this document should reference the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) as the source.