Even that most analog of crisis response needs, that most heretical of publicly-contributed donations, physical supplies, are not immune to advancements in ICT that threaten to cut out the formal aid groups mediating the relationship. For years, the Red Cross and other large aid organizations have beseeched donors not to send physical goods or food, and for years, some number of donors have ignored this advice and shipped physical supplies anyway. Donors like to ship physical goods for a number of reasons:
• The donated supplies are mailed to the area in need, limiting chances that the aid will be repurposed for other crises, as money can be
• Studies have found that donors like to fulfill a specific, concrete need, rather than pay for administrative costs
• The feedback loop is fairly instant: once the package is delivered a few days later, the donor knows their help has been received, unlike financial donations, where large amounts of aid money can go unspent even as people suffer
And coordinating aid groups have good reasons to discourage this behavior:
• The cost to open, inventory, and distribute these goods often exceeds their value
• There is a gap between donors’ understanding of what supplies are needed and what they are likely to send; it’s far more likely for t-shirts and casseroles to show up than specific equipment and medical supplies
• The gap between changing needs and arriving donations can leave the aid group stuck with entire warehouses full of unneeded items, clothing, and rotting food
The latter half of this logic has been altered, in one case, by the simple repurposing of an e-commerce giant’s wedding registry feature. Three friends, like many others looking to help with recovery, found no need for their help at a local shelter. Like many others, they joined the Occupy Sandy movement. On their way to the store to purchase food to donate, the friends came up with using Amazon.com’s wedding registry wishlist feature to coordinate the donation of goods and supplies. The tool was designed to allow couples to share the list of items they would like as gifts on their wedding day. As gifts are purchased, they are automatically taken off the list to prevent duplicates. This turned out to be exactly the technology (and e-commerce platform, and delivery channel) necessary to make donor-provided supplies work for recovery groups. The mechanism maintains the important elements donors seek: an instant feedback loop, a clear sense of how, specifically, you have helped. It also improves logistics for the mediating group: only the specific items needed can be purchased, and only in volumes requested (“Couples’ Style: Warm, non-perishable”). Relative to nonprofit donation pages, conversion rates are likely drastically improved by lower friction throughout the donor experience: Amazon has millions of customers’ payment information saved, has built and tested patented one-click payment technology, and offers free shipping to millions of Amazon Prime members. By piggybacking on one of the world’s most successful e-commerce companies, Occupy Sandy has been able to make individual donations of supplies economically feasible where formal aid groups could not.
Figure 3.3: Occupy S4andy’s Amazon.com Wedding Registry wishlist
A number of New York-based startups offered in-kind donations to provide additional physical goods and shelter. For example, consumer goods site Soap.com donated large volumes of toiletries, medical supplies, and diapers to local aid groups. A wide variety of online efforts coordinated food donations from area farms and restaurants to support those in need, as well as the service industry itself.
Figure 3.4: Soap.com lets donors choose household good packages to give