BLUE ASH, Ohio -- It really is an inspiring sight: dozens of volunteers unpacking boxes filled with clothing, personal care items, nonperishable food, water and even bicycles for the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
This is what the parking lot at Matthew 25: Ministries in Blue Ash has looked like every day since Labor Day weekend, when almost 2,000 walk-in volunteers showed up to help, said Joodi Archer, the nonprofit’s development and media director.
Locals have brought goods to the Blue Ash location and also to eight collection sites throughout Cincinnati, CEO Tim Mettey said. People are also out collecting goods from their neighbors -- he recently spotted two girls collecting door-to-door in Mason using a little red wagon.
As of Sept. 11, the nonprofit had sorted and packed on pallets some 800,000 pounds of goods, which equals about 54 tractor/trailer loads, Mettey said.
Sounds like good news, right? But Greg Forrester groaned when he heard it.
Forrester is president and CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster . It’s a nonprofit association of more than 100 organizations involved in disaster relief. One of its missions is to help those organizations do their jobs more effectively.
Forrester groaned because his and other relief organizations have repeatedly seen how donations of goods to disaster victims have caused more problems than they have solved. It’s already happening in the Harvey disaster area, he said.
On Sept. 6, the Texas Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster issued a news release asking the public not to donate unsolicited goods like used clothing, household items, medicine or perishable food. Relief workers had to take time away from providing direct service to victims to sort, package and warehouse these goods .
Five days earlier, the city of Rockport, Texas, had asked people to stop sending goods because they had received more than they could sort through .
When he visited the area Sept. 2-8, Forrester saw trailer loads of goods arriving daily that “was the wrong stuff needed at that time,” he said. Churches were overrun with clothing, he said, and there was no place to put it -- because so many victims’ homes had been damaged.
Another problem is that people send everything, including things like prom dresses, high-heeled shoes and other goods that no one will be able to use for a while, he said.
Disaster officials have known about this problem for a long time -- they sometimes call it the “disaster after the disaster,” or “the second disaster.” NPR reported on it in January 2013, saying that some experts believe about 60 percent of goods donated after a disaster can’t be used .
In some disaster areas, donations of clothing and shoes can put local merchants out of business, Forrester said, because no one buys their goods with so much free stuff floating around. He saw it happen after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
Because donations of goods can do more harm than good, his organization and other disaster relief experts urge people to donate cash instead.
Cash donations can meet the need for health care, for housing, for food and for many others that donations of goods can’t, said Regine Webster, vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy in Washington, D.C. It also saves the cost of trucking goods to the disaster area, she said.
Those people who want to clean out their closets and give clothes to disaster victims would do better to take them to their local Goodwill Industries store, she said.
For those who really want to donate something tangible, Forrester suggested cleanup and hygiene kits, which can be used in the next disaster if they’re not used in this one. The United Methodist Committee on Relief makes it easy to assemble one.
So what about all those pallets of goods that Matthew 25: Ministries has collected? How does the nonprofit make sure they don’t go to waste?
For one thing, the ministry doesn’t send goods that it’s not asked to send, Mettey said. It works with partner organizations in the disaster area, typically churches, who have the space and capability to distribute the goods.
“We’re working with local people who are in the communities they know best,” he said. “They can get the supplies out effectively and efficiently, so they don’t go to waste.”
“Our on-the-ground partners provide us with feedback on what their needs are, and we collect, process and provide aid that meets that criteria, packaged and prepared for immediate distribution upon receipt,” Archer said. But she added that sometimes, Matthew 25: Ministries has to delay shipments until its partners are ready to receive them.
The nonprofit spends a lot of time cultivating relationships with relief organizations all around the world, Mettey said, for just such disasters. But it also distributes goods to those in need year-round, not just in emergency situations.
One of Matthew 25: Ministries’ slogans is “Caring for a needy world with the things we throw away.” That’s because one large source of donations is overstocked items from corporations such as Procter & Gamble that would otherwise be discarded.
One could argue that even if some of the goods Matthew 25: Ministries collects go to waste, they were probably going to waste anyway.
According to its annual report , in 2016, Matthew 25: Ministries received nearly $206 million worth of donated goods. It reported shipping more than 15 million pounds of goods to the United States and more than 30 other countries.
More than 66,000 volunteers donated about 160,000 hours of their time to the nonprofit, whose name comes from the call of Jesus in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give water to the thirsty and welcome the stranger.