Nonprofit and Charitable Organizations

Private Relief Efforts After A Natural Disaster

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Mother nature strikes with a vengeance sometimes, anywhere and at anytime. From Haiti in 2010, to Japan and the southern US in 2011, her path of destruction often defies description. Catastrophic loss is usually what's left.

Generally, the world and the nation come together to help when a natural disaster strikes. Whether the disaster is overseas or a state or two away, emergency aid and relief begin to flow almost immediately - cash donations, food, water, clothing, medical supplies. The US government even sends military assistance if needed, like in Haiti and Japan.

News of the tragedy and relief efforts often may bring up the question: How does my company or church group go about sending non-monetary donations to a disaster stricken area?

It's not easy, but it can be done.


The White House, US State Department and most charities recommend cash donations. Why? Because it gives aid workers and government agencies the ability to buy what's needed immediately in the disaster area. There are logistical reasons, too.

Take Haiti, for example. The country's major sea port and infrastructure were severely damaged, it has only one major airport, which is very small, and relief workers had immediate problems distributing the food, water and necessities that were sent. It's very difficult for these workers and agencies to store and ultimately distribute any more donated goods and materials.

Goods and Services

That's not to say you can't make non-monetary donations. Doing so presents possible legal and logistical problems, though.

The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) is operated with money from the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (a part of the USAID - US Agency for International Development). CIDI is used by the public, the US government, foreign embassies and international corporations to help in times of crisis.

The CIDI recommends cash donations, too, but it does give guidelines to follow for non-cash donations:

  • The quality of the goods or services has to meet the legal standards of the affected country and perhaps international law, as well. For example, sending contaminated food to a disaster area may expose you to a lawsuit if someone gets ill after eating the food
  • Likewise, donated building materials or construction services must comply with any building codes in that country
  • You may not be qualified to help. For instance, while you may be a doctor or medical professional in the US, your credentials may not be recognized in the foreign country. So, you may be practicing medicine illegally in that country
  • Anyone interested in donating drugs or medicine should follow the guidelines established by the Network for Medicine and Development, also known as "ReMeD"

Other Considerations

There are many other things to consider before you load a plane or boat and head for a foreign disaster area. For instance:

  • Generally, any US citizen going to the foreign country, even as a volunteer aid worker, must have a valid passport
  • You'll likely need advance authorization or permission to enter the country
  • Who's paying? It's your responsibility to arrange and pay for the goods to be transported to the disaster area. You'll also have to pay for storing, transporting and distributing the goods once they reach the country. Don't assume the US government or the affected country's government will pay any of these costs
  • For most goods being sent overseas, even donations, you'll likely have to comply with US shipping and export laws
  • Typically, there's little or no security or law enforcement in a poor or developing country after a natural disaster. Again, Haiti is a good example. It's your legal responsibility to ensure your safety and the safety of those in your group

Much of the Same Goes in the US

You'll have to deal with many of these same issues and concerns even if you're looking to help disaster victims in the US. For instance:

  • State and local building codes, as well as federal and state food safety laws, have to be followed
  • You have to pay the costs of transportation, storage and distribution of donated items
  • Your medical or other professional license may not be valid outside your home state


There are options if you want to donate goods or services. One is to contact a reputable charity, like the Red Cross, and ask if it has a need for your particular donation. Charities such as this are most likely in the affected area already, know what kinds of aid is needed and can make the donation easy for you.

Another option is to register your donation with the CIDI. The CIDI will try to match your donation with a charity or agency that can use your donation and relieve you of many of the legal and logistical problems that may come with taking care of the donation yourself. At the same time, registration helps ensure that the goods and services needed most get delivered first, avoiding the need to transport, store or distribute things that may not be needed immediately.

It's a kind, even noble gesture to make a donation to help people in need. If you want to donate goods or services, be sure to consider all the legal and other ramifications. This way your donation is meaningful and put to good use without causing trouble that you neither need nor deserve for wanting to help. If in doubt, talk to an attorney before you make the donation.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Can the US State Department help me if I get into legal trouble while assisting disaster victims abroad?
  • What kind of tax deduction can I take for donating goods or services to a foreign country? Can I claim the value of the goods and services in US dollars?
  • Can you help me negotiate contracts with the US government if it decides to help rebuild the infrastructure of a disaster area?
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