Donating Where it Does the Most Good
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
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.