Donating stuff? think first

Joan Willoughby got a truckload of fig jam - just when she really needed turkey roasting pans.

BY SUSAN KIM | RALEIGH, N.C. | May 11, 2008

"Even if I had a donation of something we really needed, I had no way to get it down there."

—Joan Willoughby

Joan Willoughby got a truckload of fig jam - just when she really needed turkey roasting pans.

Willoughby, disaster resource manager for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), was swirling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when, in a surreal twist, a truckload of fig jam arrived - all the way from the Middle East.

"We got this truckload of fig jam from a country that just wanted to do something to help. We kept asking each other: what are we going to do with fig jam?"

At that point - when HSUS emergency teams were trying to rescue thousands of stranded pets - what they really needed was turkey roasting pans, explained Willoughby. "We were setting up feeding stations for the pets we weren't able to rescue. We needed turkey roasting pans because they're disposable, and we could leave food and water in them for the animals that couldn't be rescued."

Inappropriate donations come from well-meaning people, said Willoughby, but they can cause real problems at disaster sites. In the days following Katrina, Willoughby and others at HSUS fielded more than 45,000 phone calls from people who wanted to help. "We had people call and say they had half a bag of dog food in Idaho," she said.

But dog food and cat food were piling up into small mountains in the disaster zones. "We told people it's best to give those kinds of items to their local humane organization," said Willoughby.

Speaking at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD) conference, Willoughby joined other disaster responders from across the nation in urging people to find out about specific needs before they donate. Responders have repeatedly tried to communicate to the public that a cash donation is the best way to help.

Needs change quickly at the disaster site, and even if a certain item is needed one day, it might not be needed the next.

"Communication issues were huge after Katrina," said Willoughby. "We would send people down to Mississippi and Louisiana and we wouldn't hear from them. We had to anticipate or guess what they'd need next. Even if I had a donation of something we really needed, I had no way to get it down there. If I finally found a truck to take it down there, nobody had a forklift or a place to put it."

Mike Dillaber, chair of the Mobile County VOAD in Alabama, also talked about the frustration of receiving inappropriate goods. Dillaber - working with state officials, Adventist Community Services, and other faith-based and voluntary organizations - helped operate a multi-agency distribution warehouse in the wake of Katrina.

"I left for lunch one day and when I came back there were two truckloads of hazmat (hazardous material-grade) boots."

Dillaber shared his donations management savvy during a National VOAD workshop, where he cautioned disaster responders about asking for specific donations of material goods. "Watch what you ask for," he said.

After Dillaber put out a call for nails, he got inundated. "We got pallets of nails. We got half boxes of nails. We also got paint. Anybody want some?"

When trucks started rolling up to the warehouse, Dillaber said he simply couldn't accept all of them. "We said, from the beginning, no used clothes."

Disaster responders unaffectionately call donations of used clothing the "second disaster" because clothing mountains tend to spring up at disaster sites like erupting volcanoes. "I refused them from my warehouse," said Dillaber, who urged community leaders nationwide to stop radio stations and other media outlets from announcing clothing drives after disasters. "These trucks would come in the middle of the night."

Meanwhile, Willoughby and others commended the role of National VOAD in providing a forum for responders to meet and discuss challenges such as inappropriate donations. National VOAD members have developed materials to educate people about appropriate donations. In the wake of Katrina, National VOAD members fielded thousands of calls from well-meaning donors offering everything from air boats to prom dresses.

Educating donors has to happen before a disaster, responders agreed. In the midst of a disaster - especially one as large as Hurricane Katrina - it's often frustrating to receive inappropriate donations. Nonetheless, cautioned Willoughby, responders shouldn't necessarily take those frustrations out on donors. A brusque response to a well-intentioned donor may well spoil a future source of the right donations.

But sometimes, Willoughby confessed, you just wanted people to stop sending stuff. "The dog food, the cat food just piles and piles in parking lots and warehouses. You just wanted them to stop. Every day people would come with truckloads of unexpected goods."

What are responders to do? They should still respect and honor every donor, said Willoughby, difficult as that may be in the wake of a disaster. "They are trying to help you," she said, "even when you have to turn them away."

The key, she added is donor education. "Say thank you to people. Recognize what they're trying to do. Then educate them."

Related Topics:

How corruption slows disaster recovery

Make sure your donation counts

Clothing could be second disaster

More links on How to Help


DNN Sponsors include: