Over the last few days, our state was walloped by Hurricane Florence, the effects of which our neighbors all over the state, including locally after this morning’s flooding, will continue to feel for a long time to come. Before the massive storm hit, thousands of people were evacuated from coastal towns, many of them bused to emergency shelters throughout the state with just a few possessions and no mode of transportation. Initially, the largest shelter was set up at the high school in my town, and when I drove home from work on Wednesday night, I felt compelled to stop there on the way to see what I could do to help.
I’m a career nonprofit professional. Aside from 2 years as a print journalist at the very start of my career, I’ve only worked for organizations doing good work or funding good work. In my time I’ve learned a lot about what nonprofits need vs. what they get, and how the “rules of volunteering” work, so I knew enough to stop and ask the shelter staff what they needed before I acted.
When I arrived at the makeshift shelter, I walked down a hallway full of people being turned away because the shelter was at max capacity and waited at the desk while one of the volunteers found the staff person in charge to answer my question. While I stood there, I listened to a young mom soothe her infant. I listened to an elderly woman ask the volunteer if she had any extra blankets (they did not) because she was cold and didn’t have time to pack the right things. I heard the volunteer in charge of the pet room say that she was afraid they’d run out of dog food. I heard a volunteer say she had already been working for 8 hours. When I finally asked the person in charge what I could do to help — did they need supplies, or people to volunteer to physically be at the shelter — she told me they needed toiletries pretty badly, but that was all I could do — to be a volunteer I had to be pre-approved with a background check, which I knew was standard at nonprofits and government-run shelters like this one.
So, I tweeted, asking for supplies, and my husband and I organized friends and co-workers to raise a bit of money, and we went shopping. And we dropped off one carload of supplies at the shelter that night, and so many other people who saw my tweets also did, prompting them to say that after our carload, their staff was too busy to take any more, that they “didn’t want any more donations.”
This comment shook me a bit and paired with several other things I heard over the weekend to follow, got me thinking…
1. What was my motivation for giving? I was asked, “why I would even want to donate,” by a shelter volunteer, and a friend probed to question my motives for collecting supplies over the weekend. I think this question is loaded with judgement — judgement that giving back shouldn’t be about the giver at all, that if it makes you feel good then you aren’t doing it for the right reasons. And after some thought, I’d push back on that. I think whatever gets you there to do the work — whether it’s that you feel it’s your duty or responsibility because of your privilege in life, or you have experienced the same situation before, or it makes you feel like a good person, or you very simply just want to give back — that’s ok. You’re doing good. I’m really not sure it matters why. For me, it was several factors that made me pull my car into the shelter that day, but in the end? I just wanted a put a blanket around that woman, so she would be warm, immediately.
2. Supplies or money? The constant debate of supplies vs. donations is tied up in so much history of donors not wanting to fund nonprofits because they didn’t trust them. Some of that is just myth turned into truth, and some, especially in the case of disasters, was unfortunately earned. In the end, our nonprofits should have our trust and monetary donations are always the most needed at any time — disaster or not. They are doing the work, so they know what’s needed by the communities they are serving, and we should trust that. But several folks this weekend suggested that I shouldn’t be collecting supplies, that it was misguided and self-serving, and that I should be just making monetary donations. This recovery and rebuilding will be long-term and those on the ground doing the work will need funding for months, maybe years, to come. But right now? When organizations themselves ask for supplies — physical supplies — because stores aren’t open to buy them in the hardest hit areas, and because they don’t have the staff to do shopping — then you do what they ask. And I don’t think it’s a matter of money or supplies. It’s money, and supplies, and volunteerism. They need it all.
3. On volunteering. I have been an “official volunteer” before for several different nonprofits, and any parent at a school also knows that if you want to be a volunteer, you need to sign up and have a background check and training first. And that makes sense, and of course I understand why. BUT. Is there a way — and does this already exist — to have a “second line” wave of volunteers who are already checked and trained and activated in the case of an emergency? I can’t dedicate time right now to regularly volunteer at a local shelter, but I would sign up to be an emergency volunteer in a heartbeat. I wanted so badly to give one of those people a break on Wednesday night, and I would have worked all weekend to help them run that place. Is this already a thing? If not, can we make it one? Someone let me know — firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. The equity of it all. Because of my job, I was asked by family and friends all over the country this weekend where they should donate to hurricane relief. At the Foundation, we keep a close watch and monitor when these disasters happen and gather this kind of information to share with our donors, so I typically share that with those who ask me personally. I was really happy to hear from a collaborative of grassroots nonprofits serving those communities hit hardest who don’t typically receive funding and help and was actually able to gather supplies and donate the rest of our Wednesday night collection to this group. But it was a reminder that even in a disaster there are inequities, and we need to keep that top of mind in our efforts to help and continue to work to erase those inequities in times of calm as well.
I have so much more to say about this, but I’m already going long. So, I’ll leave you with this, my “guide” to giving if you will — in times of disaster and calm — based on this experience.
Ask. Ask the nonprofits what they need. If they want supplies, they’ll tell you. If they need money (they always need money) they will ask you. Listen to them — they are the experts. And keep asking. Is there a way you can do more to volunteer or in another capacity? Is there a need they have that you don’t know about? Or they don’t know how to fill? Or a way you can work with them to develop procedures to help more? Ask. But be patient. They are overworked, underpaid, and tired. Rightfully so.
Give. Give more than you are comfortable with. Organize your friends to give too. It doesn’t matter why you are doing it, and if it makes you feel good, or sets a great example for your children — added bonus. Don’t overthink it or let others discourage you. Just give.
Don’t Stop. We tend to give more in disaster situations. It’s a cause, it’s in front of us, it’s tangible. But disaster recovery lasts years, and beyond that, the nonprofits in our community are doing great work, ensuring that people can thrive. Don’t be a once and done giver. Check back in. Give more. Give regularly. Their work is never done, hurricane or not.
Be Equitable. Who is being served by the organizations you are supporting? Where is the greatest need? Are there barriers to receiving what’s needed (hint — there are). Does the nonprofit reflect the community it serves, or are they working to? Be informed and give where it is needed the most.
My biggest takeaway from this most recent disaster is this — people have giant hearts and want to help. And when you ask, they come out of the woodwork to do so. We shouldn’t ever discourage that. We should do whatever we can to turn disaster givers into regular givers so that we can continue to build a stronger community, together.
This post was written by Meg Farrell Buckingham, Director of Marketing & Communications at the Foundation. To read the Foundation’s response to the hurricane, and find out what resources we recommend supporting, click here.