How to Help When Disaster Strikes

April 21, 2022

5 Tips for Effective Disaster Relief Giving

Since Russia launched attacks on Ukraine in late February, The Denver Foundation has mobilized to support on-the-ground help for Ukrainians in need. Over the last two months, The Denver Foundation donors have given nearly $1.6 million to 24 organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, Project C.U.R.E., and the American Red Cross. And that’s only counting the gifts from The Denver Foundation donor-advised funds. We know donors are likely giving to organizations on their own as well.

Whenever disaster strikes — whether man-made such as war, or natural disasters like fire, flood, or hurricanes — people outside the disaster zone are eager to help those in need. The options for giving can be numerous and overwhelming, but the best way to help isn’t always clear.

To help you most effectively support disaster relief, we’ve compiled this list of best practices. Whether you want to help displaced Ukrainians, hurricane victims in the American South, or those nearby affected by wildfires, these tips will guide you in making sure you send the right gifts to the right places.

For an in-depth analysis, we recommend “Generosity as Climate Resistance: A Philanthropic Disaster Relief Strategy,” an excellent white paper from Brook P. Kramer, Head of Key Client Group Philanthropy & Impact, Bank of the West and a member of The Denver Foundation’s Professional Advisors Council. Ms. Kramer explores “…the role of philanthropy in rebuilding climate resilient communities. By adopting a strategic plan for addressing communities harmed by disaster, generous families can act faster and make a greater impact with their resources.”


#1: Don’t assume in-kind donations are the best way to go.

Clothing and food drives have their place, but in disaster situations, these sorts of donations can provide more disruption than relief. From bombarding shipping systems that could be used to deliver medicine or supplies, to overloading recipients with items they may not actually need, in-kind donations can create more work for the people and organizations they’re meant to help. 

For example, according to a TED article, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, people sent winter coats to the tropical nation and one well-meaning company sent refrigerators which survivors couldn’t use because they “were living in tents without electricity and none of the appliances were wired to work in that country.”

Rather than assuming that your old (or new) clothes or canned goods will be helpful to the people in crisis, let the organizations on the ground tell you what they need.


#2: Give cash.

Monetary gifts offer a flexibility that in-kind donations don’t. Needs in the disaster zone can change quickly as circumstances evolve. When you support organizations with cash gifts, they can easily pivot from providing clothing and blankets to food and transportation to a safer location, for example. Cash gifts empower organizations to use their expertise and provide the most relevant and useful help to the people affected.


#3: Find out what people need and who’s providing that on the ground.

There are a host of organizations — local, national, and international — that lead disaster relief. They have people working in the places where disasters happen. They know the situation firsthand and they see the needs up close.

When disaster happens, you’ll want to identify the organizations that are providing real, tangible support to the people affected. Provide those organizations with your support so they can continue their work. Sometimes, these organizations will post needs for specific types of donations on their website — so if you’re wondering whether clothing, blankets, or cash is better, check their website. Do not call nonprofits that are actively providing emergency disaster relief; they need to prioritize helping those most impacted by the disaster. Look online.

For disasters outside of Colorado, we often recommend looking to local community foundations for resources and guidance, starting online. Many communities have a local or regional community foundation that is likely to post resources on their websites and social media.

As a service to our community, The Denver Foundation often provides guidelines for giving in difficult times. When the war in Ukraine started, for example, we published a list of recommended organizations that are providing on-the-ground services to people in and fleeing Ukraine.

“We looked for respected organizations that were responding in the moment,” says Sarah Harrison, the foundation’s special advisor for philanthropic engagement. “We knew that they were working in Ukraine and taking donations.”

Please check our website for information and resources, especially when events align with our mission and focus areas and have an impact in Colorado.

The Denver Foundation also works closely with donors to develop strategic giving strategies in times of disaster. If you have a fund with The Denver Foundation, please reach out to your relationship manager for custom research, planning, and giving, including internationally.


#4: Vet organizations — or have The Denver Foundation vet them for you.

If you’re identifying organizations on your own, we recommend taking the following steps to ensure the organization is a good fit:

  1. If you wish to make a tax-deductible gift, make sure the organization is a registered 501c3. If its website says so, you’ll want to verify that on
  2. Verify the organization’s parameters for this particular cause. Is it only collecting funds for a particular window of time? Make sure you can hit the deadline.
  3. Look into the organization’s financials to see if its use of funds aligns with your intent. This information is often posted on the organization website or can be found by searching for the organization’s Form 990 (nonprofit tax return) on GuideStar. 

The Denver Foundation will only recommend organizations that we have vetted and can confirm are providing meaningful support to people in need.

Many organizations, including organizations based overseas, welcome contributions from international donors. Donations to organizations without 501c3 status must be made directly and – ie, they cannot be made from a donor-advised fund – and are not tax-deductible.


#5: Give after the first wave.

The first few weeks and months after a disaster happens (or starts), the news is full of stories covering what’s happening — and a lot of people make gifts to help. But the needs typically outlast the news coverage. Six months, a year, and even longer after the fire, hurricane, or attack, people are often still struggling to recover. 

The initial outpouring of support often drops off before needs are fully met, so if you missed the first wave or would like to give again, it’s probably not too late. The Denver Foundation can let you know what organizations are still working with victims so you can help their recovery continue.


The Denver Foundation is here to help you find the organizations that are helping people in need. If you’re interested in disaster relief giving, but don’t know where to start, reach out to our Impact Group by calling 303-300-1790.