The 2012 presidential election is a really big deal, and Mitt Romney is currently losing it by a narrow margin, so it's extremely understandable that he wanted to spend yesterday campaigning in Ohio rather than shedding crocodile tears for hurricane victims. But instead of just campaigning because life goes on and the campaign is important, he decided to throw a pretend charity event for storm victims:
The plan was for supporters to bring hurricane relief supplies to the event, and then deliver the bags of canned goods, packages of diapers, and cases of water bottles to the candidate, who would be perched behind a table along with a slew of volunteers and his Ohio right-hand man, Senator Rob Portman. To complete the project and photo-op, Romney would lead his crew in carrying the goods out of the gymnasium and into the Penske rental truck parked outside.
But the last-minute nature of the call for donations left some in the campaign concerned that they would end up with an empty truck. So the night before the event, campaign aides went to a local Wal Mart and spent $5,000 on granola bars, canned food, and diapers to put on display while they waited for donations to come in, according to one staffer. (The campaign confirmed that it "did donate supplies to the relief effort," but would not specify how much it spent.)
This is not only phony but—more importantly—teaches a really bad lesson about how to help people in need. As I wrote in last column's December on food drives, in-kind donations to charitable organizations are extraordinarily inefficient. Well-managed charities are experts in identifying client need and the purchase and distribution of goods that meet those needs and often have access to deep discounts. Paying retail prices for random stuff, then handing it over in a logistically haphazard manner is crazy. Just hand over a check and let the experts do what they need to do. If you want to put more time and effort into it than check-writing alone offers do some research on charities since obviously it's much better to give to an effective charity than a bad one.
And don't just take my word for it, ask FEMA:
Cash is the most efficient method of donating – Cash offers voluntary agencies the most flexibility in obtaining the most-needed resources and pumps money into the local economy to help businesses recover. Remember, unsolicited donated goods such as used clothing, miscellaneous household items, and mixed or perishable foodstuffs require helping agencies to redirect valuable resources away from providing services to sort, package, transport, warehouse, and distribute items that may not meet the needs of disaster survivors.
This is particularly to the point because Mitt Romney has a boatload of money—specifically an estimated $250 million in wealth. Not only that, but Romney's campaign and GOP-aligned groups are poised to spend tens of millions of dollars on television advertising in the final week of the campaign. A candidate who genuinely wanted to sacrifice some campaign opportunities in order to help people would take some of that money and give it to storm relief charities rather than spend it on TV ads.
Last but by no means least, if you aren't a politician and just want to do the most good for the world, you really ought to look beyond the eye-catching devastation in New York and New Jersey. Bad as the situation in Hoboken and the Rockaways looks, things are much worse in Haiti where the storm hit harder, the local population is much poorer, and state capacity is pathetic. Take some money and give it someone doing humanitarian work there.