This piece was originally published in Christianity Today's Speaking Out on November 8, 2013.
Rule #1: Don't jump into action before you know the needs on the ground.
Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines as one of most powerful typhoons or hurricane recorded in history. As church leaders and members watch the events of the storm unfold, many are likely asking themselves how they can help.
In my academic research following disaster, I have discovered how your church can not only help, but help in ways that have been found to be truly effective without causing unintentional harm.
Keep Your Focus on the Survivors' Needs
I have a colleague who has done much in-depth research following large oil spills. He shared with me that after the Exxon Valdez, many of the local communities were overwhelmed by the support that was provided from all over the world.
Though most of the support was positive, some people sent goods that actually placed more burdens on the community. People sent literally tons of clothes. As a result, the communities had to sort the clothes, so they could distribute them appropriately. Up to this point this all sounds helpful. However, they actually had people send barrels and barrels of summer clothes and even swimsuits. (You could imagine how much good that did in the wintery climate off the Alaskan coast.)
In the end, these communities were actually stuck with a $200,000 bill just to get rid of the clothes they could not use. Survivors often have a wide range of needs, including physical, emotional, and spiritual. After a disaster, there is a need for a wide range of help and support.
We also need to take into account the actual amount of need. Sometimes we can give too much. A good rule of thumb is that aid happens where need meets resources. Also before giving, you should make sure you get good information from either your own contacts or legitimate aid organizations reporting what types of gifts and volunteers are actually needed.
Understand Your Motivation for Wanting to Help
Before helping, we need to reflect on our motivations for wanting to help to make sure we are helping for the right reasons. Giving a gift can make us feel good and make a huge positive impact on the life of a survivor—but only if it is the right gift at the right time—for the right reasons.
After Hurricane Katrina, I learned of a church that really wanted to donate food to disaster survivors. They rented a semi-truck and took about $60,000 worth of frozen meals to the coast. Despite groups on the ground trying to discourage this approach, church leaders had made up their mind that this was how they were going to help. On arrival, they realized there was no electricity to cook the meals or to refrigerate it. The meals went to waste and actually rotted alongside the road.
Before you help, make sure you understand your own motivation for why you want to help. Some people want to help to be "in the action" and want to see what is going on. Some people enjoy the community that comes after disaster work. Others want to be known for doing good. Others are called by their faith to do whatever it takes to help. I want to encourage you and your church to be the latter.
Volunteer, but Do Not be an SUV
I also want to encourage you and your churches not to self-deploy. Spontaneous uninvited volunteers (SUV) can create havoc at a disaster site and can even get in the way of those trained to offer specialized aid.
I understand the feeling of wanting to pick up and "parachute" into a disaster setting. However, from researching numerous international disasters such as in Japan and Haiti, we have found that this often actually causes a lot of stress to those that you may have wanted to help.
Instead of jumping a plane today and taking off to the disaster site, wait until volunteer opportunities have been identified. Also, if you are going to go and volunteer be prepared to be self-sufficient. Impacted communities must be allowed to focus resources on the needs of survivors and should not be tasked with focusing on meeting your needs, such as finding you shelter.
For those of you want to volunteer on site, remember it is okay to be patient. Impacted communities will need help for months or even years after a disaster. In fact, many disasters see a flood of help right after a disaster strikes, but then the help tends to taper off as we forget about those same communities in the months that follow when help is still sorely needed.
Consider waiting and being a part of the intermediate or long-term recovery process or possibly volunteering with an established aid organization.
Join Forces and Support Local or Established Church and Aid Organizations
Consider giving to local church organizations in the Philippines that are capable of handling donations and capable of empowering local churches, such as the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches or Philippine Relief and Development Services. Affiliating with international aid organizations that have established relationships and resources (such as the Micah Network, Integral Alliance, World Relief, World Vision, and Samaritan's Purse) is another way you can ensure you will help rather than hurt.
Overall, our research has found that one of the most effective ways to help after a disaster is to make financial contributions to recognized aid organizations. Financial contributions make sure that the right assistance is available at the right time.
Needs on the ground also change rapidly and dollars can quickly be changed from a meal to supplies. I realize that we often like to give gifts and items. This is understandable. It makes us feel like we are more personally connected. We can sometimes even picture in our mind's eye someone getting the gift we have sent.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary school tragedy, people gave toys and teddy bears from all parts of the globe. Though those gifts helped a lot of families, they gifts eventually overwhelmed the community and they had to issue a statement, "Please stop sending gifts." Financial contributions are much more flexible and allow those on the ground with the most knowledge of what is happening to apply to the rapidly changing needs occurring in real time.
Churches can be more effective in offering aid to communities in the Philippines affected by the recent disaster. The church is called to help in times of need. But sometimes our good intentions can cause unintentional harm. By following these guidelines, you and your church will be better prepared to help in a way that truly helps rather than harms.
Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. He is a co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” Follow Dr. Aten on Twitter @drjamieaten and jamieaten.com.