what helps most – stuff or money?

giving wool to knitTravellers enjoy finding practical ways to assist local communities – but what’s really the best way to help? First and foremost, we encourage cash donations through The Intrepid Foundation, where your money is used responsibly for a range of great verified projects. But we are often asked about the giving of material things, such as clothes, books, medical supplies, etc. Donating items can be a useful way to help, or it can be counterproductive and cause problems for the beneficiary communities.

What are some of the traps to be avoided and what are the best options for assistance? We asked Jane Crouch, Intrepid’s Responsible Travel Manager…

“Number one lesson, never send stuff that hasn’t been requested! When, how and what to contribute needs to be determined by the host community or local charitable organisation. The notion that ‘we know what you need and we’re going to give it to you’ without consultation, is misguided. Here are some practical considerations:

Books – Unfortunately needy communities often receive tonnes of books that are inappropriate culturally and use unsuitable language that is often at a level that is not matched with the reading abilities of students. A village without electricity does not need a microwave cooking book, nor does a small desert community need to know how to ski or learn about relationships from Mills and Boon!
Ask yourself:
– Will the value of the books be outweighed by the shipping cost, customs fees and port taxes on arrival and further transport to the destination?
– Do you have a person on the ground who can ensure they clear customs and reach their destination? Can they pay for the transport?
– In what state are the books? If they are outdated, damaged or irrelevant, they will just add to a waste problem.
– Is the information culturally relevant and useful?
– Is there a library and a staff member who cares for the books? If there is no system of storage and loans, then the books may all quickly disappear, not be shared and not be seen again! Not so bad if being read, but a wasted opportunity if being used to light the fire!
– An alternative is to sell the books at home and send the money.
– A positive way with literacy is to support the local production of suitable text books.

Clothing – Should only be sent if requested and truly needed. Find out from a suitable organisation working in the destination community the specifics of what they require. Appropriate clothing can be helpful, for example, warm sweaters, knitted hats and gloves in cold climates; or infant clothing and footwear in good condition. But also consider that the sending of clothing can undermine local markets, local sewing and manufacturing industries or established second-hand clothing industries.
Ask yourself:
– Can the items be purchased locally for an affordable price?
– What type of clothing, gender, sizes and ages are most needed? Be aware of what is culturally acceptable and suitable dress; ie not sending skimpy women’s clothing to a conservative country.
– Underwear – never send second-hand underpants for both reasons of hygiene and dignity. Bras should only be considered where requested, such as the specific appeals in the Pacific – Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga.
– Emergency situations can be cause for sending clothes – but only when requested. There may not be the on ground human resources to sort and distribute a mixed batch of clothing.

School supplies – educational aids are something that are nearly always needed, but again support is best when requested items cannot easily be obtained locally. Bulk quantities of ‘everyday’ stationery items to cater to the needs of whole classes are best acquired locally – supporting the local economy and meeting their specific requirements.
Ask yourself:
– Is it what the class uses? In notebooks, for example, lines may be different spacing to what the teachers are familiar with for handwriting lessons.
– Teaching aids – like atlas, dictionaries, posters etc may be helpful but try to obtain ones that are language/culturally specific.
– Robustness – avoid poor quality that quickly becomes broken or discarded.
– Avoid unnecessary packaging that becomes litter in the school yard or community.
– How will these be distributed? Are multiples of one item better than a mixed bag of assorted miscellaneous stuff – that could be fought over by kids wanting the ‘different’ items.
– Always give to trusted staff in charge for use at their discretion, rather than hand out to the kids. Avoid the scene where ‘foreigners come and give us gifts’.

– When giving a computer, you also need to know:
Do they have access to maintenance or repair services?
Is electricity reliable? A voltage protector may be a useful adjunct.
Does it have suitable software loaded?
How old is it? If it is slow and ‘tired’ in the west, it will be just as frustrating for the new users and have a limited life.
Poor communities should not be our dumping grounds for e-waste.

In wanting to help or give, we need to balance our good intentions and enthusiasm with what is best for the local communities. And we need to understand what the ‘best for the local communities’ means. There are no perfect answers. The considerations and examples given here should be freely used to help support more effective giving.

Giving of your time in getting to know and making friends within a community can be the best gift of all. In many cases giving money is more effective than stuff. But if a community specifies particular material needs, consider whether it is possible to purchase items locally near the beneficiary communities, and then, as is often said, the money is ‘giving twice’!”

The Intrepid Foundation – travellers making a difference
Help support Greenpeace and other great organisations via the Intrepid Foundation, plus find out how your donation can be matched* by Intrepid Travel!

* Donations will be matched by Intrepid Travel up to AU$5000 (or equivalent) per donor and a total of AU$400,000 each financial year.

Photo: Jane Crouch

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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I often bring little stuffed animals or other toys with me – they are lightweight, can’t be broken, and I get them cheap at the dimestore before I leave. When I give them to children it usually opens up a friendly conversation with the children and their mothers. I used to take a Polaroid camera and snap pictures to give them, but unfortunately Polaroid does not make the film anymore.


Very well written and I totally agree.

Think this is a really helpful site. I knit (when time permits) for an organisation called Tight Knit World based in Victoria that sends items, not only knitted to various charities both within Australia and overseas. There is a website if anyone is interested.
My daughter and I also volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand which was a great experience.

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