Last Thursday, Karen Gurwitz drove all over Manhattan picking up boxes of baby clothes, formula, diapers and other goods from shower caps to baseball gloves. On Friday morning, two trucks -- their services donated -- filled with those offerings left for a hurricane shelter in Baton Rouge. Through word of mouth, mostly electronic, Gurwitz had collected donations from 150 people in under a week -- the busy week after Labor Day, no less. "I made a financial contribution to the Red Cross, but it never feels like enough," says Gurwitz, 36, founder of a meal delivery service called Mothers & Menus. "I wanted to give something more tangible than my credit card number."
Gurwitz's efforts highlight a new phenomenon in post-disaster charitable giving: highly specific in-kind donations, guided by the information available on the Internet and sent directly to local agencies or entities. Aid organizations discourage in-kind donations because they create logistical problems and are not always appropriate or needed. But with the Internet, someone who wants to donate, say, food or clothing instead of writing a check can find out who needs what and send it directly to them. And as sites like Craigslist show with their profusion of offers to help, the Internet may also be attracting new donors, or enabling existing donors to give in new and creative ways. Call it connected giving.
The increase of in-kind donations does not seen to have hurt monetary giving. Financial donations to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts are reportedly nearing the $600 million mark, outpacing the donations made within nine or ten days of the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the tsunami of last December. Experts attribute the unprecedented check writing to several overlapping factors: the disaster occurred at home, created so many suffering survivors, laid so clearly bare the differences between those who have something to donate and those who lost the next-to-nothing they had -- and motivated many to pick up where the government, it seemed, hadn't picked up at all.
But the same time, all over the country, people are demonstrating their immense desire to help in other ways: sometimes more creative, often more concrete. Some are wary of high-budget charities, uneasy about sending their money into a massive donation vortex; some feel that what they can afford, if anything, simply isn't enough. (If Bangladesh can come up with $1 million, what good will my $100 do?)
Result: An enormous number of people are supplementing, or in some cases replacing, their check writing with donations of diapers, say, to ad hoc shelters in Mississippi motels too small to bleep on the FEMA radar. The Community Bookstore in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, N.Y., well-known in its neighborhood and beyond for transforming itself into a clearinghouse for donations to the Sept. 11 rescue efforts, is now collecting items for four relief locations in Louisiana and Texas. Sheila Jozami, 19, a college student who's been volunteering at the Houston Astrodome, teamed up with a friend to collect CDs and boom boxes for displaced kids. ("I can't imagine being a teenager and going through tough times without my music," reads their Web site.) Sewing enthusiast Tom Farrell, 33, of Somerville, Mass., is trying to organize fellow seamsters to make duffel bags for displaced people to keep their belongings (if his plan proves workable, he'll post the pattern online for anyone to follow).
"People want do to more," confirms Henry "Hank" Goldstein, chair of the Giving USA Foundation. "They want to feel as if they have a direct involvement."
For good reason, aid organizations do not welcome most in-kind donations. The Red Cross, for one, specifically discourages unsolicited in-kind donations, as do most other relief organizations and people experienced with disaster recovery. Why? Parcels require opening and sorting, a task for which there are rarely extra hands; the goods inside may be insufficient or inappropriate to the needs of a given location. In other words, giant boxes of bedroom slippers addressed "c/o Houston Astrodome" are not the best way to get your Good Samaritan on. "Mostly you get these containers of teddy bears that get in the way of food and water," says Matt Easton, a senior associate at Human Rights First who has also worked on relief and development projects in Asia and Africa, including tsunami and hurricane recovery.
By and large, they say, money -- flimsy and insubstantial as a check may feel to its writer -- is the way to go. "Generally, the best thing for relief organizations is cash -- giving them the finances to procure what's needed," says Gerald Martone, director of Humanitarian Affairs for the International Rescue Committee. He adds that in some cases, goods purchased near disaster areas -- as opposed to shipped from afar -- can also do their part to help boost damaged local economies.
Now, however, people are using the Internet -- perhaps to an unprecedented degree -- to exchange detailed, up-to-date information about precisely what supplies are needed and where, even how they should be packaged. (One person assembling donations, for example, passed along a Houston shelter's request for clothing boxed and labeled by type and quantity -- "7 days' worth of 3-year-old boy clothes" -- for easy distribution.) This type of donation does get the seal of approval. "If you've made contact with a hotel that tells you exactly what they need, that's a great way to donate," says Sheila Graham, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross.
Does this electronic end run around the major players represent a new trend toward direct charitable giving? Hard to say. Given the vast quantity of financial contributions still pouring in, it doesn't appear that these well-informed in-kind donations are siphoning dollars away from relief efforts. Also, it's difficult to find accurate bases of comparison. Sept. 11 -- tragically, in its own way -- did not leave such a vast, spread-out population of survivors in need; the remoteness of the tsunami left Americans with fewer options for direct giving. And one hopes that the scope and scale of need created by Katrina will remain unique. But experts say the Internet has clearly been a major factor not only in terms of bringing help to smaller, struggling groups, but also in motivating and mobilizing people to give of themselves in as many ways as possible. "The number of blogs and Craigslist-type postings on this topic is absolutely amazing," says Jack Siegel, CEO of Charity Governance Consulting and author of the forthcoming "A Handbook for Non-Profit Boards, Executive Directors and Advisors: Avoiding Trouble While Doing Good." "People who feel that donating money is not enough are able to have much more direct participation than ever in the process of giving."
Gurwitz herself searched Craigslist to make contact with a group in need before rallying her donors; the most cyber-savvy volunteers are creating blogs and Web sites designed to gather donation specifics into one place, or even to match donors to needs. Amy Lynn Cook, 25, of Raleigh, N.C., a stay-at-home mom of two and freelance Web designer, initially created SurvivedKatrina.net as an information hub for survivors; she recruited volunteers on Craigslist to help her run the site. Now, one of the most active parts of the site is the forum for information about donating goods from tarpaulins to plus-size clothing to school supplies.
(Predictably enough, Katrina brought with her a storm surge of Internet spamming and scamming. Unless donation information has come directly from a trusted source -- and a recent one, as shelters' needs may change daily -- it's always best, where possible, to call and confirm.)
Brooklyn real estate agent Lee Solomon -- who recalled stories of overgenerous donations of cold cuts for World Trade Center rescue workers that were left to rot on New York's West Side Highway -- started soliciting donated supplies only after making direct contact with several smaller relief providers (a church and a thrift shop in Alabama, for example) who, she said, "had not heard word one from FEMA or the Red Cross." She posted information about what was needed on various local online boards, offering to gather and ship donations. Within four days, Solomon had enough donations in her office to fill seven large moving boxes. "This is the first totally 'connected' tragedy we have experienced in this country," she observes, citing stories of stranded victims text-messaging for help whose relatives, in turn, posted their pleas on Nola.com. "The next logical step in this connected world: the aid that's needed can be requested and taken care of directly."