Last weekend, I got a call from home. A friend of the family was planning a visit to Tanzania. He had sports equipment and wanted to bring it with him to donate to an NGO who could use it. Was there any chance I knew of one?

The short answer is “no.” The long answer is a little more complicated.

From time to time, I get asked if I can coordinate the distribution of donated goods from Canadian individuals to NGOs on the ground. OK, that’s a lie. It hasn’t happened before. But this past week, it happened twice.

At the risk of sounding preachy, or worse yet, self-righteous, I am compelled to explain why you should think twice before donating unsolicited gifts-in-kind overseas.

Gifts in kind are non-monetary donations of goods or services. While these types of donations, especially unsolicited ones, are well intentioned, their impact can do more harm than good.

Many international organizations do not accept non-monetary donations. Right to Play, a global organization that empowers children through sport is among them. The high “cost of shipping and the resources required to distribute and manage such donations” makes them more trouble than they’re worth.

Doctors Without Borders purchases much-needed medical supplies prior to medical emergencies and therefore does not accept donated drugs, food or equipment in humanitarian crises. Whenever possible, UNICEF UK tries to “procure items locally … where it can assist the local economy.”

While sourcing items locally can strengthen local economies, sourcing them abroad can have precisely the opposite effect.

In the 1980s, Kenya had a booming textile industry, which supported 30 per cent of the formal labour force. In the early 1990s, economic liberalization policies that allowed for the importation of used clothing left the industry in tatters.

Local textile manufacturers just couldn’t compete with the items donated by well-meaning westerners thinking their goods would be distributed freely to those in need. The garment industry is only now picking up again due to a shrinking textile industry in Asia.

In addition to economic factors, the Centre for Responsible Travel also notes that individuals should consider that unsolicited donations “can perpetuate cycles of dependency, cause corruption, burden communities with unwanted or inappropriate donations, and require recipients to spend time and resources to handle ‘gifts’ they didn’t request or cannot use.”

Still, there remains so much need in communities around the world. So what can we do to ensure our gifts have the greatest impact and are used responsibly?

My suggestion is to find out what the needs are at your cause of choice. Your local food bank probably needs non-perishable food items, diapers and toiletries. New refugees relocating to Canada may need household items or warm clothing for their children. If you’re planning to donate internationally however, the greatest need and most effective gift is likely money.

Financial donations require no transportation costs and can be sent quickly and efficiently to where funds are needed the most. In addition, they are often matched or multiplied by governments or other agencies, increasing their impact.

Ian Abbot, my massage therapist in Victoria, BC, was the second person who reached out to me this past week. He decided he wanted to do more than just make a one-time donation, he wanted to spearhead a fundraiser. The problem was, he was unsure who to connect with and how.

“I’ve always been very passionate about alternative energy and the way it can make the world a cleaner place,” he wrote. “Then I thought about the fact that clean and affordable energy can have a profound effect in places like Africa.”

I immediately thought of Canadian NGO and Uniterra partner, Farm Radio International. FRI empowers small-scale farmers to meet their food security needs through innovative and informative community radio programs. Solar powered radios are essential for community listening groups – a cornerstone of many FRI impact projects. Farmers report that listening together not only enables them to learn from the programs, but also from each other.

Empowering farmers with information through the power of radio is a cause Ian could get behind. He’s already reached out to FRI and is eager to start a fundraiser.

Giving back is a priority for many of us, especially those who visit or plan to visit a developing country. I felt the same way the first time I came here 13 years ago.

At 20 years old, I had never encountered the kind of desperate, gripping poverty I saw here. The first time a small child tugged at my pant leg with an outstretched hand, my knee-jerk reaction was to give. Without thinking, I reached into my pocket.

It’s a human reaction, I think – to give blindly in such situations. What I didn’t consider was that children who beg often skip school or drop out to pursue more lucrative (short term) opportunities on the street. I didn’t realize that giving handouts could contribute to and perpetuate cycles of dependency while depriving children of their education.

I’m not trying to vilify well-intentioned individuals — just the opposite in fact. I would like to see more compassion and giving in this world; more people who are willing to share what they have, whether it be knowledge, resources or skills.

I just believe we need to take the time to think first.


Planning a trip abroad? Here are some resources to get you started

The Centre for Responsible Travel’s “Dos and Don’ts of travel giving” and “Responsible Travel Tips”

Did you Know?

2017 is the International Year for Sustainable Tourism for Development. Click here to learn more about how responsible tourism can contribute to economic growth, poverty reduction and environmental protection.