When disaster strikes, we all want to help. Local governments, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and individuals all rally to help those in need. The American Red Cross is among those who answer the call to help.
|Volunteers in Calistoga, CA go through boxes of items donated|
to California wildfire relief.
Photo by J. Knowles/American Red Cross
The Red Cross mission is to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. That’s a tall order, and it would simply not be possible if not for amazing volunteers and generous donors. Fortunately, we’ve seen time and again that Americans are inspired to give when they see disasters displace their neighbors down the street, across the country and around the world.
Responding to this generosity is a complex task that requires transparency, tracking, thoughtfulness and strategic thinking – it’s one of the behind-the-scenes efforts you might not realize comes with the job of responding to disasters!
James Knowles is a Red Cross worker from the Colorado-Wyoming Region who deployed on Sept. 14 to California to help out with one of the more complex aspects of managing the outpouring of generosity that accompanies a major disaster: donations of goods and services, also known as “in-kind” donations.
“People are so generous and they truly want to help,” said Knowles, who is working to manage in-kind donations related to the Valley and Butte fires in California.
Financial donations allow the Red Cross to quickly mobilize our volunteers and equipment across the country, organize them into a disaster response operation, and purchase the resources that meet some of the needs we see in the affected community.
|A warehouse in Calistoga, CA where donated items are|
stored, sorted and distributed to those affected by the
wildfires in California.
Photo by J.Knowles/American Red Cross
In addition to accepting financial donations, the Red Cross uses bulk donations of essential items from the corporate sector, especially when there is a need for large quantities of things like drinking water, food and snacks, and personal hygiene items. We work with local restaurants to help provide food, local and national partners to help with cooking, and a variety of companies to meet unique needs – for example, the Red Cross worked with Modesto-based supermarket chain Save Mart to accept a donation of 2,760 non-perishable food items to help feed evacuees. Del Monte Foods donated 1,500 non-perishable, nutritious fruit products--500 fruit cups, 500 easy-open fruit cans, and 500 of drinkable fruit snacks.
Each item, whether donated or purchased, must be tracked from the time it is requested, through the receiving process and through distribution. Everything must be accounted for. In-Kind donations workers like James are assigned to the disaster response operation to be responsible for that effort.
|James Knowles multi-tasks as he helps manage the tremendous|
outpouring of in-kind donations for the Red Cross relief
effort for the wildfires in California.
Photo by Linda Bisset/American Red Cross
In addition to the larger corporate donations, individuals and groups often want to drop off small donations of items like clothing, bedding, towels and food. Those types of in-kind donations pose an ongoing challenge during most disasters: often, organizations focused on meeting immediate emergency needs struggle to quickly establish a solution that will allow people to help while also ensuring that the items being offered are safe, meet the actual needs of people affected, and don’t interfere with the delivery of immediate basic services like shelter, food and health support.
“Until I deployed on this disaster, I never understood just how much time, coordination and resources it takes to accept, sort, clean, move, and distribute donated ‘stuff’ when it comes in thousands of individual bundles instead of bulk, packaged donations on easy-to-move pallets,” James said.
He added: “In the chaotic first days of a disaster, our focus is on setting up shelters where we can put a roof over people’s heads, serve hot meals, and ensure their physical and emotional well-being. But we strive to quickly connect people with the community partner who can best help channel that flood of goodwill.”
The Red Cross works with local organizations that have the mechanisms to store, clean, sort, organize and deliver such small individual donations of items within the community. In communities where this process has been established, practiced and tested, the public more quickly can find an avenue to donate their goods. Other times, it may take several days to find the best way to channel this form of generosity.
|In-kind donations must be sorted and documented|
before they can be distributed. Volunteers must go
through each box to determine where and how it will
be used. Photo by J.Knowles/American Red Cross
“We know it can be frustrating when people want to give a tangible item, and are told to hold off and have patience,” James said. “However, the Red Cross simply does not have the resource to accept every in-kind donation. The donation must fit a need and it must not incur an expense for storage or cleaning.”
In an effort to help manage the outpouring of in-kind donations, Knowles other team members arranged for a donation of boxes from U-Haul that could be used to help organize the items. “Every day the number of donated items got larger,” James said. “People would drop items off by the truckload at our disaster response headquarters in Calistoga and at our shelters.”
Some of the donated items were new, unopened items that evacuees could use immediately, while other items would have to be cleaned and processed. Some donations, while well intentioned, don’t meet immediate needs of those affected.
In Calistoga, CA, the Red Cross worked with county officials and the Napa County Fairgrounds to identify a partner (the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership Emergency Volunteer Center) to coordinate all goods donations and non-Red Cross volunteer management at the Fairgrounds.
“It can be frustrating if you aren’t able to give items on the first days of a disaster. We hope that people will be understanding and recognize that wildfire survivors will have a variety of needs as they recover from this disaster,” James said. “They will need our help – and the help of the community – not just now, but in the days, weeks, and months to come.”