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People don’t understand how disaster-relief money gets spent—and it makes them less likely to donate

How can the disaster-relief world change people’s perceptions to increase donations?

People don’t understand how disaster-relief money gets spent—and it makes them less likely to donate
[Image: Madmaxer/iStock]

Over the last two years, the United States has experienced 30 natural disasters that have each caused at least a billion dollars worth of damage. In many cases, the damage toll was far higher: The 2017 trifecta of Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma combined for a total of $265 billion in losses.

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About 30% of Americans made donations to help during those events. But new data shows that most people who give to disaster-relief organizations during times of crisis don’t actually understand how that money is going to be spent. Less than a quarter of Americans feel “very clear” about the what groups soliciting them in times of need will do with their donations, according to survey of 2,100 people from the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance first reported by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

That’s problematic for a couple reasons: At their current participation rate, Americans are contributing about $10 billion in collective relief annually. The bulk of those donations are in the low hundreds of dollars. Having more people participate would grow that pot—and getting more donors is probably more likely than getting current givers to up their donation amount. But to increase participation, groups obviously need to earn more trust. And that means battling several other misconceptions that donors associate with their current giving habits.

Many people believe that relief donations should be spent quickly. But disaster relief groups have found that after giving to groups working in hard-hit areas directly after the disaster, donors are extremely unlikely to give more support the following year, making long term recovery efforts there especially challenging. Groups work best when they can plan ahead for disasters, building up the right strategies, staff, and infrastructure to handle whatever worst-case scenario might arise. So encouraging groups to spend money fast as opposed to smartly planning for the future might not be the best answer.

As part of their research, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance also surveyed 68 nonprofits to figure out what groups wished the public better understood about disaster relief. Several organizations including the Red Cross, Humane Society, and Direct Relief shared their thoughts in a related video that the Better Business Bureau posted alongside their results:

“Before we can respond to a hurricane we need warehouses that are stocked with cots and blankets and other items,” Suzy DeFrancis, Red Cross chief public affairs officer says in that video. “We need trained volunteers who can deploy at a moment’s notice and know what they need to do when they get on the ground. We need communications, we need logistics, we need trucks that are fueled and maintained and ready to go. That’s part of the cost of responding to a disaster, not just what happens that day but in the weeks and months before. And often donors see the food but they don’t know what went into it.”

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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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