Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Give money, not stuff, to help

Canadians are generous. At least that’s the cultural myth we hold on to. The evidence does seem to support the myth, but how we are generous needs some unpacking.

In 1992, during Hurricane Andrew’s destruction of Florida, Canadian generosity was called on. It was the early days of online communication. The internet wasn’t even public. People who owned computers were thought to be real geeks.

I was one of them.

In the days after the storm, there was all kind of help sent; some of it was quite strange. A colleague told me of a bunch of unmatched woman’s dress shoes. Others told of receiving expired drugs.

Hearing these stories and of how donated goods were left to rot in the hot Florida sun, I learned then that the best way to send assistance in any natural disaster was not to send stuff but send money. Donate to relief charities such as the Red Cross, the United Way or various religious groups who normally have low overheads.

Overheads? Every charitable organization has overhead. Use your cell phone to text a small donation? The phone company takes a cut. Donate by credit card? The card company charges a fee. Religious charities will often absorb local administration costs, but even they are subject to bank charges for currency conversion.

People, it appears, aren’t listening. In the wake of the Fort McMurray fire people are still sending “stuff”. And a lot of it is ending up in parking lots and warehouses where it gets in the way. Eventually it may end up in a landfill. That’s what happened after the 2011 fire in Slave Lake. Much of the donated stuff went to a Calgary landfill.

After the 2010 devastating earthquake in Haiti, concerned mothers sent bottles of breast milk. In a country that lost its infrastructure, including electricity, a perishable product like breast milk couldn’t be kept. You know the rest of the story.

Many Canadians seem to get it. We were incredibly generous to the Canadian Red Cross, which is the lead relief agency, for the Fort McMurray fire. Money is already being distributed directly to fire victims.

In the case of local disasters here in Grey Bruce, there is an alternative. Gift cards. They are as good as cash, carry no overhead, and can be used for food, necessities or gas. Just donate some gift cards, of any denomination (smaller is better). Use local outlets or chains. Drop them off at the Red Cross or the United Way or even mail them.

Disaster relief is best left to those with experience. And it’s one line of work which will continue to grow. Just remember, “Give money not stuff” to a disaster relief effort and do it through a registered charity or non-profit with full accountability. That’s the best way to help our neighbours locally and around the world.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.