Some well-intended material donations provide little relief; how to help wildfire victims

Posted Oct 13 2017 04:06PM PDT

Updated Oct 14 2017 03:20PM PDT

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) -

The wreckage of widespread disaster amplifies American’s generosity and their desire to help. The North Bay Fires are doing just that. And while donations are admirable, people fail to realize that, no matter how well-intentioned the gesture may be, some items may present a problem.

Today we are inundated with information during times of disaster. Social media updates and live raw footage that exposes humans living through tragedy sparks an array of emotions. But boxing up old clothes or children’s toys hardly helps the situation at hand and can present danger for responders in the middle of an active disaster zone.

“The excitement is now and everybody’s hearts are pouring out and they want to help,” said Jennifer Pritchard, Petaluma Evacuation Center Coordinator. “But our concern is the long-term.”

Monetary donations are the most useful, as they allow professional relief organizations to purchase what is most urgently needed at that time. The onslaught of things like clothing and canned food can actually be counterproductive, according to the Center for International Disaster Information. The organization does primarily provide aid to international disasters, but their direction offers a broad stroke of relevant information.

“Unsolicited collections of household items serve no useful function in the acute phase of an emergency operation,” the CIDI states in their disaster donation guidelines. “Managing piles of unrequested donations may actually add to the cost of relief work through forcing changes to logistical and distribution plans and creating more tasks for relief workers.”

The active North Bay Fires have destroyed at least 5,700 structures and there are more than 4,500 people in shelters. They will undoubtedly need your charitable contributions during the rebuilding process.  The Center for Disaster Philanthropy suggests you “take the long view.” Those willing to help should be patient, as recovery takes time.

“We have 2,000 people displaced (in Petaluma). It’ll take seven months for several of these families to get in a home, Pritchard said. “If people want to help, hold on to those donations, and please volunteer in a couple weeks.”

And if you have an abundance of clothes you’d willingly bag up and send out, maybe consider selling them to a consignment store or have a garage sale. You could then put the money towards a cash donation. The CIDI has put together a list of 55 ways to repurpose material donations.

People tend to think they need to send everything to the people who just lost everything. But money in the hands of relief organizations on the ground can better serve the humanitarian needs that can change rapidly. What you may think disaster victims need may not be necessary anymore and could, in fact, be harmful.

Because when heaps of stuff gets dropped off, it must be stored. Storing takes away valuable time and costs money. Additionally, it can be overwhelming for a rattled community.

“Unsolicited donated goods such as used clothing, miscellaneous household items, and mixed or perishable foodstuffs require helping agencies to redirect valuable resources,” FEMA wrote on their Volunteer and Donate Responsibility page, echoing the instructions from CIDI.

Ultimately, an overarching guideline is you should do your research. Don’t assume more is better and do not self-deploy. Give monetary donations when possible and wait until a community identifies their need, and then sign up to volunteer.

Petaluma Evacuation Center, located at the Petaluma Community Center, is not accepting donations, but they do have a number you can call to set up a time to volunteer:

Here’s a list of a few organizations involved with relief funds:

Napa Valley Community Foundation

The North Bay Fire Relief Fund

Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership (volunteer or donation)

Go Fund a Hero

The American Red Cross 

Sonoma County Resilience Fund

Safari West Employee Recovery Fund

Three GoFundMe campaigns:  Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, Off the Grid

If you’re worried about whether your cash donation will make a difference or not, there are regulator organizations that analyze registered charities for financial integrity and program effectiveness. Some of the groups include Charity Navigator, Givewell, Charity Watch and the Better Business Bureau

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