A friend of mine just lost most of her posessions in a house fire. Like many people, my first reaction was to think "Hmmm. . . what do we have around here that I could pass her way. What stuff can I give her?" But because of the work I do, my next thought was "No, not stuff. What she needs is money. Maybe gift cards. Not my excess junk." See, my friend's life is being redefined in the wake of her tragedy. While she sorts out what needs to be done and how she'll recover, the old flannel sheets I have in my closet probably don't fit into her recovery plan. The bed she's sleeping on at her mom's house is probably the wrong size, and it may not be the right size for the new bed she'll get after sorting through the bigger issues like how she'll pay for the rebuilding of her home. Giving her my old sheets would be an easy and low-cost way for me to give. But it wouldn't help her. If anything, they'd be a burden for her store until maybe someday she does have a use for them.
If my goal in giving is to help my friend, or anyone else facing hardship, then what I should do, what I will do, is give her resources that are actually helpful. In my friend's case, that will be cash.
After every major disaster or well-publicisized tragedy, there is always a rush for people to 'collect stuff' for those affected. I know some people who do it because it's a basic way to give that is easy for their kids to understand. At their core, 'in-kind' donations evoke a quaint simplicity and feeling of 'pitching in'. Like Amish barn raisings. But truth is, 'in-kind' donations often place a burden on recipients. Stuff has to be transported. Stuff has to be sorted. If, as is often the case, stuff isn't needed immediately, stuff has to be stored.
And in communities where businesses have been affected - think Joplin - 'stuff' should be supplied by local retailers. After the tornado, lots of people went to Wal Mart stores in Kansas City to buy toiletries for Joplin. But it was the Joplin stores - the places that hire displaced people and the places that generate badly needed tax revenue - that needed the business.
The same goes for donations abroad. This article in Philanthropy Today mentions how when the US unloads its surplus abroad, ostensibly to help people, it actually hurts local economies by driving down prices and zapping the market for local goods.
Real relief comes when we focus more on those we wish to help than on our own experience of giving.