In the wake of disasters like this one, people want to donate to relief efforts. And as has been reported again and again and again, the best thing to give is not goods but money. As BuzzFeed News explains, “physical donations” like nonperishable food and clothing “need to be sorted, stored, transported, and distributed — which takes more time than using funds to purchase only those items that are immediately needed.”
“Public reaction is to want to help, and we are so grateful for that support,” Los Angeles County Emergency Operations Center director Maria Gutierrez said during a briefing on Sunday, per BuzzFeed. “The easiest and most effective way to get support to those who need it most is to donate to organizations offering direct assistance.”
Again, this is not new advice. It circulates regularly, both after catastrophes (when people donate) and during the holidays (when people donate). The logic is generally the same. “Cash donations are almost always preferred over items — such as blankets, clothing and stuffed animals — often sent into overwhelmed disaster areas by well-meaning donors,” NPR reported after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, noting that this is especially true when aid groups are anticipating a long, slow recovery. Needs will almost certainly change. Money is flexible; canned chickpeas are not.
In addition to the logistics of storing, sorting, and distribution, there is a good chance the food that’s been donated isn’t actually the food that’s needed, for either cultural reasons or nutritional ones, Karen Merzenich, who evacuated during the Northern California Firestorm last year, pointed out at Medium. This is exactly the same reason Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, urged people to donate cash rather than canned goods around the holidays: Organizations might need baby food and nutritional shakes for seniors, but you gave “boxed stuffing and canned corn.”
The same logic applies in cases of disaster. “The food items you donate may be culturally inappropriate for swaths of recipients who don’t eat stuffing or canned corn, or nutritionally inappropriate for people with dietary restrictions, protein needs, or common health problems like diabetes or hypertension,” Merzenich wrote.
According to Katherina Rosqueta of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center For High Impact Philanthropy, as much as half of all donated canned goods will never be used. And donated nonperishables generally come at store prices — but relief organizations and food banks can get better rates. “The same $10 that you would spend to, say, get three cans of food, could actually buy retail value 20 times more food,” she told NPR.
So if we agree, again and again, that it is generally better to give money than it is to give things, why do we persist in donating canned goods instead of probably more effective cash?
Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the president of the nonprofit Decision Research, has a few ideas about what might be going on. “People like to have a sense of efficacy about what they donate,” he says, “and if you give food, you have a sense that this food will be used. You don’t really know what’s going to happen with your cash.” People want their donations to feed victims, not pay for back-end costs like equipment, rent, and employee salaries.
This is a chronic problem in philanthropy: Infrastructure is essential for actually aiding relief efforts, but it is a very unsexy thing to fund. And as Vox’s Kelsey Piper explains, the fact is there’s a lot we still don’t know about how to best manage disaster relief efforts — an issue compounded by the fact that not all charities are equally transparent about what they’re doing with the cash.
But even if the research doesn’t bear it out, nonperishable food seems like a sure bet. “The organization could keep some of your cash,” Slovic says, “but they’re probably not going keep some of your canned goods.” And a sense of efficacy — that your donation will be both useful and used — is a motivator for giving, he says.
There’s also the fact that people, in general, really like money and tend to see it as more valuable than the equivalent in goods. “Cash is intrinsically very valuable to people because it’s completely flexible,” Slovic explains. Soup is always soup, but money can be anything. That’s what makes it so valuable to relief organizations. That’s also what makes it hard to part with.
When you give cash, he says, “you’re giving away something that is very useful to you — intrinsically more useful to you than a particular material good,” which may already be lying on the back shelf of your kitchen cabinet and will never be anything other than the bag of pasta that it is.
None of this is to say that the impulse to give food is a bad one. It’s just that if the goal is actual efficiency, rather than the emotional perception of it, canned goods (or clothes, or other items) are, in most cases, less effective than giving the same amount in cash.
If you are looking to give, Charity Navigator has curated a list of highly rated organizations providing relief and support for the California wildfires. The New York Times and BuzzFeed also have suggestions. And Vox’s Dylan Matthews has put together a guide to maximizing your effective charitable impact regardless of occasion.