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 redcross.org. 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!


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