This weekend my 9-year-old asked if we could donate blankets to a hospital in Ukraine. We talk to our kids often about the world’s injustices, but the recent images of displaced families in Ukraine truly affected her, perhaps for the first time in her life. I’m proud that my kid’s first instinct was to be “a helper,” to paraphrase the great Mr. Rogers. But with the conflict on the other side of the planet, how can we be sure that we’re in fact helping? Are blankets better than baby food? Will cash get where it needs to go? I think all global citizens are asking themselves these questions right now.
Katya Sedova, a native Ukrainian and Research Fellow at Georgetown University, says, “In a situation of active conflict, basic logistics are very difficult and expensive. It’s tempting to bring warm clothes, toys, or baked goods to the donation drive, but these items are best acquired closer to the conflict rather than transported from the United States. It might not feel as satisfying for the donor; however, monetary donations to organizations operating on the ground is the most effective way to help.” With that in mind, here are some tips for donating responsibly to the effort in Ukraine:
Cash is and always will be king in crises. As Ms. Sedova notes, physical donations must be sorted, inventoried, packaged, shipped, cleared by customs, and sorted again before they can get to the people who need them. That takes lots of time and people power, two precious commodities in disaster. By contrast, cash is available the instant you hit the “donate” button. The Center for International Disaster Information lists many other benefits of cash donations and the right organizations to support on its website.
Pick a reputable nonprofit with a pre-existing footprint. Even the best intentioned (and resourced) groups run into trouble reaching conflict or disaster areas. Supply chains, permits to operate, money exchanges, language, culture, and even something as simple as lodging for staff and volunteers all slow their ability to do good things. By supporting a group already on the ground, you can ensure your donation goes to work right away. Not sure where to find a list of charitable groups? Check out the members of InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international aid groups.
Trust the group you’re supporting to best apply your contributions. Just like hard goods, earmarked dollars or atypical donor requests create extra hurdles for aid workers. Nonprofits need flexibility to quickly move cash to the most urgent projects, or keep it in reserves for the next big need. Either way, you can rest assured you made positive change just by donating to a general fund.
Amplify your efforts by rallying friends to the cause. What’s better than a $20 donation? A whole bunch more $20 donations. Leveraging your personal and professional networks to raise additional funds is a great way to boost your impact. Doug Kauer, an acclaimed guitar builder in Sacramento, has been looking for ways to help. This week, Doug encouraged his Instagram followers to support Ukraine by raffling off his electric guitars and amplifiers to those who donate directly to a worthy cause. Doug says “the goal here is to raise as much as we can over the next week.” In a similar effort last summer, the company raised over $40,000 to support Afghan refugees.
Never travel to a disaster or conflict zone without the permission of a reputable volunteer group and host government. Emergency managers call this “disaster tourism” and the implications are as negative as it sounds. Unless you are specially trained, cleared, and equipped to respond to a crisis the dangers you will encounter on the ground will cause you harm. When you are lost or hurt, you draw resources away from others impacted by the event. It’s better to stay home and support from afar. If you want to get trained, contact a member of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or connect with your local Community Emergency Response Team for opportunities in your hometown.
Lastly, think global and act local. Consider volunteering for a cause nearby as an act of solidarity with those abroad. While Ukrainians need our help, the American Red Cross also recently warned that the U.S. is also experiencing a shortage of blood right here at home. Second, you can find a local Ukrainian diaspora group and plug into their efforts. Doing so will give you context and understanding of the situation in Ukraine, which can lead to other opportunities for your unique skills and interests.
Whether natural disaster or global conflict, there are many ways to safely and responsibly contribute to the cause. The images we see on TV this week remind us of how inhumane and cruel we can be to each other. But they also offer a chance for the helpers like you and me to demonstrate the collective good. Together, we can offer hope to the people of Ukraine from wherever we call home.