Keep Your Canned Goods, Cash is King: How Best to Support Emergency Relief Efforts Abroad

How to ensure effective international assistance by providing the right kinds of support
A group of Filipino children wait near the Tacloban airport. Credit: D. Burgui
A group of Filipino children wait near the Tacloban airport in post-Typhoon Haiyan Philippines. Credit: D. Burgui

One of the few positives to come out of catastrophic events like Typhoon Haiyan is the reassuring outpouring of support from every corner of the world.

But how that support gets translated into action matters, as the wrong kind of help can adversely affect relief efforts, squander resources, and even hamper rescue efforts on the ground.

Emergencies: Why cash is best

When bad things happen to others, we instinctively want to help, but it can feel off-putting when we’re told to just send money. Yet when large-scale emergencies happen, sending money to reputable organizations on the ground really is the best way to support recovery efforts.

Here’s why cash makes the most sense for emergencies:

  • Flexible: each emergency is different, and cash allows relief professionals to procure exactly what is needed—at the scale it’s needed—in response to a disaster’s impact on local communities.
  • Appropriate: to be effective, relief efforts simply have to be culturally, dietarily, and environmentally appropriate, and only cash allows first responders to purchase what’s locally appropriate.
  • Efficient: cash donations are also unique in that they don’t eat up additional resources, whereas in-kind donations require additional expenditures—fuel, transportation, warehousing, safeguarding, etc.
  • Speedy: unlike in-kind goods and commodities, only cash can be transferred quickly, securely, and electronically to wherever it’s needed, ensuring the timely delivery of lifesaving goods and services.
  • Targeted: Bringing in outside goods and services can distort local markets and displace merchants, but targeted infusions of cash and local purchases can help bolster a disaster-stricken economy.

Here’s a quick video on why cash contributions are essential to international relief efforts:

On Material Goods

Material goods certainly have their place in supporting effective international programs, but they’re often better suited for non-emergencies (when immediate, lifesaving action is the priority) or domestic needs—there are countless food banks and social service organizations that can put in-kind donations to good use.

Some things to keep in mind when collecting material goods to send overseas: 

  1. Connect before you collect: Find out which international organizations accept in-kind gifts and give them a call before collecting or sending anything anywhere. 
  2. Educate yourself on the types of in-kind support needed—organizations accepting material goods can guide you so your contributions are targeted and useful.
  3. Estimate what it will cost to send your material goods overseas by using the “Greatest Good Donation Calculator” on the Center for International Disaster Information’s website.
  4. Do the most good: Connect with domestic organizations to see if your contribution might do more good at home—the Red Cross, Share Our Strength, and Feeding America are good places to start.

(For a highly relevant—if jaw-dropping—account of good-yet-uninformed intentions gone absurd, check out Jessica Alexander’s article on, Please Don’t Send Your Old Shoes to the Philippines.)

Volunteering abroad

People often want to volunteer their time and skills after a major international disaster, but this just isn’t an option for many of us.
When disasters strike, it’s critical to save as many lives as quickly as possible, and trained professionals with specific skill sets are in demand. Well-intentioned individuals who lack technical skills, prior disaster response experience, or familiarity with working with foreign governments or local cultures can impede relief efforts.
If you do have previous humanitarian or disaster response experience—or the relevant technical skills—and would like to volunteer, you’re encouraged to register with the Center for International Disaster Information.

Start a fundraiser

Want to get involved beyond making a one-time donation? You can set up an individual fundraising page and help us raise the critical funding we need to sustain our lifesaving on-the-ground efforts. 
My Action Against Hunger is a platform that lets you harness the power of personal events or team activities for greater good—whether you’re training for a marathon, holding team building day at work, or celebrating a birthday, your creativity and generosity can help save lives!
And rest assured your support will be put to good use: we rank in the top two percent of U.S. nonprofits for our program efficiency, commitment to transparency, and our financial health—so your money will go where it’s needed.
Lastly, thank you all for the generous outpouring of support during catastrophic disasters like Typhoon Haiyan. Our on-the-ground response wouldn't be the same without the essential support from individuals like you. 

Help save lives in the Philippines
and around the world

About James Phelan

James is Action Against Hunger's Deputy Director for External Relations, keeping an eye on global events and program developments.