The Challenges of Donation Management: Government Leaders Can Take Action to Assure Timely and Appropriate Donations during Public Emergencies and Crises

By Edwards, Frances L. | The Public Manager, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Challenges of Donation Management: Government Leaders Can Take Action to Assure Timely and Appropriate Donations during Public Emergencies and Crises


Edwards, Frances L., The Public Manager


Hurricane Katrina

One of the lasting images of Hurricane Katrina is the mass of people outside the Superdome asking for water from National Guard troops who had none to give. People all over the world saw a city under water, and the human misery it created, and wanted to respond in some way.

But the United States had never before been a recipient of foreign disaster relief, so the outpouring of goodwill became a foreign policy disaster--offending even our closest ally, Great Britain, when their proffered MREs (meals ready-to-eat) were warehoused in Arkansas and ultimately given to other nations because of fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). Offers of oil, cruise ships, and doctors ran afoul of American regulations and became diplomatic disasters.

Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from a variety of smaller nations was redirected to a consortium of nonprofit organizations led by the United Methodist Commission on Relief (UMCOR). The UMCOR ultimately provided case work services for Katrina victims in Texas, Arkansas, and Atlanta, an essential recovery service not previously funded by federal disaster relief.

Loma Prieta Earthquake

In 1989, the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area, knocking down a freeway connection to the Bay Bridge, damaging the upper level of the bridge, and collapsing unreinforced masonry structures as far away as Santa Cruz and Watsonville, California.

A community in North Carolina heard about the Mexican migrant workers who were made homeless by the collapses in Watsonville, and filled a tractor trailer truck with boxes and bags of used clothing, canned goods, and toys. A week after the earthquake, the truck driver arrived at Watsonville City Hall and asked where to deliver the truckload of charity. The beleaguered employees replied that there was nowhere in town to deliver the goods. Replying that he had a scheduled pick up in San Jose that afternoon, the driver opened the truck, unloaded everything onto the street and sidewalk in front of City Hall--odd shoes, ripped bags, dented cans--and left.

While the employees were trying to find a means of contacting the county's Red Cross chapter in Salinas (electricity and phone service were still intermittent) in hopes that they could suggest a solution, it started to rain. By nightfall the donations were a soggy, muddy mess. Ultimately city sanitation workers had to be diverted from disaster response work to load dump trucks of sodden material and remove it, consuming years of landfill capacity in the process. Because it was not debris from the disaster--having been delivered a week after the earthquake--the state and federal government refused to pay for the clean-up and removal of the ruined donations.

Plan for Donations

These two examples highlight the need for community disaster plans so the likelihood of unexpected donations can be addressed in a timely manner.

This plan should include partnering with local nonprofit organizations that handle used items and donations of goods on a regular basis. For example, in San Jose, the Collaborating Agencies' Disaster Relief Effort (CADRE) organizes the nonprofits into functional areas that mirror their day-to-day work.

One member, Second Harvest Food Bank, receives post-disaster food donations because it has the appropriate warehouses and refrigerators to store usable food, as well as staff and volunteers who know how to sort usable from unusable food items. St. Vincent DePaul accepts clothing, toys, and household goods into a sorting warehouse, passing along the usable items to its store, where disaster victims can bring vouchers to obtain basic clothing in the correct sizes and needed household items.

Both Second Harvest and St. Vincent DePaul have trucks and drivers that are used weekly for disposal of non-disaster unusable materials, and an on-going relationship with the local government that provides a grant to cover disposal of unwanted and unrecyclable materials at the landfill. …

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