Helping People Help

March 19, 2011

During a disaster, people respond to human suffering by wanting to help. They want to do something. If possible, they want to provide some form of tangible support.

This week I received an e-mail from a high school girl wanting my help in organizing a collection of bottled water that could be shipped to the people in Japan affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Many people also called or e-mailed our offices with similar requests.

Some organizations rally public support and garner media attention by organizing collections of water, canned goods or clothes. People who participate feel good about themselves and what they’ve done. They don’t realize that their efforts are not always the best way to help the people they want to help.

It may sound mercenary, but I usually tell people that the best way to help is through financial support. I’ll admit it felt a little cold when I read my own quote in this morning’s newspaper. Yesterday I was talking with a reporter about how much the American Red Cross has raised for the people in Japan, and he wrote:

Duane Hallock, director of marketing and communications for the group’s Kansas City chapter, said the Red Cross was focusing on financial support for the Japanese Red Cross.

To me, that felt cold because it eliminated the human element. In reality, the Red Cross is focused on helping the suffering people who will benefit from the financial support of generous and compassionate Americans.

I was pleased to continue reading, though, and see that my colleague at the Salvation Army explained that they also prefer support through financial donations because of the prohibitive cost of shipping goods as far as Japan.

In our 130 years of experience in providing disaster relief, we at the American Red Cross have learned a few things. We are not being greedy when when we say that financial support is often the best way to help. We have learned that when supplies need to be purchased, it’s usually best to buy them as close to the disaster operations as possible. Not only does that speed up the delivery, it also reduces the costs of shipping.

As a disaster unfolds, the needs of those affected can change quickly. It would be unfortunate, for example, to collect bottled water for people who needed medicine or other specific supplies. Financial support provides agility for the responding organization to better meet the immediate and changing needs.

In a disaster, the economy of the region will likely be hit hard. Sometimes purchasing needed supplies nearby can indirectly help to boost the economy of those affected by the disaster.

In my job with the American Red Cross, I see the outpouring of love and support from my neighbors and friends. I am truly touched by their compassion and generosity. As a good steward of donor dollars, though, I feel obligated to direct them to the channels where their desire to help can have the greatest benefit and where they can do the most good.

So let me close with a message I’ve shared many times during the past week:  You can help the people in Japan by going to You can also make a $10 contribution by texting REDCROSS to 90999.

On behalf of the people you will help, let me say, “Thank you!

The Essence of the Red Cross – In Three Words

January 18, 2010

Soon after I began working at the American Red Cross, I realized how deceptively complex the organization actually is. In the context of that complexity, I struggled to succinctly describe the important work we do.

In a previous post, I outlined the creative process we undertook to develop key messages that would be 1) conversational, 2) memorable and 3) differentiating. At the American Red Cross of Greater Kansas City, we came up with key messages that focused on our role during times of disaster. We finalized on these three words:

W e   a r e   t h e r e.

That’s it—three deceptively simple words. They sit at the apex of our communications pyramid. In one sentence, the American Red Cross can say that during a disaster, “We are there.”

To add dimension and depth to that phrase, we added three bullet points that expanded the “we are there” theme. They are:

  1. We prepare. Before you need us, we are there, anticipating the unexpected. We set the standard for life-saving CPR, first aid and water training skills. We prepare the community with disaster education and preparedness programs. We support blood banks to ensure a safe and adequate supply for all of us.
  2. We respond. During emergencies, we are there, providing immediate relief and reassurance. Ever day, we serve people affected by disasters, at home and around the world. We can immediately activate a trained team of committed volunteers who are always ready to help. During tragedies, we give people ways to come together and assist those in need.
  3. We restore. After disasters, we are there, rebuilding lives and communities. We find answers, information and contacts so people can re-establish their lives. Our global network and extensive partnerships empower us to provide tangible solutions. All disaster assistance is provided free of charge, thanks to donations of time and money from the generous American people. Read the rest of this entry »

When Fundraising Becomes Begging

December 1, 2009

This time of year we hear from lots of people asking for money. That includes my charity-of-choice—the American Red Cross—which recently launched its holiday giving campaign.

Everywhere I turn someone’s hitting me up for another contribution. Isn’t it enough that I’m a leadership giver to United Way? Or that I also tithe at my church? Or that I buy trash bags, cookies and popcorn to support worthy causes?

As I drive around town, I’ll often see a homeless person panhandling at a busy intersection. His “case for support” will likely be handwritten on a crude cardboard sign.

Last week as I walked into my favorite bookstore, I was accosted on the sidewalk by the same man who’s been there years. Quite literally, that’s his “job”—begging for money. That brief encounter prompted me to think about the similarities and differences between a panhandler and a nonprofit fundraiser. Here’s what I came up with:

How are they similar?

  1. They both want my money.
  2. They both think they are quite deserving of a contribution.
  3. They both act as if it’s my patriotic duty or moral obligation to support them.
  4. They both will say thank you once I’ve given.
  5. Neither will likely follow up to let me know the positive impact my gift had.

How are they different?

  1. One is dressed nicer than the other.
  2. One has showered and shaved today.
  3. One is more likely than the other to have my e-mail address.
  4. One might publish my name in 6-point type in an annual report.
  5. One is more likely to ask me to give again, reminding me how much I gave last time and even requesting an increase.

Read the rest of this entry »

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