I donated both money and new socks to help the Ukrainian refugees, although I know I shouldn’t have
Here is what humanitarian aid organizations should learn about the desire of small donors to help
The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is heartbreaking. No words can console people who have had to flee their homes. No medicine can mend their hearts and souls or erase their trauma. Many humanitarian aid organizations are trying to help and support the refugees. I wanted to do my part and donate money via The UN Refugee Agency. Per the request of our local community, I also sent new packs of kids’ socks with little pink hearts printed on them, shampoo, soap, and stuffed animals — all through our community center, to be shipped to the Ukrainian border.
How I donated money
In perfect timing, a Google.org ad in my Gmail inbox, encouraging me to donate to help those affected by the war in Ukraine, caught my attention, as it probably did for millions of other users. I had wanted to donate to support Ukrainian refugees for some time, but the intention got lost among all my other, more urgent daily chores.
Google’s clean and practical design, reasonable options to donate, and the short process to transfer the donation made it simple and low-effort to donate. It was an organization with integrity, which I could trust to allocate donations to Ukrainian refugees and use the money most effectively to meet their most immediate needs. I was so impressed with Google.org’s simple and direct call to action that I felt compelled to donate immediately. Google offered three solid options for donating: the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNICEF, and the UN World Food Programme. Each option was followed by a short explanation of how the organization can help.
According to a survey by Fidelity Charitable, one-quarter of Americans who are aware of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have taken action to assist Ukraine, such as making donations to charities or providing other forms of financial assistance.
Money is the most effective way to help
The USAID Center for International Disaster Information constantly emphasizes that the best way to help survivors and support disaster relief efforts is also the most economical, efficient, and effective way: Provide monetary donations to aid groups working on the ground. Monetary donations are the most effective way to help because cash is flexible and can be utilized to purchase the exact items needed exactly when they are needed. They can also boost the local economy and allow maximum flexibility during these periods of uncertainty and constant change. Monetary donations have no transportation costs; they do not burden the support teams on the ground and will not compete with the relief teams’ priorities or interfere with their rescue efforts. In contrast, in-kind donations like clothes, blankets, and food can add to the workload of refugee workers, who will need to collect, sort, package, and ship the donated goods. This extra work eventually raises the cost of the response. At worst, disaster zones become dumping grounds for inappropriate goods, delaying appropriate relief efforts and harming local economies. According to the USAID Center for International Disaster Information, I did the right thing by donating money to UNHCR.
Why do financial donations present a dilemma?
Although they are the most effective charitable act, the downside of financial donations is that they provide no immediate satisfaction. They are not comforting to the donor and do not create a sense of exhilaration or gratification. A donation via a digital channel such as Google.org is translated into a mere digital transaction, built from clicks and digits: I simply clicked on Google.org’s ad in my Gmail inbox, clicked on UNHCR, chose an amount, typed my credit card number, and clicked to approve. A thank you message flashed on my computer screen, and I received an email confirming the transaction. And with that, this charitable process was concluded. I don’t know who received my money or what difference it made.
Digital money transfers are financial transactions that fail to create a complete emotional experience for the donor. The money is being wired to anonymous people within a distant organization who will, I’m sure, allocate the money wisely. At the same time, my modest donation is only one of the millions of similar donations from people worldwide. It is seemingly insignificant compared to larger contributions from wealthy and influential people. I say seemingly because despite how it feels, it is undeniable that small donations add up to a huge amount that can make a critical change.
What was missing from this digital donation process?
Donors see their donation as part of their identity within this exchange. Donors inject a part of themselves into their offerings and, in turn, expect reciprocity. They hope to receive emotional or physical acknowledgment of their gift. The donation impacts our self-image. We begin to view ourselves as better people. We become donors.
This sense of satisfaction is described by economic science as the “warm glow,” the emotional reward of giving to others. This acknowledgment fulfills donors with the feeling that they have done something right. Donors donate because they enjoy the warm glow the donation provides them. According to the original warm-glow model developed by James Andreoni, people experience a sense of joy and satisfaction for “doing their part” to help others. This satisfaction — or “warm glow” — represents the personal pleasure derived from “doing good,” regardless of the actual impact of one’s generosity. The digital process of donating to distant victims in Ukraine is dimming the “warm glow.”
When I donated new socks, hygiene products, and stuffed animals, I could imagine how a child would hold them or how their parent would put new socks on their feet. It filled me with joy and gave my donation a tangible aspect. No longer digital data being transferred, but a warm hug sent overseas. This is the “warm glow” feeling that donations can produce.
The rationalization of donations is hard to grasp
The rationalization of donations, as the USAID Center for International Disaster Information emphasizes, can be hard to digest because it does not offer an emotional outlet for the donor’s grief. A donation is more than an economic transaction. It could be a political statement or a gesture of unity, love, and care. It’s an emotional action that gives pleasure and contentment to both the donor and the recipient.
In a way, admitting that the only reasonable step small donors like myself can take is to donate money to large organizations like the UN is the same as saying that we don’t have any personal agency to impact this humanitarian catastrophe which is beyond our reach. The small amounts of money we can donate and our inability to make a real scalable difference leave small donors feeling frustrated and helpless. The Fidelity Charitable Fund discovered that donors cite both a sense of action (32%) — that their donation will make a difference — and feelings of helplessness (31%) as motivation to give.
Donors send blankets and stuffed animals, although they shouldn’t because physical donations are an outlet for their love and care. These donations are seen as the minimum of what they have to give or should do in this appalling political climate that has left so many people in agony and pain.
What’s the lesson for humanitarian aid organizations?
The love and dedication of small donors have immense future potential for humanitarian aid organizations. Being a dedicated, involved audience, these donors will be more than ready to support these organizations in the future. Learning from political parties’ experience in fundraising, humanitarian organizations should also develop a mechanism for engaging small donors, helping them channel their feelings of helplessness into an experience of agency, and allowing them to support their outreach in a broader spectrum.
Organizations should cultivate their outreach to small donors during crises and help them feel a part of the community of aid givers. This can be done, for example, by encouraging donors to gather together to raise funds within their community, offering donation channels, updating donors on the progress being made, and encouraging them to share the updates and call for donations. What may seem like a burden to organizations during a crisis — when they have so much to do on the ground — is actually designed to relieve their burden in the long run. Like every nonprofit knows, a dedicated community of supporters is crucial for their fundraising efforts.
Connecting audiences of donors and making them partners — of the organization and each other — will increase their donations and channel their longing for charitable acts and love for humankind into monetary donations. Eventually, donors will feel less helpless and isolated in their grief and more connected to the primary source of help. They will see their monetary donations as part of a partnership that will replace their in-kind donations. That’s a win-win for all.
Most importantly, don’t stop giving after the disaster is over
Keep donating. Recovery will take time and will require support long after the emergency responders and camera crews have left.