A volunteer at a Toronto church unpacking goods dropped off to help Filipino survivors of Typhoon Haiyan pulls out a sunshine-yellow gown, holds it aloft and jokes to a fellow helper about who is going to need a party dress.
Then she dutifully folds the pleated skirt and bodice into a square and places it on one of a dozen tables stacked high with clothes destined for Southeast Asia.
"We cannot refuse these people who would like to donate in-kind," said Rosemer Enverga, who is organizing the fundraiser for Toronto’s Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Parish. "They just come in here, bringing their stuff. We have to accept them."
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The church's congregation — with its large Filipino contingent — feels a strong desire to help the Philippines recover from what might be the deadliest natural disaster to hit the disaster-prone country.
Although many instinctively reach for food and clothes to donate from their own homes, aid organizations and charities caution that such help, while well-intentioned, can be more of a curse than a blessing. Instead, most urge people to give cash that can quickly translate into on-the-ground aid.
Some humanitarian groups refuse to accept so-called in-kind donations, a term that covers any material item other than cash that an aid group receives.
“People have come to us before wanting to send teddy bears to Haiti, wanting to send socks with us to earthquake survivors in Japan,” said Rebecca Davies, director of fundraising for Canada's Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
“We really, really appreciate their humanitarian spirit, philanthropy and goodwill, but as a medical organization we just cannot accept offers such as that.”
Cash donations hard for some
Cash donations allow Médecins Sans Frontières to buy cheaper bulk supplies and store them in warehouses around the world, making them quickly available to the region in need and with a lower shipping cost, said Davies.
"The key to saving lives in emergencies is speed," said Davies.
The Toronto Catholic church knows its goods won't be of much use in the days or even weeks to come. The first shipment of 50 boxes left Tuesday evening for their 13,000-kilometre journey by container ship, which will take four to six weeks to reach Manila, and then another week or two to travel south to the disaster zone in Leyte province.
“It’s really a big challenge to make sure that these boxes reach the remote areas," said Enverga, but adds that their focus is on the longer-term rehabilitation needs.
The church also encourages monetary donations, but is embracing the outpouring of support in the form of donated items.
“Some people do not have the financial capability of donating cash,” said Enverga, who notes that a number of Filipino immigrants in the area are caregivers. “Their income is not that much so they would rather give in-kind."
"Mind you, they give cash as well," she said. "These caregivers are very truly a big help. They volunteer with their time, they donate food, they donate goods. Name it, they’re here.”
Rima Zubazs, one of 20 volunteers at the church on Tuesday, said she’s repeatedly donated in the past days, giving both money and clothes to the cause.
“There’s nothing they don’t need,” said Zubazs. “They’ve lost absolutely everything.”
‘Misspent altruism’ a constant problem
Bringing noodles, corned beef and peanut butter for a donation drive can feel satisfying to those hearing about survivors without food or water.
"It's what people imagine is necessary," said Jennifer Hyndman, a York University professor and former relief worker who helped after the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. "It comes from the right place. You know it’s a heartfelt desire to do something.”
But Hyndman warns that those goods can be lost or get damaged en route — and can be difficult to get to the communities in need. Cash donations also allow agencies to buy local, helping domestic economies recover more quickly.
“That kind of bulky sort of gift is not always a blessing. It can be a curse as well,” said Hyndman.
After some disasters, perishable goods languish in warehouses or at airports, going bad as charities struggle with huge surpluses, unnecessary items or simply lack of resources to funnel them to the right locations.
Jean-Luc Poncelet, the World Health Organization’s representative for Haiti, said one of the lessons learned there was that medical supplies donated from abroad also come with their own risks.
"It comes with the inappropriate language," said Poncelet. "It is not the one used locally. So use local, national supplies first."
Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child Canada and author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid, says relief efforts are often plagued by "misspent altruism" where people feel compelled to give hard goods rather than cash.
When they hear news reports that survivors need food, they intuitively want to provide food, said Nutt. It seems like a direct way to help, but many mistakenly believe that food must not be available in the affected region and want to send it from abroad.
'Just the community feeling of coming together provides comfort.' -Neil MacCarthy, Archdiocese of Toronto
"There is plenty of food still available within the Philippines and lots of supplies are ready to be transported from much closer, neighbouring countries," said Nutt. "There are certainly shortages in the immediate disaster area. But this is because supplies were wiped out along with the roads and other distribution mechanisms."
Since food must be airlifted at this stage to access areas with wiped-out roads and downed communications, only certain types of food — such as lightweight but high-protein biscuits — are distributed initially.
Part of the healing process
Some donors might think organizations are being ungrateful for refusing to accept canned goods and clothing, but Nutt says cash helps maximize the donation's impact.
The federal government is also matching monetary donations until Dec. 8.
Churches are often a place where parishioners and community members alike can bring clothing and food to direct it to those in need, but they are following in the footsteps of aid organizations to try to redirect good intentions into monetary donations.
“The best way that people can help is through financial contributions,” said Neil MacCarthy, director of communications for the archdiocese of Toronto, which oversees the Our Lady of the Assumption Church.
MacCarthy wants to get that message to the 225 Catholic churches and 1.9 million members in the greater Toronto area.
“I always like to say it’s akin to if you had a flood or fire at your own home,” he said. “If someone came to you and said here’s $50, you get what you need because you know what’s of the utmost importance right now.”
But it’s a hard sell in emotional situations such as the Philippines disaster, and giving cash doesn't satisfy one of the core reasons people give food and clothes.
As in the basement of Our Lady of the Assumption, where Catholic Filipinos and community members gathered to stand shoulder-to-shoulder packing box after box, the act itself is a part of the healing process, said MacCarthy.
"Just the community feeling of coming together provides comfort," said MacCarthy. "When we feel like we can't do anything, we want to do something."