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Corporate Philanthropy Institute Q&A: American Red Cross Silicon Valley Leader Talks Corporate Disaster Response

Monday, January 8, 2018

Corporations can play a unique role in helping their communities recover from disasters. How can they make sure they are contributing where their help is most needed – and not inadvertently making recovery operations more difficult?

Ken Toren, CEO of American Red Cross Silicon Valley, knows both the for-profit and the nonprofit worlds well. He has served as CEO, COO, board member, co-founder and advisor for start-ups, private and public companies and nonprofits.

Toren will be speaking on a panel called “Responsiveness: Corporate Engagement in Disaster Response and Disaster Risk Management” as part of the 2018 Corporate Philanthropy Institute (CPI), coming up Feb. 12 in San Francisco. Our CPI event is co-sponsored with Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

In this Q&A, Toren offers insights into what companies should – and shouldn't – do to help both before and after a disaster.

SVCF: What does corporate disaster relief typically include?

Ken Toren: There are many ways corporations can get involved in disaster relief. Most commonly, corporations engage through financial support, volunteering (paying employees or giving them extra time off) or in-kind donations.

Other options include:

  • starting a giving campaign or hosting a disaster response page
  • investing in critical disaster risk-reduction activities
  • designating a disaster response team trained in first aid and CPR
  • offering empty offices or warehouse space that can be used as an operations headquarters, warehouse or kitchen site
  • donating staff who possess certain skill sets based on specific disaster needs

Is sending money always best, or can in-kind donations be helpful?

Generally, money is best. Nonprofits can buy items on a wholesale level, and so disaster relief organizations can take the dollar that someone might spend on a single can of beans or case of water and turn it into potentially five to 10 times more of that item.

However, certain in-kind donations – those that relief agencies solicit when they need specific items - can be helpful. 

Most commonly needed are the basics to run shelters – food, cots, blankets, toiletries. For example, Budweiser has donated emergency drinking water and shipped it around the country accordingly. As another example, FedEx uses its vast transportation and logistics resources to deliver emergency supplies and equipment to relief organizations, such as the American Red Cross, that are responding to disasters on the ground.

At best, in-kind donations of new bulk items augment official efforts and provide the locals with some additional comfort, especially when those contributions come from nearby, and the company has checked with the relief organization to determine there is a need.  

At worst, disaster zones become dumping grounds for inappropriate goods that delay actual relief efforts and harm local economies.

Read the Full Interview >