Donations for perceived responder needs are an issue on most incidents. The tales of donation problems are legion and range from mountains of socks and foot powder to truckloads of dog food and sunglasses. The demands on the logistics section and the incident management team are enormous on any incident and adding the burden of managing the intake and fair distribution of donations is beyond most. If the incident is not willing and able to accept the donations, a reflexive public outcry is always a possibility. Like many things in our complicated society, there is no good way to deal with the commendable actions of donations.
We currently employ two basic approaches to donations. One is to push donations to local and volunteer agencies which are often ill-equipped to accept the volume a high-visibility incident may generate. The other is to try and convince the public that responders have all their needs met and thus, there is no need for donations. Neither of these are satisfactory because they do not deal with the basic human impulse that drives donations. (On wildfires, the option of asking the public for donations to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation is now frowned upon because government entities, like IMTs, should not favor a particular private organization.)
In times of stress, people want to do something. Recall the first few days after 9/11 when people from all over the country tried to get to New York City to assist. When something dramatic happens, it is tough for folks to cede all action to responders and experts. They are driven to do something and this need finds a quick cause in social media posts or the story overheard at the gas station. It then often manifests as donations. We need to look for options that satisfy that need to act.
Our agencies, IMTs, and PIOs should think through this problem before the incident happens and develop asks of the community. What can they do that would help: keep in contact with their neighbors, create defensible space, avoid areas where incident personnel are working, have patience, help volunteer organizations (arrange this first!), make a go-kit? Whatever it might be, ask something of the public at the beginning of the incident and continue to do so until normal community life resumes. Ideally, you offer a range of choices so that they pick the action they want. As Peter Sandman says, "Offering people a choice of actions recruits not just their ability to act, but also their ability to decide. This makes it all the more empowering as a bulwark against panic or denial." Frame the choices as a problem facing the incident that only the public can solve. Symbolic actions are also useful. Asking for the display of signs, ribbons, and flags can help folks address their uneasiness.
Obviously, it won't do away completely with the donation issues (and chocolate chip cookies made by the local Girl Scout Troop will always find a home), but asking people to take action may help reduce the drive to donate and thus the time, effort, and finesse it takes to manage donations. Plus, if you ask the public to do things that are beneficial to the incident, it may turn out better than expected for all.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.