12/04/2012 05:59 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Among the Lessons From Sandy: Smart Compassion

As rebuilding continues after Hurricane Sandy, there are two things of which we can be certain. First, that Americans will respond with generosity toward those who have been affected by this disaster. And second, that only part of their response will have the intended impact.

This winter will be difficult for those who remain displaced, and the strong need for monetary donations to support the ongoing relief effort continues. In most domestic and international disasters, donors who make the greatest difference in the lives of survivors are those who give monetary support to relief organizations working in disaster affected areas. Even a small financial donation can make a huge difference in the lives of those affected by disaster.

In the chaotic first few days or weeks following a disaster, emergency and relief personnel who work directly with survivors need to stage and deliver life-saving supplies. They also need unobstructed space to set up mobile hospitals, shelters or other transitional facilities and conduct detailed assessments of individual and community needs.

Ideally, relief organizations respond quickly to needs on the ground with locally stockpiled or purchased supplies delivered to accessible staging areas. Purchases made near disaster sites strengthen fragile economies and speed economic recovery. Supplies are fresh and familiar to beneficiaries and acquired in the right quantities. Transportation costs are lower and the carbon footprint is smaller. In addition, disaster situations evolve quickly and monetary donations enable relief organizations to respond to changing needs with speed and efficiency. Solid benefits for not much donor effort; no food, clothing or other collections required.

Issues associated with unsolicited material donations have been a factor in relief work for decades. Back in 1988, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) initiated public education and outreach on effective disaster donations by creating the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI). The tagline "Cash is Best" was featured in early CIDI information assets and remains a familiar moniker in the relief, development and donor communities. USAID heralded the notion that giving in alignment with professionally prepared needs assessments helps more people with greater speed and effectiveness. Needs-based giving is now a commonly accepted best practice.

The benefits of needs-based giving and the proven efficacy of monetary donations prompted a coalition of leading humanitarian and aid organizations from the public and private sectors to join forces to convey this message to the American public. After extensive research and careful development, the coalition launched an online toolkit that includes research-based messaging recommendations, social media tips and recommendations on outreach to consumers. The toolkit also contains public service communications materials for the organizations to customize and use in outreach efforts following a disaster.

The coalition is led by the Ad Council and includes USAID, CIDI, the UPS Foundation, InterAction, and National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD). The coalition's advertising and messaging illustrate that disaster situations are dynamic and monetary donations enable relief agencies to respond as people's needs change. Even small donations can have great impact because of relief organizations' bulk purchasing power. Financial contributions also ensure that supplies are nutritionally, environmentally and culturally appropriate. Finally, when supplies are purchased close to where disasters occur, they support local economies which enables and sustains long-term recovery.

This is good news for people who want to help a lot but can only give a little. Monetary donations are the simplest for donors, the most effective for survivors and the most efficient for relief organizations and the programs they support. More benefits to more people at lower cost and with less hassle -- what we at CIDI call "smart compassion."

Juanita Rilling is director of the Center for International Disaster Information.