When disaster strikes overseas, people who want to help may begin collecting items intended for use in relief operations. It is not unusual for community and civic groups to have collected thousands of pounds of material – typically used clothing, canned food and bottled water – realizing only afterward that they do not know to whom to send the collection, what their transportation options are, or whether the items are actually needed.

There is good news for people with big hearts and lean wallets who want to give meaningful support to relief efforts overseas. The most effective donations are also the least expensive – you can actually help more people by contributing smartly.

Here’s an example of how it works: 100,000 liters of clean water hydrate 40,000 people for a day.  That amount of water purchased in-country costs about $500.  The same amount of water purchased in the US costs about $50,000.  But here’s the kicker – transportation expenses, customs fees and delivery charges add anywhere from $150,000 to $700,000 to the cost. In this case, the cost of providing the in-kind donations is up to 1500 times higher than the cost of a locally-procured alternative.

All unsolicited material donations incur steep transportation and other costs that far exceed the value of what is sent.  These donations – including clothing, canned food and bottled water, also clog supply chains, take space needed to stage life-saving relief supplies and divert relief workers’ time.  “Stuff” is expensive to send, adds costs once delivered and frequently is disposed of at further expense.

In contrast, cash contributions to established relief agencies in affected areas purchase exactly what is needed when it’s needed.  They support local merchants and local economies, and ensure that survivors receive supplies that are fresh, familiar, and culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate.  More benefits to more people at lower cost and with less hassle – now that’s a bargain!

Save money – send cash.

For more information on effective donations, visit the Center for International Disaster Information.

For information on USAID’s response to the drought in east Africa, visit: www.usaid.gov/hornofafrica