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How to make your donations go further

When tragedy strikes, our natural inclination is to help — to give our time, money and resources so people can get back on their feet.

But after last year’s devastating hurricanes, another theme emerged which experts term a “second disaster”: when too much generosity results in donations that are difficult to manage or not needed, adding extra strain to the relief effort.

“There was a mountain of clothing there, and other materials that were almost impossible to sort through properly,” said Jay Bonafede, chief communications officer for the American Red Cross, Western and Central New York region, who saw this firsthand in Houston. “Those things can really drain resources and cost thousands of dollars in personal time and effort.”

Non-profit and disaster relief agencies are always grateful for the community’s help, but it can help them — and moreso, those affected by tragedies — to consider a few best practices prior to donating.

Money over things

Bonafede advocates for giving monetary gifts over material donations, as cash can be accessed quickly when needed. This helps the Red Cross to purchase and deliver supplies efficiently, boost the disaster-affected economy and support ongoing programs like health, safety and emergency preparedness training for local families.

“In the eight counties of Western New York, we respond to an average of a house fire a day,” Bonafede said. “A lot of those don’t make the news…but for the family that’s lost everything, it’s just as devastating as Hurricane Harvey. It’s those financial donations that allow our volunteers to go to the scene and provide funding for temporary housing, food, clothing.”

Donate carefully

Financial and in-kind donations are equally valuable for the Food Bank of WNY, which assists around 135,000 individuals a month through its member agencies. According to Tara Ellis, who leads the organization, half of the food it distributes is donated, thereby diverting waste from landfills and helping families in need. There are donations, however, that need to be weeded out because they’re expired or unsafe.

“The best thing people can do before donating is to ask themselves if this is something that my family would eat, or would I be comfortable eating this,” said Ellis, who noted the Food Bank also distributes diapers, baby wipes, formula and personal care items.

Do a little research

United Way of Buffalo & Erie County CEO Michael Weiner also encourages financial donations — or to simply call first. Nonprofits can tell you if they need your items, and many — such as the International Institute, Ronald McDonald House Charities and Buffalo City Mission — keep wish lists on Amazon or their websites.

Meanwhile, 2-1-1 WNY is a free, three-digit phone service that connects people to vital community services, like food and housing assistance, free tax prep and mental health and substance abuse services. Weiner said 2-1-1’s trained specialists can suggest organizations that may need your items.

“If it’s a financial contribution, there are ways of researching [trusted organizations], like Charity Navigator. Make a phone call to a local organization. Look at social media to get informed about the best ways of supporting our neighbors,” Weiner said. “Being as well-informed as you possibly can is more likely to help the family in crisis.”

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