spea magazine

Speaking Out: Learning from Katrina—What Our Experts Say

Donating Where it Does the Most Good

Les Lenkowsky

Les Lenkowsky Americans have opened up their wallets to help Hurricane Katrina’s victims, committing more than $900 million already in cash and goods to organizations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. However, judging from the lessons learned after last winter’s tsunami, the real test for these humanitarian groups will not be raising money, but using their funds and volunteers effectively.

This is partly because a portion of what’s donated may not be necessary or appropriate. In India, for example, northerners gave quilts to those affected by the tidal wave, all of whom lived in the hot and humid southern regions of the country, where warm bedding was not a high priority. Likewise, much of the aid provided to Indonesia and Sri Lanka was food, perhaps critically important right after the tsunami struck, but quickly less so, since the agricultural areas of the two countries lay outside the most heavily impacted portions.

In addition, the relief agencies operating in South Asia were beset by a variety of serious organizational problems. According to one evaluation, most of them lacked enough trained people to handle the complicated logistics of getting aid from donors to recipients. Only one-quarter had computer equipment to track where their assistance was going. Relief agencies often competed with one another, producing congested transportation systems and bottlenecks in providing aid.

Working in an area as vast and underdeveloped as South Asia undoubtedly exacerbated these challenges. Even so, those trying to help Hurricane Katrina’s victims ought to add staff with training and experience in managing complex logistics problems, perhaps by borrowing executives from businesses such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, which are already at the forefront of the relief effort.

They also need to invest in computer software, information systems, and other tools that permit better identification and response to victims’ needs. However, because of pledges that no contributions will be used for administrative expenses, they may be unable to do so, which will ensure that gifts will be used less effectively than they could be.

With the sympathy elicited for Hurricane Katrina’s victims, the charities engaged in the relief effort will not lack for resources. But unless they pay attention to how these resources are used, those who had the misfortune to be in the hurricane’s path will wind up doubly victimized: first by the storm itself, then by our ineffectual attempts to help them recover.

Les Lenkowsky is a professor at SPEA, IUB and IUPUI. He focuses on nonprofits, institution grant-makers, volunteering and civic engagement. He is also the director of graduate programs for the Center on Philanthropy at IU. Professor Lenkowsky received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1982.