Why Unrestricted Cash Donations Really Help Nonprofits

And now let us praise cash donations. The unrestricted kind, that is.

Photo by nayukim

I was in elementary school, insisting on helping my mom, who wasn’t letting me. And I’ll never forget her words:

“Help people as they need you to, not the way you want to.”

It was one of those first, early life lessons that really stuck. It made so much sense that I distinctly remember that I forgot to pout. It is certainly the lesson that’s stuck with me when working in the nonprofit world, or simply attempting to be a helpful donor.

I’ve been reminded of my mother’s wisdom of how to help many times since. When well-meaning coworkers gave the new parent in the office a spa gift certificate that expired in three months. When a friend (who couldn’t be paid to hand wash delicates, much less denim, ever) wanted to send jeans to a rural earthquake-wrecked part of South Asia where the women do not wear jeans, and likely handwash everything. And last month, when Morning Edition did a story in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, detailing the number of ways in which our collective generosity can in fact overwhelm aid workers, be inappropriate for the situation, or simply go to waste. Like the jeans.

Helping When It’s Needed, With What’s Needed

When disasters or the possibility of a small but life-changing contribution fill our news, we want to help. But more important, we want to help tangibly. It’s why some of the most successful giving over the holidays are events like Toys for Tots or the Boy Scouts’ food drives, because they give specific instructions on what’s needed, how much, in what form, where, and when.

This not only takes out the guesswork, and really any work on our part, it makes us feel good because we gave what was needed with intention and care. And when the need is great or shocking, it feels wrong to sit still and not do something . . . anything! That’s when we want to show up, determined that need should not go unmet, with bags of good in hand, a tangible improvement in the making. Except, that’s precisely when you might be more helpful by staying home and sending a check for an unrestricted cash donation.

Cash is King

Cash, especially if unrestricted, is immediate, international, non-perishable, doesn’t incur storage or extra processing costs, and above all, is flexible. Because emergency and relief agencies can financial cash reserves to fund what is useful for the situation. However, as the Morning Edition story put it so clearly, cash feels cold. People are drowning, dying, destitute, and you’re gonna . . . what? Rip off a piece of perforated paper and mail it? How utterly inconsequential and unsatisfying! Which is when you remind yourself of what Anugraha Palan of Women Thrive Worldwide says, ever so succinctly: “Feeling good” is not the same as actually doing good.

No, cash doesn’t feel good. It does nothing for our desire to DO something. If anything sending money makes us feel like we’ve abdicated our responsibility to others, who have stepped up to do the real work, while all we did was write a check.

But cash is king. Because unrestricted funds help nonprofits and emergency agencies get what they need, when they need it, and in the way that’s most useful for them.

Isn’t that the point of giving? That it isn’t about us, but about the people we’re trying to help, in the way they need the help?