Lessons Learned from Organizing a Relief Effort

Early this week, I was fortunate enough to get invited and attend a dinner for smart, action-oriented, and inspiring women. I am neither one of those things, except maybe action-oriented (only when I drink Red Bull). As we were going around the room introducing ourselves (my favorite part), we had to tell a little bit about ourselves and also answer the question, "What was the best gift you've received recently?". 

So I thought about all of the gifts I've received over the Holidays. Since everybody loves me so much, I got a lot of awesome gifts including a free vacation (minus plane ticket) to Cabo, Mexico. But the gift that stood out the most is an invitation to join Child United, a non-profit in Seattle, to go to the Philippines on their 'Relief, Rebuild and Renew' mission. 

Back in November of last year, one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded on this planet (typhoon Haiyan), hit the Philippines. About 4,000 Filipinos have died and thousands of people lost everything including their homes. I remember looking at pictures of the damage on a Sunday afternoon and spent a majority of that day crying and feeling horrible. I just knew I had to do something to help my 'kababayans'. 'Kababayans' is a Filipino term used for 'my people' without being racist.  

I want this post to be helpful and informative for others in case you have to do something similar in the future. I will break it up into steps from my personal experience and share with you the lessons I've learned from organizing a statewide relief effort. 

A total of 300 boxes of donations collected in two weeks for the Big Sky Big Heart Relief.

A total of 300 boxes of donations collected in two weeks for the Big Sky Big Heart Relief.

Steps on how to make this happen:

1) Reach out to your friends (and their friends) through social media. 

This all started when I posted a Facebook status on a Sunday night, asking my friends for used clothing, shoes, toiletries or other items that might be helpful for the victims. I've also asked them to share my status on their Facebook walls and try to get donations from their friends. Make sure you ask for items the victims can actually use. Some of the items donated were winter clothes and extra large size clothing which would not be useful in the Philippines because 1) it's a tropical country and 2) Filipinos are a lot smaller than Americans. We ended up donating those items to Goodwill.

2) Name your relief effort and design marketing materials.

Find a clever name for your relief effort. I ended up calling mine Big Sky Big Heart (thanks to my boyfriend, Mario). Also find somebody who can design and create marketing materials for your relief effort. I am fortunate enough to have one of my mentors and former boss, Gwen, create a poster, flyer, logo and a Facebook cover for my relief. You want to make it look legit and seem like you know what you were doing. Print out posters and distribute them to your drop off locations so they can be placed in front of donation bins. 

3) Setup drop off locations for donations. 

When a disaster like this happens, I've found out that most people want to jump in and help out. Well especially if you live in an awesome community like Missoula. The following morning, I received a lot of messages on Facebook both from my friends and their friends on where they can drop off donations. I had no clue drop off locations are needed  for this. I seriously thought I can just drive around town and collect items from people's homes. That same day, I called a few places in town and asked if they would be willing to serve as a drop off location. I ended up having seven drop off locations in Missoula and a couple locations in each town who participated. Tip: A couple of my drop off locations were grocery stores and they were both overflowing with donations everyday. 

4) Partner up with other non-profit organizations.

Since I really had no idea when I started, I knew I had to reach out to other organizations who might be helpful. So I did some research on other non-profit organizations in the area who are also organizing a relief effort. Montana have a really small Filipino community, so I had to reach out to organizations in Seattle, which is the closest big city to Missoula, with a huge Filipino community. I ended up partnering with Child United in Seattle since they are a smaller non-profit and the founder is also Filipino. I think it's really important to pick an organization you can trust and know for sure that your donations will actually get to where they're needed. Plus smaller non-profits usually have smaller overhead costs compare to bigger organizations. I've also checked out their website and Facebook page and I really admire what they do in the Philippines. Another organization who helped a lot in this relief was United States of Hope - Missoula. They worked on the transportation logistics for delivering relief goods collected from here to Child United in Seattle. 

5) Get some media exposure.

Interviews are really scary especially if it will air on TV but that said, you really have to do it. Trust me on this one. I was so scared that I didn't watch both of my TV interviews until a few days later. But you get a chance to reach out to your community both locally and statewide. I also had a couple of articles on the local newspaper and did a couple of radio shows. Soon, I was getting messages on our Facebook page from people all over Montana wanting to donate and help. Because of this, I had people driving all over the state, even towns 5 hours away from here, to drop off donations. 

6) Find and get a storage.

When I first started the relief, I just planned on using my house and garage for storing collected relief goods. This might work if you have a really big house and have lots of storage. But if your relief effort becomes big, you will need more than a house. I was fortunate enough to have someone donate part of his company's bay storage to store donations. This storage became our stop every night to drop off donations from our drop off locations, a venue for our 'boxing party', and where the boxes had to be picked up for delivery to Seattle.

7) Get volunteers.

Starting a relief is a lot of work. You will need a lot of help from picking up donations from your drop off locations, to getting boxes, to repacking collected donations and filling out an inventory, taping boxes, and other stuff that I made them do. I tried to make sure I didn't have the same volunteers every single night so I I didn't wear them out. Also, try feeding them if you can. 

8) Organize a Boxing Party.

No, not the kind where two people fight each other and you grab a bag of popcorn and watch. It is literally a day to box donations and is probably the most stressful part of the relief. I basically had our 'boxing day' the same day when the boxes were getting picked up and delivered to Seattle. It was on a Friday and I took the whole day off from work. The boxes had to be all packed and ready to be picked up by 2PM that afternoon. This is when you will need a lot of people sorting out and boxing donations. 

9) Ask your family, friends and co-workers for their help and support.

Decide how long you want this relief to run. I only had two weeks since Child United had to get our donations by the end of that month. In that two week period, I had a lot of help and support from my family, boyfriend(s, kidding), friends and co-workers. My work gave me a lot of freedom to answer phone calls during the day from people wanting to help, the media, and drop off locations telling me I had to pick up donations because their stores were overflowing. There will also be a lot of work to do and you cannot do it all by yourself (doesn't matter if you are a superstar). I am very lucky to have such amazing support group and I could have not done it without them. 

10) Always remember that it is for a good cause.  

Organizing a relief effort is really exhausting especially if you've never done one before. There were a lot of late nights, lots of phone calls, lots of donation pick ups and lots of work to do. I remember driving around town one night to get some air because I thought I was going to lose it and not pull it off. But I had to remind myself that this wasn't about me and the victims have it so much worse. Many people had no food or access to clean water and even a place to sleep. At the end of it, just remember you are doing something good and you are making a difference. 

And if you are lucky enough to work with an awesome organization like Child United, you get an invitation to distribute those items personally to those people in need.