When disaster strikes, our natural inclination is to reach out to our neighbors in need. The outpouring of donations seen in the aftermath of the earthquake – more than $200 million in the U.S. alone – is both moving and staggering in scale.

When disaster strikes, our natural inclination is to reach out to our neighbors in need. The outpouring of donations seen in the aftermath of the earthquake – more than $200 million in the U.S. alone – is both moving and staggering in scale.
But an often overlooked fact is that some types of donations are better than others, and just because donors are well-intentioned does not mean their money will be used in the best manner.
Having working for international humanitarian and development non-profits for about eight years in a variety of complex emergencies, I have learned that one can fall into a variety of pitfalls when responding to a disaster. To avoid these problems, I suggest the following four principles for prospective donors:
1. Cash is the best donation you can make. This is because it is far cheaper to move money than heavy packages of food, water, clothing and other goods.
“There is limited capacity for unloading, storing and distributing goods in Haiti,” said the UN humanitarian coordination office. “Because of these logistical constraints, the United Nations is urging potential donors to give cash rather than in-kind.”
Moreover, since the needs in a disaster zone can change rapidly, having money, rather than commodities, gives aid agencies the flexibility to retool their efforts and respond to the emerging situation.
2. Give your money to reputable agency with a track record in the country. There are many fly-by-night organizations that appear in response to disasters that are ill prepared for the massive logistical complications of a relief operation. Even well-established agencies that do not have a history in the country can run into big problems when they do not understand the politics, culture and society of the place in which they are operating.
Charity Navigator, a non-profit rating website, can be a good place to start your search as it shows how long the organization has been in existence, its financial health and how much money goes to administrative costs. However, be aware that this Web site does not rate the quality of the organization’s actual work.
3. If you want to volunteer, volunteer in your expertise. Aid agencies are often overwhelmed with offers of help in the aftermath of a disaster. Unfortunately, these agencies will only be able to take on a very small number of these volunteers as they want to avoid an avalanche of inexperienced people descending on the disaster zone with little coordination and understanding of relief operations.
“Volunteers without those skills can do more harm than good, and siphon off critical logistics and translations services,” says World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization.
Sometimes there is a need for people with technical backgrounds like construction, medicine or logistics, but these are often paid positions staffed by relief professionals. It is usually best to volunteer in your own neighborhood, congregation or workplace by raising money, offering help with stuffing envelopes, making phone calls or providing logistical back-up for non-profits that are responding to the situation.
4. Make a long-term commitment. Unfortunately the fickleness of the media means that today’s crises will soon be yesterday’s news. Disasters are soon forgotten after the initial rush of assistance. Many people who live in the affected areas have to face a long uphill climb back to normalcy and depend on sustained assistance.
If you are a donor, try to make a long-term commitment to partner with the communities and countries that you are helping. Learn about the places you are helping, read the latest news about them and give to organizations that have a commitment to stay in the country and help with the difficult process of recovery and reconstruction.

This week Matthew Bolton was appointed Haiti Emergency Coordinator for Outreach International, an Independence-based humanitarian organization that works in 14 impoverished countries around the world.