Most Effective Practices, Cautions & Considerations

Here are some recommendations for how Catholic health care can increase the effectiveness and appropriateness of its disaster response in fulfillment of the ministry's healing mission. These recommendations are based on the Guidelines for Giving from the USAID Center for International Disaster Information as well as through collaboration with Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services.

Monetary Contributions to Established Relief Agencies are Always the Best Way to Help

  • Financial contributions enable relief agencies to purchase exactly what is most desperately needed by disaster survivors, when it is needed.
  • Financial contributions also avoid the expense and environmental impact of transporting and storing donated goods.
  • Financial contributions can also help revive the local economy.
  • Catholic health care organizations as ministries of the Church should consider donating to
    • Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in times of international disasters
    • Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) for domestic disaster response

      These agencies have associates already living and working in many of the communities/regions prior to any disaster and thereby have cultural competence and community contacts who can appropriately assess, identify and request most needed items. Authorized relief agencies such as CRS and CCUSA, as well as others such as the Red Cross, support local merchants and local economies, and can assure that items purchased are culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate.
  • Evaluate Charitable Organizations

    • To assure a financial contribution has maximum value for those being assisted, be sure to donate to a reputable, non-profit agency.
    • When donating, be sure to note if the donation is going to a specific fund for a specific disaster, or a fund for general donations. Neither is bad, but you need to understand to what you are making a donation.
    • You can find useful organization information before making a contribution using GuideStar or Charity Navigator.


  • Fraud: Many unofficial "relief agencies" appear during disasters. Donations made to unregulated or disreputable agencies often never reach those in need.

Helpful articles and resources

Know What Relief Experts Know

  • Every disaster is unique and every disaster response is carefully tailored according to population needs that are addressed by relief professionals on the ground. These personnel coordinate with each other, with government entities and with local groups to make accurate assessments.
  • Unsolicited, unneeded commodities are never required in early stages of response, and they compete with priority relief items for transportation and storage.
  • Appraisals evolve daily as survivors migrate to safety and normalcy returns.
  • Donations of canned goods are rarely beneficial, and can be culturally inappropriate, and the collection of bottled water is highly inefficient, as both food and potable water can be purchased more inexpensively through merchants close to the affected populations.

Before Collecting Material Donations, Confirm Need & Await Request

Some people feel a strong desire to give material donations in addition to cash. Opportunities to do this are rare but do come up, usually through appeals by relief organizations. In those cases, the organization will give specific directions on transportation.

Any call for material donations must meet each of the following criteria, or will risk burdening the relief effort it seeks to support:

  • A credible relief organization has identified a need for items being requested
  • An organization is prepared to receive, manage and distribute the items
  • Costs of transportation, shipping, warehousing and distribution are covered
  • Management of customs tariffs, fees and other cross-border requirements are covered in international disasters
  • Quality assurance requirements from the host government and the recipient are met and are available for disclosure

Here are some additional guidelines from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Code of Conduct, which is sponsored in part by Caritas Internationalis and Catholic Relief Services.

  • Often these agencies are among the first on the ground in the most troubled parts of the world, responding to both natural and human-made disasters. As such, the Code of Conduct guides their activities. By working with organizations that abide by the code, Catholic health care organizations can ensure that the work:
    1. Is conducted in a manner which respects the needs and wishes of the recipients.
    2. Allows those receiving the aid to participate in the program's success.
    3. Attempts to mitigate further disasters.
    4. Makes a lasting impact on the entire community by using local resources and staff.
  • FEMA Tips for Donating and Volunteering Responsibly


  • Lack of Space: Many domestic organizations do not have the warehouse, storage space, nor the immediate labor force to sort through material donations that are oftentimes unusable.
  • Unwelcome Fees: International materials donations are often shipped to a country without consideration for customs. Without the assistance of in-country disaster experts, these donations go unclaimed at the customs office, and in some cases, are sold illegally to disaster survivors.
  • Unneeded Items: Sending unsolicited items to the scene of a disaster that is outside of the local community can cause burden on disaster response agencies. Unneeded items require human resources to be allocated to the sorting and disbursement of unsolicited items and can also require storage— something that can be scarce after a disaster.
  • Lack of Transportation: Often, agencies do not have extra funds for transport of material items. It's always good practice to consider the means and costs for transportation as part of making a material donation.
  • Local Economies Suffer: In most disasters, needed supplies, including food, water, clothing and household goods, can be procured locally by relief agencies. Local merchants and economies hard hit by the disaster also need help and support.

Helpful articles and resources

Volunteer Opportunities Are Extremely Limited

Volunteers without prior disaster relief experience are not generally selected for overseas or domestic assignments. Candidates with the greatest likelihood of being chosen have fluency in the language of the disaster-affected area, prior relief experience, and expertise in technical fields such as medicine, communications, logistics, water/sanitation and engineering (credit pantal).

  • In many cases, professionals who meet these requirements are available in-country, not far from disaster affected areas.
  • Most agencies will require candidates to have at least 10 years of relief experience, as well as several years of experience working overseas. It is not unusual for a hiring agency to request that volunteers make a commitment to spend at least three months working in a particular area.

Though kindhearted and well-intended, offers to drive trucks, set up tents and feed children are rarely accepted.

  • Relief agencies that hire volunteers are responsible for volunteers' well-being, including food, shelter, health and security. Resources are strained during a disaster, and a person without technical skills and experience can be more of a burden than an asset to a relief effort.

Those who lack necessary training can participate most constructively by volunteering vicariously – by raising funds and fostering community awareness of organizations that support trained personnel on the ground.

  • No donation is too small and every dollar contributes to saving lives and reducing human suffering in the most economical, efficient and appropriate ways.

Some steps, or considerations include:

  • Go Through Recognized Routes
    • As with all volunteers, well-intentioned, but unprepared medical personnel can inadvertently detract from assisting those most in need.
    • Catholic health care organizations should work with a recognized relief agency that is authorized to work in the disaster region.
  • Assess Your Skills


  • Untrained Volunteers: The desire to help "hands on" is generous and admirable, however the help needed most by people impacted by disasters comes from trained, experienced relief and development professionals.
  • Volunteer Safety: Well-intended people who travel to disaster-stricken areas without training or invitation by a qualified relief agency can place themselves and others in harm's way and actually detract from helping those in need.
  • Lack of Accommodations: Providing food and shelter for concerned, but unprepared volunteers takes away vital resources from those being assisted in disaster situations. Lodging may be unavailable for unsolicited volunteers.
  • Local Volunteers Available: Local volunteers, sometimes even disaster survivors themselves, are usually available and benefit from participating in relief and rebuilding efforts in their communities.
  • Unable to Practice: The medical licensure and training of medical teams sent to disaster regions without coordination with an authorized agency may not be recognized.
  • Unknown Road Conditions: Roads into disaster areas may be impassable.

Helpful articles and resources