Supply Chain Expertise and Technology Blog by TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson

Guest Post: In-Kind Donations


Editor’s Note: How to deliver urgently needed supplies in the aftermath of disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes is one of the most difficult challenges facing responders. This guest post, originally written for the*, goes behind the scenes of the Hurricane Sandy relief effort to highlight some transportation challenges that may not be obvious even to seasoned logistics professionals in the commercial sector.

A few days after Superstorm Sandy struck New York, a call came into the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) that a woman was on her way into the city with an 18-wheeler full of donations from her church group. She needed to know where to bring her haul.

This wonderful and well-intentioned gesture created a big challenge for OEM. First, wind damage, debris, and transit issues had resulted in massive traffic congestion. Second, there was no clear place to bring large quantities of donations—warehouse space was in short supply. Third, there were no trained people available to sort the donations and bring them to afflicted populations.

After a catastrophic disaster, people want to do something to help. It’s only natural—how can you sit at home and watch story after story of families who lost everything without wanting to, well, do something? So people text to donate $10, celebrities host telethons, and…community groups organize drives. And that’s where things get complicated.

When a disaster strikes on as large a scale as Sandy, it is incredibly challenging just to figure out three basic logistics questions:

  1. What do the organizations responding, sheltering, and canvassing need?
  2. Who has what these organizations need?
  3. How are those resources going to be transported from the donor to the recipient?

To have any kind of timely response, it is imperative that these transactions be conducted in understandable units, for instance pallets, containers, or truckloads. If I know that a shelter needs five pallets of water, I can get them five pallets of water and know that their need has been met; but if I start sending them one case or a few cases at a time, it becomes impossible to track whether they have enough. More than that, if I send a shelter with critically low water levels a truck full of some water, some clothes, and some other stuff, I may be doing more harm than good; not only do they likely not have the capacity to sort what I sent, they have no place to store things that can’t be used immediately, and they either have to keep everything on the truck (which means the truck isn’t available to transport new shipments) or take up valuable shelter space with piles of unnecessary stuff.

If this concept isn’t planned, it rapidly becomes obvious to anyone managing the logistics of response. Unfortunately, it is not obvious to well-intentioned bystanders. So unsolicited donations flow in, most of it unsorted. “Mystery bags” of clothes, blankets, and who knows what else are dropped off at shelters. Truckloads of donations from church groups in the Carolinas and the Dakotas arrive without specific destinations. And responders, whose goal is to match resources to need, get diverted into making sure those donations don’t choke their logistics network.

This is not to say that the outpouring of support and the desire to help aren’t appreciated; in a lot of cases, these kinds of efforts are the only ray of hope for people whose lives are destroyed. And giving something tangible, not just money, contributes to the much-needed feeling that an entire country is coming together to help its vulnerable citizens.

The response world’s challenge, then, is this: How can we direct in-kind giving to encourage and maximize outside assistance without disrupting critical response work?

New York City came up with several innovative ways to try to strike this balance. First, as much as possible, individuals were encouraged to give money rather than items. This message was relayed through a number of channels, including the city’s service website (link to:, Twitter, not-for-profit partners, and OpEds like this one by Jose Holguin-Veras.

Second, individuals looking to donate were directed to their local Salvation Army or Goodwill store. Why? Unlike response organizations, these two groups have the local capacity already in place to receive, sort, store, and transport unsolicited gifts. Where donations are not immediately useful for affected people, they have the ability to turn things like golf clubs and tuxedos into revenue that can later be used to aid response and recovery efforts. And, because those organizations also have the capacity to separate different kinds of donations, donors have the satisfaction that their contribution did its part. If I contribute food, my food goes to a shelter; if I give something like golf clubs, they go to Goodwill.

It is also interesting to note that both Salvation Army and Goodwill developed voucher systems for disaster victims. The vouchers allowed people to purchase what they needed rather than what donors thought they wanted.

Third, VOAD groups like the American Red Cross managed large-scale corporate donations through their well-established infrastructure. Large-scale, unsolicited in-kind donations (such as the bounty of a church donations drive) and trucks (including the one that was en route in those first few days) were intercepted before they got to the city so that the goods could be sorted and redirected as appropriate without interfering with operations in the city. This eliminated the need for massive donations warehouses like those that popped up after the Joplin, MO tornadoes last year. It also cut down the potential for disaster capitalists to sell donations that the city didn’t want.

New York City continues to struggle with in-kind donations—from club DJs with weekend drives to individuals cleaning out their closets continue to send “mystery bags” to shelters and other sites that don’t have capacity. As response turns to recovery and the flow of generosity decreases, the need to manage existing donations will increase. Building on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and earlier events like the March 2011 Japanese earthquake/tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the disaster response community can move forward with innovative approaches to the logistics of in-kind donations that will make a difference when the next disaster strikes.

Julia Moline, PE is a Master’s student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program and is a research assistant in the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab. She studied civil engineering and economics at Columbia University and worked in hazard mitigation and emergency management at Dewberry in Fairfax, Virginia.  Julia can be contacted at  jmoline@MIT.EDU.

The Humanitarian@MIT blog is produced by The MIT Humanitarian Response Lab.  The lab designs methods that improve the delivery of goods to enable development in low-income countries and to respond to humanitarian crises. The blog can be accessed at:




- Master's Student in MIT's Technology and Policy Program