When crunch time hits, you have to think in terms of communications in both directions. When people can’t reach you, they either leave disenfranchised or outright disgusted.

When Hurricane Katrina sent tens of thousands of people to Birmingham, we were getting deluged at the Red Cross office with people trying to call in to offer “something.” The biggest complaint was that “we weren’t answering the phones” and “we weren’t acting fast enough.” The worst PR we faced early on was the swarming and overwhelming of our communication system.

The year before, we faced a similar dilemma on a smaller scale, as local media pounded us for shelter information and updates with Hurricane Ivan. We got around that issue by pushing the assignment desks and producers to a page on our website that was updated every hour. We even pushed that information to police departments and other dispatch agencies to use as an online resource for people calling from the evacuation routes. It worked like a charm, and within a half-day our incoming media traffic was again manageable.

That wouldn’t work as well for Katrina, because “the public” is magnitudes larger than “the media,” and the expectation level was far higher. So we went a different route.

Through our media partners, we urged the general public to not bring us random items and non-monetary donations — but to register them with us on the internet. We set up a special e-mail address, and asked that they put the “proposed in-kind donation” on the subject line, and their personal and contact info in the message body. Those without internet access were sent to a volunteer who would take their information and send it in e-mail form for them. We set it up on a free gmail account for some key reasons:

  • It kept the bandwidth off our server
  • Our volunteers who needed to access it could do so without a special network connection
  • It is easily searchable, allowing us to get exactly what we needed without looking at every message
  • We could use what we needed, and not collect a bunch of items that would have cost us to store or even dispose of

(In the end, we had a nice database of folks that we can discreetly call on in the future for training opportunities…)

This did have a measurable impact on our incoming phone traffic. The message we delivered with this move was “We want to be responsible stewards of your donations, whatever they might be. By registering your wish to donate an item, you can rest assured that we will only call if it is really needed — and you don’t have to wonder whether your charitable effort was wasted.” That message really hit home with people, and I think it enhanced our overall stewardship position within the community.

We also used the e-mail and webpage to explain our policies about donations, as well as the sorts of things we might could use versus the things we could not accept second-hand. That in itself did more to educate the community than anything else. In the end, we had more than 170 bona-fide offers of goods and services that people registered with us — and we availed ourselves of a few of those offers.