Donated goods and volunteers that are not specifically needed in a disaster area can hurt more than help. Well-intentioned but ill-conceived shipments of goods and volunteers to an area impacted by a disaster can actually cause a ‘secondary’ disaster, in spite of the fact that donors really only want to help.”

Unsolicited donations create logistical nightmares for those already warehousing supplies that are needed and a needless expenditure for transportation.  Mountains of unsolicited used clothing, food, pots and pans, and furniture may not be needed.  Such items can overtax storage facilities and can create public health concerns (i.e., when food is shipped without any arrangements for refrigeration or proper storage). 

Likewise, large numbers of volunteers converging on a disaster site creates difficulties when emergency management coordinators have no plan for deploying them.  In a community struggling to respond to and recover from a disaster, an influx of unexpected or unneeded volunteers and donations can make the process more difficult.  Before traveling to the disaster area to help, learn where and when your skills will be needed.  Discuss with volunteer organizers how your needs for food, water, and shelter will be met while you are volunteering.

Well-meaning citizens are urged to provide cash donations to organizations with a known track record in responding to disasters.  Voluntary disaster organizations have a major role in donations and are uniquely well-equipped to deliver needed materials to disaster survivors, and continue to ask their government partners to aid in educating the general public on how best to contribute to a disaster relief effort.

Donors should be wary of anyone who claims that “everything” is needed.  Many groups have been disappointed that their efforts and the goods they collected were not appreciated.  A community hit by disaster, however, does not have the time, manpower, or money to dispose of unneeded donations.  Get precise information before collecting donated goods.

Voluntary disaster relief organizations have pre-existing relationships with major providers of disaster materials and supplies, and can leverage extremely good discounts so that donated dollars actually go further than if individuals purchase items.  Additionally, providing voluntary disaster organizations with cash donations allows them to provide disaster survivors with newly purchased items or cash to use as survivors know best.  All of us, in a similar position, would prefer to have new items that we have chosen ourselves rather than used items.

For a complete listing of the most well known national disaster relief agencies, see the web site for the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster at The web site describes what each organization does, so donors can determine which organization best suits their interests.  NVOAD organizations also train people who want to volunteer in times of disaster.

Working together, all of us can be more effective in coordinating priceless resources of money, goods, and manpower in such a way that we can help disaster survivors more efficiently and effectively.