Tips to Organize Disaster Relief Efforts to Make an Impact

Photo credit to The Third Wave Volunteers

Cari Newton is the founder of, a website dedicated to helping nonprofits streamline and manage their item collection drives. On this free platform, aid organizations can create and share most-needed item lists that include goods from Amazon, Walmart, The Home Depot and Target. Donors can select and purchase items in just a few clicks, ensuring that the right items get to the people who need them the most.  

When disaster strikes, getting assistance to the victims is critical.  The challenge lies in how to do this as quickly and efficiently as possible, given the unique parameters of each catastrophic event. 

Cari Newton, founder of, shares tips on organizing successful disaster relief efforts, and important insights from two major relief organizations, Third Wave Volunteers and The Cajun Navy Ground Force. 

Cari Newton headshot
Cari Newton
SignUpGenius: How do disaster relief organizations assess a community’s greatest needs after a natural disaster?

Cari Newton: Relief organizations that arrive first with “boots on the ground” in the disaster zone will very quickly set up a command center in a location with good visibility.  People affected by the disaster make their way to this location seeking assistance. These victims assist the agencies in identifying what type of help is needed most in the affected community.   

To coordinate relief efforts efficiently and effectively, all organizations involved in the recovery effort, along with FEMA and local officials, participate in a VOAD telephone call daily or even more frequently if needed.  VOAD is Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.  These calls allow everyone to get on the same page in identifying the community’s greatest needs and how they can work together to meet them.   

Mark Green, in Operations with Third Wave Volunteers, shares that their organization partners with local residents, who know their community best. Language barriers and other obstacles are less challenging when local volunteers are involved.  The locals also assist in the important task of collecting item donations, by helping to identify and secure available space for an accessible, centralized item collection and distribution location.  

SUG: What’s the best way to help a community affected by a natural disaster? 

Newton: Typically, the most effective way to help victims of a natural disaster is to donate money and/or needed items to disaster relief organizations. These organizations can then use both the financial stimulus and the items to help with their immediate efforts, and long term over the coming months and possibly years of rebuilding.  “Many people prefer to give in-kind donations because they don’t fully trust that their money will be spent directly on those in need” according to a recent research study on generosity and giving conducted by Alison Reese, M.A.T, M. Ed., the Executive Director of Tackle Hunger.  

SUG: How do people determine what kind of item collection drive will be most helpful to support those affected by the disaster? 

Newton: After a disaster strikes, kind-hearted people and organizations decide that they want to help, and many of them collect and send items to the disaster zone.  Often that generosity results in something known as “the second disaster”, which are unneeded item donations that create an operational nightmare for the onsite organizers and volunteers.  “No one needs this, so what do we do with it now?” shares Stacy Parker, a Director of Case Management with the Cajun Navy Ground Force.  It’s a headache for the disaster relief agencies and results in tremendous waste when unwanted or unnecessary items are donated.  One disaster relief volunteer told me that when Hurricane Dorian hit Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, unneeded and surplus donations were piled high behind the island’s only fire station, deteriorating for months after the storm. was created to solve the problems that are generated by “the second disaster”.  Any relief agency can quickly and easily create a specific list of their most needed items and quantities, eliminating any surplus and waste. Donation drive progress can be tracked by the organizers, and adjustments can be quickly made as needed via personalized dashboards.  

SUG: Can you share some tips to organize and promote a successful donation drive?  

Newton: Promotion is the KEY to a successful donation drive.  If donors don’t know what items you need, then how can they gift them to you?  By using, a list of most-needed items is quickly created, the link to that list can then be swiftly shared out to the world via all available media channels – social media, email, TV, radio… any method that the relief organization uses to get the word out to potential donors.  And it’s important to request that every one of those donors SHARE the link with their network.  Supporters who share via social media help to create buzz and increase the results of a collection drive.

SUG: What logistics are important to plan for when collecting donations?

Newton: Stacy Parker shares that the Cajun Navy Ground Force has a program called “Bigs to Bags” that their agency developed to assist with item donation logistics.  Simply put, it’s breaking big donations down into smaller bags.  To distribute the items most quickly and efficiently, individual assembly lines broken out by item categories are formed.  Big donations are then sorted and assembled into smaller care packages that can be easily placed right into a survivor’s vehicle as they drive up for assistance.   

Third Wave Volunteers has developed a process of creating collection hubs, where critical items can be collected and stored in advance of a catastrophe rather than trying to locate them within a disaster zone. Having these items in inventory prior to a disaster taking place saves time and money as resources can be limited. Gas cans, chainsaws, tents, and everything needed to protect and sustain the aid workers - from food to proper protective gear.   

SUG: Can you share an example of a successful collection drive for disaster relief? What can other organizers learn from how they accomplished their goals? 

Newton: One recent collection drive that was very successful was for The Maui Food Bank, in response to the 2023 Lahaina wildfire disaster.  After their assessment of the situation, it turned out that the most needed items were not food, but basic hygiene items along with diapers and baby formula.  The Maui Food Bank created a list of these items derived from two of our merchant partners, Walmart, and Target, which both have store locations on the island outside of the disaster zone.  The link to this list was quickly shared via social media for the fastest and easiest distribution.  Within just a few days, the items began arriving and The Maui Food Bank was thrilled, sharing that “The response from our collection drive has been amazing, with people donating much-needed toiletries and baby supplies for the Lahaina wildfire victims”.  By leveraging the power of the internet and giving people a way to make their item donations online, there was a marked increase in both donor participation and the number of donated items that were received for this collection drive.   

For more information you can contact Cari at [email protected].  She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband Craig, teenage son Jonah, and little yellow dog Bailey.