Masters Thesis Spotlight: Disaster Donations Management: Solutions for Effective Collaboration with Community Non-Profit Partners

Food and clothing—while often donated with good intentions—may hinder the management of a disaster event. This phenomenon is a “second disaster”: an increase in donations to emergency management departments and nonprofit organizations that lack the depth of resources to manage, sort, and distribute the donations. This inefficiency leads to negative press and accusations that donations are misappropriated. Eliminating second disasters requires policy solutions that strengthen the effectiveness of local non-government organizations (NGOs) while establishing more helpful ways donors can give charitably. This thesis seeks to provide policy recommendations that assume these directives.

            The project conducts a literature review to determine the impact of disasters on local nonprofit organizations. Data is collected from several communities that systematically report donations and volunteer hours. These results inform the author’s three policy recommendations, each of which is manageable for communities, cost-effective, and ensure positive public perception that increases trust in government.

After a disaster, there is an increased demand for assistance from nonprofits. Disaster response NGOs help in the aftermath of disasters; however, some citizens still need assistance once NGOs leave. Local nonprofits fill this gap, which proves costly. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides financial assistance; however, it does not fully cover the financial costs of the disaster and recovery. State and local jurisdictions cost-share with FEMA to pay the approximated financial loss from the disaster. Since this can be extremely costly—and potentially send them into budget deficits— jurisdictions can lessen their cost-share percentage by meticulously tracking the value of donations and volunteer hours. This was the case in St. John’s County in Florida and Joplin, Missouri. Both communities significantly contributed to their cost-share without burdening the budget with a large deficit.

The author’s policy recommendations respond to two preferences: for communities to decrease the financial burdens of disasters and for donations to be efficiently utilized.  The first option is to create a coalition of nonprofit organizations called the local Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster (VOAD). They would be responsible for proactive disaster management and recovery plans. These coalitions promote a fast exchange of resources between organizations that ensures donations are shared strategically. This also helps nonprofits fundraise because people are more familiar with the organizations connected through VOADs.

The second policy option is to create a position in the Emergency Management Agency that develops a Donation Tracking System (DTS). The DTS can reliably and universally count donations and volunteer hours. Proper documentation of donations and hours lowers the percentage of the cost-share that local jurisdictions have to pay. Furthermore, the DTS financially benefits the nonprofits that participate and provide volunteer hours. This was the case for The Salvation Army in Florida after Hurricane Irma. After the disaster, they had increased fundraising outcomes and grant opportunities after showing their constituents how they utilized money that was donated.

The third and final option is a public education campaign that highlights the best ways to support recovery efforts after a disaster. An educated public will produce more useful donations, decrease the number of wasted donations, and better the public’s perception of donation usage. The campaign would use the “Cash is Best” approach because nonprofits can buy food in bulk. This strategy is more cost-efficient and easier to give out. Lastly, the educational campaign could emphasize how nonprofit organizations help real survivors of disasters.

These three policy suggestions work to decrease the cost-share that local jurisdictions are responsible for and improve public perception. The amount of spontaneous donation items that cannot be used is decreased, and nonprofits involved also receive a boost through participation in these recommendations. However, because these recommendations are most effective for communities that experience frequent disasters, there are not many models of these recommendations that other communities can look towards. Nonetheless, these recommendations provide cost-effective ways that communities can strengthen their resources in response to disasters.

Jessica Geib is a Master’s level candidate at the Reubin O’D. Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University. This post is a summary of Jessica’s thesis, written by COSSPP Blog intern Jacqueline Rao. Jessica’s thesis was approved by her committee and will soon be available for public consumption. You can learn more about Jessica here.

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