Consumerist Giving: When Your Donations Cause Problems

Eye of the Storm Image from Outer Space

In light of the major hurricanes that recently did immense damage to Texas, islands in the Caribbean, and Florida, and also the earthquake in Mexico, it’s time to talk about how to help in real tangible ways, and about a huge donation/giving snafu to avoid.

I stumbled upon this article the other day from CBS, and I can confirm that this is a real problem from personal experience. I did a lot of volunteering in college and happened to volunteer in areas of the east coast affected by Hurricane Sandy, so I’ve seen some of this firsthand, though not on the scale that the writer describes. TLDR: Charity can be very good, but not all charitable donations are helpful.

As the article explains,

“Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful,” said Juanita Rilling, former director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington, D.C. “And they have no idea that they’re doing it.”

The article goes on to describe huge piles of clothing donations blocking airport runways during hurricane disaster relief – runways that were needed to land planes full of actual life-saving supplies. It talks about a huge influx of teddy bears-thousands-donated to Sandy Hook after the tragic shooting at the elementary school.

Chris Kelsey, who worked for Newtown at the time, said they had to get a warehouse to hold all the teddy bears….As Kelsey said, “I think a lot of the stuff that came into the warehouse was more for the people that sent it, than it was for the people in Newtown. At least, that’s the way it felt at the end.”

He makes an excellent point. After disaster strikes, there’s a wonderful human urge to help and to feel like you’ve contributed in some real, tangible way. But we also have our own preconceived notions about what is helpful and what isn’t, and they aren’t always accurate.

I volunteered at a food pantry for a while and was one of the people who helped in the back room bagging groceries. We pretty much only dealt with food items, though occasionally we might get a donation of something like diapers. We were not, and never were intended, to be a clothing donation place.

Then the hurricane hit, and everyone wanted to lend a hand, and also a hand-me-down. This food pantry was completely inundated with clothing donations, I’m talking full trash bags piled to the ceiling, and we didn’t have room for them, or the resources to sort, clean, and distribute them properly. We started giving them away as much as possible, shoving them at people who didn’t want them or need them. I remember one week, because we had started giving away clothing donations, people who had come in for food assistance the week before came back with several boxes and bags of clothing donations. Thinking they were helping. That since we were giving away clothing, we must want more donations.

I thought this was a crazy problem to have. A food pantry inundated with the wrong type of donations, and lots of them. Then I read the aforementioned article about other hurricanes, which talks about people literally burning piles of donations because they were not the things people affected by the disaster actually needed, and these unwanted donations had rotted in a pile from not being handled in a timely, proper manner.

I told a co-worker this story and she was shocked. She said, why couldn’t they just pass the clothes on to someone else? Surely some people affected by the disaster must need clothes.

I told her, not necessarily. Because, as I recall from the hurricane, all the other charities in the area were flooded with donations after the disaster too, and again, not necessarily the things that were needed, or that the particular charity was set up to handle.

All you have to do to avoid contributing to this problem is to listen to the charities you are donating to. If they give a list of items they need, stick to the list. If they ask for a monetary donation or otherwise indicate that they will take one, it is almost always far more helpful to make a monetary donation. I know a lot of people prefer controlling exactly what their money buys, while others may prefer the personal touch of picking out an item to donate, but by giving money to a charity you trust, you grant them the ability to make bulk purchases that help a larger number of people than the four cans you bought plus the 2 nearly expired ones you took out of your pantry.

In case you haven’t seen it, the Adam Ruins Everything video on food drives is 100% accurate in my experience. Seriously, over 95% of what we gave out came from bulk purchases, not food drives. I’ve helped sort that stuff. A lot of what we got from said drives was expired, or just a weird item nobody eats. Rule of thumb: if you’re not sure how to cook it, someone else might not be either. Don’t donate that weird can of secret saucy surprise.

If you know of any charities that are doing good work to help the victims of these recent natural disasters, feel free to share in the comments!

Always donate responsibly.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

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Toy Donation Woes: Race and Baby Dolls

3 Red Covered Present BoxMy office recently participated in a Christmas donation program, where people signed up to buy presents for various children in need. Participants were each given a child’s name, age, gender, and a small wish list with gift suggestions. The child I was assigned was a 7-year-old girl who wanted a baby doll, books, and a digital toy I wasn’t familiar with. We really only had to buy one gift per child, but I decided to get her a baby doll and a couple of books since children’s books at her age aren’t very expensive, and I figured, how hard can it be to choose a baby doll for a 7-year-old? It turns out, when you don’t know what the child looks like/likes, it’s kinda difficult. I wound up just upping the number of books and getting the kid a significant stack.

I will start with the caveat that I probably could have found a better selection if I’d had more time. I had about a week to make the purchase and didn’t have time to drive to the nearest Toys-R-Us that week, so I stopped at Target on my way home from work to do some in-person shopping, then wound up browsing Amazon. I realize those aren’t necessarily the ideal places to purchase toys–but they do carry them, and it’s not like there was no selection. One side of an aisle at Target was covered in dolls. It was just not the selection I expected.

Since she had specifically asked for a baby doll, not a doll that looks older than that, I’m excluding dolls that look old enough to be walking or talking. Those dolls were actually pretty diverse. At my local store, with these criteria in mind, there are pretty much only 2 types of baby dolls when it comes to appearance:

Dolls that look like this:

blonde-blue-eyed-dollblue-eyed-doll

 

And dolls that look like this:

black-baby-doll

It was early December. The shelves were fairly full, and I couldn’t help but notice that there were really no baby dolls that looked like me. I’m a white brunette with brown eyes. I was hoping to get a baby doll with an olive complexion and dark hair and eyes. A doll that doesn’t look like it’s genes come from any particular country. I knew I was over thinking this. I’d had plenty of blonde haired, blue eyed dolls as a kid and loved them as a kid. But I also live in a town with a huge South Asian population, a significant Latino population, and just general diversity. It shouldn’t be this hard to find dolls that look like my neighbors, you would think. So I decided to go to Amazon.

There was better selection all right, but in other ways, boy was Amazon a bummer.

This is the first doll I found that looked like me. I’ve included the description because the name of the product threw me for a loop.

brown-hair-brown-eyes-baby-doll

Why is this doll labeled “Hispanic”?

It could be from so many different places. It could be biracial. It could be white. It could be middle eastern, and yes, it could be Hispanic. Why is it labeled with an ethnicity at all?

Am I over thinking this? I don’t have children; I don’t know what kids actually like, but I was a bit disturbed that the first doll I found that looked like me was labeled something other than what I am, and that apparently to be white, you have to look like you’d do well in Nazi Germany.

I realize stores probably put toys on shelves based on what sells the most, and websites have to tag things in ways that make them easier to find, but I’m flabbergasted that in a store in my town, despite the diversity, there were only two types of dolls when it comes to appearance.

I couldn’t purchase a baby doll for this child because as an adult, I was too hung up on race. I’m a bit embarrassed by that.

Have any of you had strange experiences Christmas shopping that made you stop and think about why something is the way it is? I didn’t even touch gendered toy aisles in this post, but there was definitely a girl’s section and a boy’s section at my local Target.

Feel free to leave a comment! All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy