If there's an Emergency or Disaster, How Should I Help?
Australians are always very generous in times of disaster and emergency, as demonstrated by the huge outpourings of support issued in the wake of the 2010-11 Queensland floods, the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, and the 2004 Asian tsunami.
GiveNow donations skyrocketed during all three events, while our phones and email accounts were overwhelmed with queries about how people could help.
GiveNow users also responded strongly to the appeal for donations during the 2011 East Africa appeal, which was held in the midst of a devastating drought that ignited a major food crisis.
The old adage is true: Aussies really do respond to calls to help out a mate.
However, sometimes our best efforts are misplaced. It’s a sad fact that our generosity can at times actually undermine recovery efforts and community resilience.
We give what we think is needed, and often we give what we want to give. We imagine what we would need if we lost our home or belongings and we give accordingly. Or we give what we have to hand. Whatever you give is good, right?
Well, not really.
Here are some of the ways that well-intentioned but inappropriate giving can make a bad situation worse.
- Critical resources are wasted dealing with unneeded, unwanted stuff.
Donated goods are often inappropriate and do not meet the specific needs of a disaster-affected community. As a result, critical resources have to be brought in to manage large quantities of donated goods that cannot be used. People who should be helping the recovery effort are actually spending time sorting through unhelpful donations.
- Disaster victims are made to feel second-class
Unwanted donations can also negatively affect the people in disaster-affected communities. Poor quality and unusable items can reduce personal autonomy and undermine self-esteem – if you wouldn’t use it, why would or should they?
- Negative impacts on the local economy
Local economies are often damaged by disasters and can be further impacted by uncontrolled donations of goods as well. When the goods the community needs are donated, local businesses lose income and can struggle to recover, which can be very damaging for communities in the long term.
Feeling like your help has actually been a hindrance and you never want to donate again? Never fear – people really do want your help!
Here’s how to help
National guidelines have been developed to help people to respond more effectively to the needs of disaster-affected communities and people.
The National Guidelines for Managing Donated Goods, funded by the Australian Government and launched by the South Australian Minister for Emergency Services in April 2012, provides some guidance on how you can become a more thoughtful, effective and successful giver in times of emergency.
For individuals, the National Guidelines promote:
- Money as a preferred donation This is because money, unlike donated goods, provides choice, flexibility and autonomous decision making. It also helps to support local economies by encouraging local buying.
- Donations made on assessment of need The needs of disaster-affected people and communities should always be the first consideration. This helps to empower, and provide choice to those affected.
In addition to these guidelines, we’d add a couple more –
- Give without boundaries Try not to restrict your giving to one particular person, or type of person, or community, or period of time, or even to one disaster. When a disaster rolls around, many different needs emerge, and you are probably not the best person to be judging which of them requires what sort of help right now.
- Think long-term View your disaster giving as part of an overall giving strategy. Instead of throwing all your disposable income at one particular disaster, consider giving regularly to an organisation that always steps in during such events (there are many of them around). Think about including disaster giving as part of a planned portfolio of giving for yourself or your family - you may want to contribute to prevention effort as well, for example. Consult our ‘Tips for Giving Wisely’ help sheet for more on how to do this.
It’s important to remember that disaster relief is long term. The detrimental effects of a disaster do not disappear when media coverage moves on. Disasters require rebuilding, and that can take a very long time, and can require ongoing resourcing that continues well after the average donor has shifted attention to another cause.
There may also be needs that are pressing but not very media-friendly – or donor-friendly. A conscientious giver may try to make the most of his/her donation by targeting those causes that are hardest to fund – read this New York Times
article to find out more about the effects of this disparity.
Other ways to give
Not everyone has the desire or capacity to give a financial donation in response to a disaster. Some people prefer to give their time.
From sandwich-making to clean-up to skilled rebuilding and provision of professional services, volunteers can be an invaluable help after a disaster.
But be aware that unwanted donations of time can also be harmful. Here are some rules of thumb:
- Don’t rush into a disaster zone. Sticky-beak or volunteer – who can tell the difference? Keep your distance until someone calls for help.
- Listen to the people in charge. You’re probably not be the right person to decide what sort of help is required, or when, or by whom. Listen to the people who know.
- Listen to the community. Don’t barrel in to someone’s home or property, or even their community – ask first if your help is needed (and how, and when).
- Think long-term – Some of the most useful help is that which is given long after the initial disaster has passed. Check in with affected communities from time to time to find out what’s required – it may be that a day trip to the affected area to get the local cash registers ringing is just as effective as a day pushing a broom.
, an online not-for-profit organisation, is a Queensland Government partner for managing offers of donated goods and services, including corporate offers of assistance, for Queensland state emergencies.
The National Guidelines for Managing Donated Goods
also contain suggestions for the organisations tasked with managing the disaster response:
- Communicate clearly: A clear and transparent communication process should be used to inform workers (government and non-government), the community and the media about how best to assist the people and the communities affected by the disaster. This communication must be clear and consistent.
- Effective management of donations: Donations of material goods should be managed through an equitable, efficient and coordinated system to promote fairness and ensure no waste.
- Consideration of the views of recipients: A review, which is inclusive of recipients’ views of the donated goods program, should occur after every disaster. This feedback informs future planning.
- Plan ahead: Arrangements for donated goods should be encapsulated in national, state/territory and regional/local policy and planning. By adopting these National Guidelines, and incorporating them into forward disaster/recovery planning, jurisdictions will be more effectively able to support one another when a disaster occurs.
The full set of guidelines can be downloaded here
Thanks for giving (and caring)
While giving in a disaster is important, keep in mind that there are many people who are still suffering long after the disaster, long after you have stopped seeing them on your TV screens.
Remember that outside that disaster zone, there are other pockets of genuine and often desperate need and suffering, often in other areas of the world, that may be just as worthy of your dollar.
The best type of giver is a thinking, aware giver. Make sure your help is the kind that really makes a difference!