Giving Helps in the Short Term, but Can Harm in the Long Term

Charity can help in the short term but harm in the longer term.

Disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy. Photo: a katz /

Americans donate a lot of time, money, and goods to charity, and that’s great. In 2014 alone, we donated $358 billion. But there’s a problem with this as well: sending aid somewhere isn’t always the best way to help with a problem. In fact, it can hurt after a while.

Following a disaster like Hurricane Matthew, recovery follows three steps: relief, rehabilitation, and development. The first helps people survive day to day, the second works to get things back to normal, and the third moves the community ahead. Development is supposed to look like people getting loans to open up businesses and help the community regain its footing. Unfortunately, that can be delayed by too much giving.

When we continue to send food, clothing, and money to areas that should be in the development phase, we hold it back. That’s clothing and food that isn’t being purchased from local vendors, which means less money actually circulating in the local economy. “Buy local” isn’t just a hipster catchphrase; it’s integral to keeping economies working.

The problem isn’t that Americans are too generous, it’s that we’re not generous in the most effective ways. After a point, the recovery from a natural disaster needs to move forward, and donations stop being helpful. At that point we need to shift our focus from giving food to setting up loans—finding ways to “help people help themselves,” as it were.

In order to make sure that our charitable nature doesn’t end up harming people, we need to think harder about how we’re giving. That means nonprofits need to develop better plans for helping people, even if that means transitioning efforts from one group to another. If your organization focus on getting water and food to disaster zones, for example, work with charities focused on development and pass the torch, allowing them to help get things restarted while you move on to offer relief elsewhere.

Charity is wonderful, but uninformed charity can be harmful.


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