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Why climate change means your Hurricane Lane donation might not go to Hawaii

Donations restricted to one event can give you peace of mind that you’re helping where you want. But in an era of increasing natural disasters, aid organizations need flexibility to respond to the next unexpected disaster.

Why climate change means your Hurricane Lane donation might not go to Hawaii
Hurricane Lane, as seen from the International Space Station on August 22, 2018. [Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center]

Hurricane Lane, at of our time of publishing, is currently a very serious category 2 storm and is projected to pass dangerously close to Hawaii. The rain, storm surge, and high winds will likely be devastating.

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To help disaster response organizations prepare for the impending crisis, nonprofit evaluator Charity Navigator released a list of potential charities that are likely to use public donations wisely. There are currently seven on a relief page about the storm, including the Maui Food Bank, American Red Cross, and Direct Relief.

There’s also a disclaimer. “Please note, at this time it is not certain that all of these organizations will spend 100% of donations received on Hurricane Lane relief.” That’s because until groups quantify exactly what Hawaii will need, they may not be restricting all of the contributions to Lane relief, in case the rest could be more efficiently used to respond to another tragedy if the storm mercifully passes. It’s a mentality that may continue, given that global warming is contributing to ever more unpredictable disaster seasons, where aid organizations might need to respond to several successive events.

This is a lesson learned from Hurricane Harvey, where the majority of the $774 million in donations the Charity Navigator groups were largely restricted to recovery efforts for just that storm. When Irma and Maria hit soon after, organizations then couldn’t shift those restricted funds to other relief efforts. It’s Philanthropy 101 that in order to respond effectively, disaster response organizations need to build out their operational support too, otherwise, one hugely restricted windfall might not be used as effectively. (Charity Navigator is still compiling reports on how much of giving happened during Irma and Maria and how it was spent.) The disclaimer is also to help hedge against controversies like the Red Cross ran into after the Haiti earthquake, when it was accused of spending too little of the money in Haiti.

“We provide dedicated donation opportunities for people who want to make sure that their money is going to relieve a specific crisis. But remember . . . we encourage donors to invest in organizations that they can be confident are allocating resources in the most effective way for the mission of that organization. Because there are some storms or other disasters that have the potential to receive more money than is needed,” says Charity Navigator COO Larry Lieberman.

Overall, though, Lieberman says that donors should recognize that unrestricted funding supports “the agility and versatility of the organization so that the money can be used where the charity that they’re investing in says it’s most needed. It’s giving the organization the most flexibility to address the highest level of crises wherever they might be.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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