How to Best Help Disaster Relief Efforts

When disaster strikes, many people feel moved to take action and help those who have been affected. People from near and far send bottled water, non-perishable foods and donated clothes to families who have lost everything. People donate to organizations, large and small, and, in some cases, even self-deploy to the affected region to aid in relief efforts.

While it’s inspiring to see so many people trying to help others following a disaster, it’s important to keep in mind that disasters are unique situations and, believe it or not, there are good and bad ways to help those who have been affected.

Despite their good intentions, I have found that many people are simply not aware of how to best help others following a disaster and, as a result, their efforts are not as effective as they could be and, in some cases, may even do more harm than good.

This blog post helps explain why some forms of aid are better than others following a disaster and how you can ensure that your efforts are helping those affected in a meaningful, effective and efficient way.

NOTE: I have formal education and professional experience in disaster risk reduction and response. However, it’s always important seek multiple, reliable sources and do your own research, so I’ve included useful links throughout this post where you can find additional information.

Monetary Donations are Best

The number one best way to help people following a disaster is to donate money – preferably to a reputable, well-established organization that has the capacity to use this money effectively and efficiently.

The reason monetary donations are best is because money is fast and flexible. Disaster relief organizations can use this money right away to buy the resources needed most and deliver them to the right people at the right time, depending on the local context. Additionally, when organizations use this money to buy resources locally, it helps rebuild local businesses and the economy.

Below is a short video produced by USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information that does a good job of illustrating why money is the best form of aid following a disaster.

Donating Goods Does More Harm Than Good and Is Highly Cost In-Efficient

What many people don’t know is that donating goods, such as water, non-perishable foods and clothes, following a disaster often does more harm than good. In fact, in disaster management, donated goods are often referred to as the “second disaster”.

The reason why donated goods do more harm than good is because disaster relief organizations are often overwhelmed by how many goods they receive. The massive volume of stuff requires organizations to redirect valuable resources away from providing critical services. Think about it, someone has to sort through all that stuff and organize it when they could be out trying to rescue people from rising flood waters or preparing life-saving medications to be delivered to survivors. Additionally, many of these donated goods go unused due to health and safety regulations or because they are inappropriate. Trust me, disaster relief organizations are well prepared with ample amounts of food, water and basic necessities, so these items are simply not needed. And items such as clothing, teddy bears or prom dresses (yes, people actually donate prom dresses) often just end up in the trash.

Another thing to think about is cost-efficiency. Sending goods to a disaster affected area is never cost-efficient. The Center for International Disaster Information’s Greatest Good Donation Calculator shows that shipping bottled water, for example, can be THOUSANDS of times more expensive than a disaster relief organization purchasing it locally with donated money. Think how many more bottles of water that organization could buy with the money you spent to ship it in the first place! Note: this calculator only considers shipping goods in the event of an international disaster, but I think you get the point.

I get it, donating money isn’t as satisfying as donating a physical object. But, if you really must donate something more tangible, consider donating blood. Blood is obviously crucial for saving lives and in the aftermath of a disaster, can be in short supply. If you are interested in donating blood, check out the American Red Cross.

Do NOT Self-Deploy, Wait Until Volunteers Are Requested

Alarmingly, I have seen several posts on Facebook recently about people trying to recruit volunteers to travel to North Carolina to help with response efforts following Hurricane Florence. Self-deploying to a disaster affected area can actually hinder instead of help relief efforts.

The reason is because, unless you’re highly qualified in emergency response, you’re likely going to get in the way of first responders. There are disaster relief systems in place and managing unexpected volunteers puts a strain on these systems, limiting the ability of first responders to save lives and provide aid to those most in need. Additionally, spontaneous volunteers, as they are often referred to, raise many safety, logistical, administrative and liability challenges for disaster relief organizations, who should instead be focusing their efforts on helping those affected. In general, it’s best to leave response efforts to the experts.

If you do want to volunteer, wait until specific needs have been identified and communities and organizations are ready to work with qualified volunteers. It’s best to have some kind of disaster training and be affiliated with an organization that is experienced in managing volunteers to ensure that your efforts are utilized effectively. Many organizations, such as the American Red Cross, NVOAD (National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters) and Habitat for Humanity’s Disaster Corps post calls for volunteers following a disaster. Remember, disaster recovery lasts years, so there will be many opportunities to volunteer, even long after the response phase is over.

Don’t Be Hesitant to Donate to Large, Reputable and Well-Established Organizations

From my experience, I have noticed a lot of people have very critical opinions of large disaster relief organizations, such as the American Red Cross. Many people believe the money they donate isn’t going to relief efforts and, instead, is being used to pay for the CEO to jet off on vacation to some fancy beach resort. Because of this perception, I often see many people encouraging others to donate to local organizations or churches instead.

And while I am typically all for donating to local organizations, you have to remember that disaster situations are unique and these local organizations and churches aren’t immune to disaster impacts. In fact, they are often disaster victims themselves. Their offices may have been damaged or destroyed in the disaster and most of their staff members are probably focused on rebuilding their lives and ensuring their own families are safe. As a result, local organizations and churches often don’t have the capacity to respond to a disaster and donating to them is not always the most effective way help others.

This is why, in the aftermath of a disaster, it is important to consider donating to large, well-established and reputable organizations. Unlike local organizations and churches who are often disaster victims themselves, these large disaster relief organizations do have the resources, capacity and experience necessary to respond effectively and efficiently to a disaster.

Yes, it is true that when you donate to these organizations a portion of your money will go to overhead costs, such as staff salaries, fundraising activities and other logistical and administrative expenses. However, don’t let this stop you from donating. These overhead costs are what allow these organizations to respond so effectively and efficiently on a large scale and are therefore crucial. Overhead costs are not a bad thing. Most good organizations are transparent about how donations are used and this information is should be easily accessible online.


Of course, which organization you donate to is entirely up to you. If you do decide to donate to a local organization or church, try contacting them first to make sure they are able to effectively respond following the disaster. If not, consider reaching out to them during the long-term recovery phase, since they will likely still be present when the larger organizations finish their response efforts and leave town. Additionally, I encourage you to do your research before selecting which organization, large or small, you want to support. There are several good resources out there to help you evaluate different organizations and make an educated decision about which one(s) you want to donate to or volunteer with, including Charity WatchThe Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator.

Additional Resources

American Red Cross Disaster Training

Center for International Disaster Information FAQ

FEMA – Volunteer and Donate Responsibly

FEMA Emergency Management Institute – Free online courses on a wide variety of topics related to disaster management

PreventionWeb – General overview of disaster risk reduction and disaster risk management



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