This post was originally published on Forbes Nonprofit Council.
In August 2019, as my son was starting his first year of high school, Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas. Dorian was a Category 5 hurricane that brought prolonged and intense storm conditions, resulting in thousands of homes destroyed and tens of thousands of people left homeless. The storm was even more catastrophic for the Bahamian people as it stalled over the island nation for more than 48 hours, causing an estimated $3.4 billion in damage overall.
In a commendable effort to connect coursework to reality, my son’s engineering teacher assigned a group project: design a donation package for Dorian survivors with a list of items, their dimensions and weight, and the subsequent packing requirements—a project that would test the students on their spatial planning skills.
My son thought he had an ace in the hole for his team: a mom who worked in and on disasters. That evening he asked me, “What do we include in the box?” I responded that it was a more straightforward project than he envisioned, as all he needed was an item measuring 4⅛ x 9½ inches.
My mechanically-inclined son gave me a look, saying, “but that won’t fit anything.” “Yes, it will,” I responded, “an envelope will fit just what the Bahamians need, as what they need is cash.”
Our family’s discussions over dinner the next few nights centered on the best way to help people in need, especially those further away—a way that gives them the dignity of choice and agency over their recovery decisions. Here are a few highlights:
Cash is cheaper than in-kind.
The shipment of in-kind donations into a disaster can create problems. Shipping items requires logistics, which is costly and challenging in a disaster where ports or roads are damaged. Then there is the receiving and storage of goods. And lastly, the influx of donations presents distribution challenges.
For example, how do you fairly and adequately distribute thousands of 14-ounce cans of varying contents? One solution could be to provide hot meals with what is collected. However, the idea of being on the receiving end of the multitude of canned goods post-hurricane strikes me as an extreme version of a kitchen reality chef challenge: cook a culturally appropriate meal for 500 people with this variety of small cans in 12 hours!
Cash is nimble.
Relief needs in the earliest days of response may seem clear-cut. Thus, in-kind donations follow a pattern: water, clothes and shelter items. However, the needs on the ground shift as the affected communities and the nonprofits supporting them learn more. For example, as time goes on, it may be medical supplies, rubble removal or structural repairs, or other items connected to the community’s economic livelihood.Cash allows the nonprofits on the ground to be flexible in their support to communities, allowing the people at the disaster’s center to choose what they need to get themselves on the path to recovery. Click To Tweet
Cash supports the local economy.
The donation of items that are available within the local market disincentivizes local procurement at the very moment when an infusion of cash is what the community needs. Cash donations allow for local procurement of project goods and have a ripple effect of supporting the economy of the affected area.
Cash-based approaches to disaster recovery reduce poverty and vulnerability by giving people the freedom to choose how they rebuild their lives and provide a pathway to economic empowerment. Donating cash to an organization you have researched and supported allows the nonprofit to listen to communities and follow their lead on how best to help.
Of course, there are exceptions when in-kind support can be effective. If this is your preference, seek out nonprofit organizations that specialize in managing in-kind donations—for example, local shelters and food banks often provide lists of items needed.
At the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, we encourage all donors to be disaster philanthropists. As the pandemic has shown, disasters are personal and affect everyone differently. Our giving should reflect our understanding of this through donating money to the professionals who know best how to help the people most impacted.