In the fall of 1988, Hurricane Gilbert stormed through the Caribbean and slammed into Mexico, leaving a trail of death and damage that spanned 10 counties. As disaster relief agencies scrambled to help, however, another unexpected problem arose.
“An outpouring of unsolicited donations took up space at ports and airports that was needed to manage and deliver emergency supplies, and responders spent valuable time and resources dealing with unneeded clothing, expired medicine and other non-critical items,” say Carol Chan, the acting director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, in an email to Fast Company.
The reality is, it would have been better if everyone had just sent cash to groups that were already responding. That because cash doesn’t spoil, has no transportation costs (or carbon footprint), arrives immediately, and donations can be combined, so even small amounts add up to a big difference. Plus, the groups that use it to distribute aid can make sure they’re doing so in a way that doesn’t damage local economies as they recover. “Cash donations are the most efficient form of assistance,” Chan says.
But how do you get people to remember that? USAID’s answer: One month after Gilbert, it established the Center for International Disaster Information, which exists to teach the public how to optimize such impulsive needs to help. The group’s mission started with a slogan that it still uses today: “Cash is Best.” And to constantly reaffirm that, the group hosts the Public Service Announcements for international disasters contest (PSAid), an annual college design competition that gives young people a chance to make sure that 30-year-old message still resonates in digital, print, and short video ads that the organization makes freely available for TV and media outlets.
This year’s first place winners take three different approaches to the idea, but “were selected because all three clearly, concisely and immediately conveyed the primary message that donating cash is the most effective way to help surrounding an international disaster,” Chan says. (You can see all of the awards here.) There’s still a pressing need for this: In the weeks after Hurricane Harvey, for instance, a massive influx of food, water, and various supplies from well-meaning but disconnected donors were both unhelpful and contributed to the mess.
The winner in the digital category was created by Areia Worden, a graphic design student at Arizona State University. It points out that the cost to ship a pair of jeans to Honduras is $165. That same money, if given directly to an established disaster response organization, could purchase at least two dozen blankets or nearly three dozen liters of water. (As part of its mission, CIDI shares just how to find or vet such groups depending on the disaster.) Most importantly, these nonprofits know what’s happening on the ground and who else is responding, so they can make the decision of what to prioritize. In the ad, a cartoonish drawing of a dollar transforms into a T-shirt, can of food, and finally a first aid kit. “Since cash can be anything,” flashes an accompanying message, “Let those in need decide what it should be.”
The winning print entry was made by Olivia Cardinale, a student from Loyola University. It features a large generic stick figure whose head is made out of a coin emblazoned with a dollar sign. It’s unclear if the person represents either the donor or beneficiary, but either way, the symbol works with the large all-caps slogan written above it: “BE THE CHANGE. LITERALLY,” the ad reads. And then at the bottom, in smaller print: “Cash donations are the most efficient way to support disaster relief.”
The winning video is a 30-second spot from Sofia Ruescas at St. Mary’s University. As you can see below, it shows a dollar spinning like a board-game arrow in the middle of different relief variables like food, clothing, and water, except the arrows on the dollar point to every item. At the end, the narrator offers a catchphrase that appears in bold red letters on the screen: “Donate smart, fast. Donate cash.”
That’s a concept that some groups are taking even one step further these days, as organizations like GiveDirectly provide direct cash transfers to people affected either by severe poverty in developing countries or by natural disasters. After the immediate emergency passes, it’s often the people in the group who know even better what they need next to move forward, and in some cases, buying that locally can help jump-start a crushed economy. All of this falls under the broader theory of smart compassion. As CIDI explains in its online resources, it’s up to donors to think about how to “help the greatest number of survivors and their communities while doing no harm.”