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Donation management: Navigating the ‘second crisis’

Saturday, April 20th, 2019

Donation management is one aspect of emergency management that’s sometimes overlooked in training and planning for crises. When disaster strikes, people want to help. They donate funds, supplies and service time to assist those in need. “Disasters certainly have a strange way of bringing out the best in people,” Corine Stofle writes.

But if you don’t appropriately plan for these donations, the inundation of items can cause what is sometimes called the “second crisis.”

Preventing the “second crisis”

About two decades ago, Jim Brown, seasoned emergency management expert, served as the donations manager for New York State after 9/11. When he arrived on the scene, he found piles and piles of donated items crowding the streets of New York City to such a degree that the first responders were having trouble properly responding. The well-intentioned—but not necessarily helpful—heaps of donations were so overwhelming that he called them the “second disaster.”

“Our first priority was to clear the stuff off the streets,” writes Brown, who is chief of the Technological Hazards of Emergency Management Systems Division of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services’ Preparedness Branch. “The second was to organize the stuff, inventory the stuff and try to put everything to good use.”

Managing crisis donations

Quite simply, donations can only properly assist disaster victims if the donations are managed properly. Each organization should develop its own volunteer and donation management plan so resources can be applied effectively should a crisis strike. “We usually plan for evacuations or the response along a catastrophic line, but donations planning never receives that much attention,” said Lea Stokes, director for the officer of external affair at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Here are some considerations your organization should discuss to be ready for the influx of donations.

Donation allocation

“We had people driving up with food casseroles in their cars,” said Gloria Roemer, who helped manage donations in Texas following Hurricane Katrina. “They would say, ‘Here I baked two pans of lasagna.’ It was overwhelming, and it really brought tears to your eyes at the generosity of people really wanting to help.” However, she added, these numerous donations quickly turned into a “logistical nightmare.”

To avoid the logistical nightmare, make these donation allocation decisions in advance:

  1. Decide who will manage donations. Stokes suggests setting up a call center. That way, people who want to donate items can stay updated about what is needed as the crisis unfolds.
  2. Where should people bring donations?
  3. How will you communicate what kind of donations are needed? Be very specific about what items would actually be useful. Otherwise, you will end up having to sort through a bunch of stuff that isn’t helpful for disaster relief.
  4. How will goods—especially perishable food items—be stored?
  5. How will the goods be distributed?

Cash allocation

Records indicate that nearly half of Americans donated toward relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. While cash donations can do wonders to help crisis victims, a number of problems can occur if emergency management leaders don’t appropriately plan for these monetary donations.

  1. How will you communicate with people letting them know the crisis has occurred? People won’t donate if they don’t know funds are needed.
  2. How should people donate? Creating an easy, safe way for people to give money will help ensure all donations actually help disaster victims instead of going toward fake charities.
  3. How will undesignated donations be allocated?
  4. Who will manage, distribute, and implement the donations?

Volunteer effort allocation

A study published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction indicated that everyday citizens are generally first to arrive on the scene of an emergency and tend to continue helping “long after official services have ceased,” the study authors write.

Volunteer power can make a huge difference in crisis and donation management. Consider the following ahead of a crisis to best implement their assistance:

  1. Who should volunteers contact to find out if/how they can be of assistance?
  2. How will you communicate with the public regarding volunteer needs and opportunities?
  3. How will you handle volunteers that spontaneously show up to the scene of the crisis?
  4. How will you ensure volunteer safety?


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