In every major disaster, individuals and community groups all across the country send enormous quantities of unproductive relief supplies—such as used clothing, shoes, bottled water, toys, and canned food—to help victims and their families. Well-meaning people spend millions of dollars on the items themselves and on transporting those donations to disaster sites. When these items finally arrive, they create chaos and extra work for disaster relief workers—a process so counterproductive that many call it “the second disaster."

Unsolicited product donations have long been a challenge in disaster response, partly because we have addressed the wrong question: How do we prevent unsolicited in-kind donations? The right question is how to make them productive.

To prevent the second disaster, NGOs have mounted public education campaigns promoting “cash only” giving, but without much success. Cash-only campaigns ignore donors’ compelling desire to contribute in a more tangible and specific way. Donating a blanket or “the shirt off one’s back” to a disaster victim is a very different and much more personal experience than donating $20 to a disaster relief fund, especially at a time when the New York State Attorney General is questioning prominent relief organizations—including the Red Cross—about why, eight months after Hurricane Sandy, these organizations have still not disbursed nearly $250 million in contributions to help the victims.

We believe that a national donation registry can help address the real problem: How can relief organizations make the inevitable in-kind donations productive. Katherine Dolan, John Heggestuen, and Alex Nordenson (three of the co-authors of this article) demonstrated the idea and proved its effectiveness as part of the Sandy response effort. They created an online wedding registry on Amazon to drive donations of specific items that victims urgently needed, then launched an aggressive grassroots campaign to spread the word on social media networks. Needed supplies—flashlights, blankets, generators, baby food—started pouring in by the truckload within 48 hours. These donations allowed Occupy Sandy, a grassroots disaster relief network that emerged to help communities affected by the storm, to scale up operations and provide timely and effective assistance to families in Coney Island, Staten Island, and the Rockaways at a time when many people were criticizing larger, established relief organizations for their slow and ineffective response.

A survey of the people who donated through the Amazon registry indicated that while nearly 40 percent also gave cash to the relief effort, knowing “the specific nature of the donation”—donating flashlights or a pack of diapers in response to a specific appeal—was more rewarding. Ninety percent of respondents also indicated that they would use a registry again.

It’s not difficult to see where this successful model could lead. If established relief organizations are unable or unwilling to create a national relief registry (and so far, eight months after Sandy, none has), local groups may, with even greater scale and sophistication. The appeal of this model to donors is obvious: Donate cash and worry that half of it won’t be used for relief, or donate specific, urgently needed supplies that will reach victims within days?

Over the course of a few weeks, Katherine, John, and Alex’s ad hoc, grassroots relief team with no formal staff and no marketing budget drove 30,000 productive relief supplies (worth $750,000) directly to victims quickly. Just imagine the power of a relief registry backed by national retailers working with established relief agencies.

Most of the relief supplies that victims need are available through the large national on-line retailers. Relief organizations and national online retailers can follow Occupy Sandy’s lead to establish a national relief registry, allowing them to more dynamically respond to the evolving needs on the ground. The retailers would need to waive shipping charges, and either forgo profits, or contribute them to the relief effort or to cover transportation costs. It would also be important for the retailers to package, label, and ship the donations in a form more convenient for distribution. Separately packaging and shipping the same items contributed by different donors only increases transportation and handling costs, and complicates processes at the disaster site.

Finally, during the early stages of the Sandy response, Occupy Sandy was not a registered nonprofit, and therefore donations were not tax-deductible. Even if it were registered, Amazon’s privacy policies prevented Occupy Sandy from providing donors with an acknowledgment of their gifts—a small, but important issue to resolve in establishing a national relief registry.

Why did it take three friends with almost no experience in disaster relief to implement such a practical and effective solution? Despite widespread coverage of this model, no national relief organization has yet adopted anything like it in preparation for the coming hurricane season. Why not? The steps needed to scale an effort like the Occupy Sandy registry to a national level are not complex and can be implemented quickly with the right partnerships in place.

Is our lack of innovation and resistance to change a more serious problem than the second disaster?

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