4 Ways Companies Can Help in the Face of Natural Disasters

When a natural disaster hits — regardless of where it occurs in the world — everyone scrambles to help. It’s human nature to want to assist others when they’re struggling, especially in the face of destruction and loss.

Corporations, in particular, have the infrastructure, supply chains, experience and relationships to help respond quickly. It’s great when companies contribute their assets to relief efforts, but sometimes the best intentions actually cause more problems than they solve. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, we saw a candy company donate bags of Halloween candy to the affected children. Can you imagine children — who have just lost everything and, in many cases, family members — opening up skeleton-shaped candy suckers?

Before your company makes an epic mishap when sending aid, here are four ways you can do the most good for those in need while avoiding any inadvertent harm:

1. Start with selfless motives

Your primary goal should always be to help those who are suffering. It’s true that helping others makes for great marketing material, but this shouldn’t be what drives you. When you reach out to those in need, it’s important to take a step back and consider — with pure motives — what is truly good for the community you’re serving.

Think beyond “bodies,” and consider what specific skills would be helpful to the communities in need. Either as part of your intake process or during training periods, ask your team if they have an interest in serving.

Next, classify your team into categories, from general staff to those who are highly specialized (e.g., medics, logistics, officers). This allows you to quickly identify and mobilize people with the proper skill-sets when disasters hit. Just be sure to check that volunteers have the right experience, prerequisite knowledge (like language skills) and understanding of disaster relief psychology to be effective.

2. Give cash instead of in-kind donations

While donating clothing to those affected by an earthquake might sound like a great way to help, consider what hidden costs and detriments might accompany your donation.

Unsolicited, unwanted donations can clog distribution locations, end up in landfills if they’re unneeded, result in exorbitant shipping costs, and suppress an economic recovery in the disaster area by undercutting locally-produced goods.

For instance, after the 2004 South Asian tsunami, many well-intentioned people turned to their closets for donations. But clothing donations weren’t needed after the disaster; piles of old shoes, worn dresses and Halloween costumes ended up by the roadside. Domestic animals began trying to eat the clothes and became sick from ingesting the nonedible materials. Many Indonesians found it degrading to be shipped Western hand-me-downs.

When in doubt, consult a nongovernmental organization (NGO) giving aid on the ground about a potential donation. Chances are, they’ll tell you that monetary donations will do the most good.

3. Consider local cultures

In-kind donations also risk violating cultural taboos. Speaking from experience (I’ve seen cans of Spam delivered to mostly Muslim populations in refugee camps), I can tell you the most well-intentioned item donations can do more harm than good.

Again, consult a knowledgeable NGO or a local consulate about the cultural nuances of the populations in need. Specialized news media can also give great overviews of the situation, and NGOs providing aid on the ground are unparalleled resources if you have any doubts about the cultural significance of a particular item you’re considering donating.

Likewise, if you’re considering sending volunteers to a crisis zone, ensure that they’re well-versed in the local culture. Acts you might consider incredibly common may create big waves in another culture. For instance, donning your favorite shorts and a tank top to brave the Middle Eastern heat could upset many locals. You don’t want to be perceived as openly flouting local laws or cultural norms in front of victims.

4. Think about the cycle of aid

Always think about the big picture when you’re considering making a donation. For example, donating powdered baby formula might seem like a great candidate for in-kind donations at first. However, when mixed with contaminated water, it can kill a baby via diarrhea within 48 hours. Additionally, its use means a mother’s natural milk supply dries up. When she runs out of formula or can’t afford it, she’s forced to try to feed her baby rice or corn, which is not digestible.

Rather than hosting an office-wide canned food or clothing drive, it’s often much more effective for companies to raise money for proven NGOs and agencies that have a presence in the disaster zone. That way, these on-the-ground groups can make regional purchases without the hassle of international shipment or transportation costs, while also creating local jobs and supporting the local economy’s recovery.

It’s human nature to want to help, but don’t be afraid to call on an expert to help determine how best to leverage your assets for disaster assistance. Above all, keep the people you’re trying to help — not the benefits for your brand’s image — top of mind.

Image credit: Flickr/U.K. Department for International Development

Mina Chang is CEO and president of Linking the World, an international humanitarian aid organization with a focus on children, global awareness, and breaking the cycle of poverty around the world. Linking the World has been saving lives and transforming communities since 1997 through its unique emphasis on partnerships to kindle hope.

Mina Chang