Fort McMurray wildfire: Why cash is better than donating material goods

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WATCH ABOVE: Canadians are opening their hearts and their wallets to try and help wildfire evacuees from Fort McMurray. Both the provincial and federal governments are matching donations made to the Red Cross. So far, tens of millions of dollars have been raised. Quinn Ohler looks into where all of that money will go – May 9, 2016

Canadians have opened their hearts and wallets in support of the victims of the Fort McMurray wildfire, donating millions of dollars to the Canadian Red Cross and organizing local drives to collect clothing and other goods.

But the good intention of gathering donated items may not have the impact the kindhearted people are hoping for if that act of compassion isn’t responding to needs of those affected by a disaster.

“There might be needs for things, but unless there is a local group, for example, that says, ‘we need this’ to just dump it on them is going to probably create more problems than good,” said Mark Blumberg, a Toronto-based lawyer who works with charities and disaster relief organizations. His law firm, Blumberg Segal LLP, operates the website as a means to help Canadians make informed decisions about charitable donations.

Blumberg said he often hears from donors who are reluctant to donate cash because they’re uncertain how exactly it might be spent. But he said when you factor in costs like transport and storage, the impact of donating material goods can sometimes be more negative than positive.

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“Generally speaking, a lot of the time the stuff that is actually being donated is second-hand stuff that may not be appropriate for the need,” he said. “And the time and effort and energy needed to sort through can sometimes be greater than the benefit of it.”

You only have to look back to the Slave Lake wildfire five years ago to see that donations of material goods can go to waste.

Several boxes of goods meant to help victims get back on their feet reportedly ended up in the city’s dump. It wasn’t just used items; many new items, such as clothing and blankets, were found in the landfill, according to the Globe and Mail.

Blumberg added the situation in and around Fort McMurray is still evolving, with wildfires still burning, and people are displaced to areas all over Alberta and even other parts of Canada.

“So how do you know today, when you’re going to ship [donated goods], that you’re going to be hitting the right need in a week’s time [or] a month’s time,” he said. “That’s where, sometimes, it’s easier [to donate] cash. If you have 10,000 people in Edmonton, funds can be used to help those people.”
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Government and aid organization say cash donations are the way to go in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, because it allows the disaster relief agencies to use money to respond to the immediate needs of the victims.

The Canadian Red Cross told Global News it is focused on responding to the basic immediate needs Fort McMurray evacuees — and that includes providing clothing, food and water.

Local charities need support, too

The Canadian Red Cross has received an astounding amount of support from Canadians in the wake of the historic wildfire that devastated Fort McMurray and surrounding communities. In a matter of days the aid organization has raised more than $54 million in donations — and that’s not including government promises to match donations.

The organization said it will likely be working in Fort McMurray for the next four or five years.

But the head of an independent charity watchdog said she applauds Canadians opening their wallets to one of the country’s biggest relief organizations, and that some smaller charities that will be on the front lines of community recovery for years to come will also need assistance.

“It’s not just about the disaster relief; it’s about getting Fort McMurray back on its feet. And which of the local organizations that are going to play such a critical role in doing that… will they have the financial support?” said Kate Bahen, the managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada — an independent organization that monitors and rates how charities manage their money.

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She said her organization’s research following previous disasters in Canada — such as the 2014 explosion in Lac-Megantic, Que. and the 2013 floods in southern Alberta — suggested front line local organizations working to rebuild their own communities didn’t see the same windfall of donations.

Bahen explained local groups — including churches, food banks, and community organizations such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club — will need support long after the wildfire stops making national and international headlines.

Please note: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Mark Blumberg’s name.

With files from Quinn Ohler