Here are some suggestions how to help Puerto Rico and for successful civilian help initiatives in emergencies:
1. Make sure that anything you do solves an existing problem. Solving a small problem is better than talking about a big one.
2. Work with local leaders, but stay out of the way of the great work that emergency management, FEMA and the Military are doing. They have highly sophisticated processes that have been trained and executed many times. Civilians don’t k ow these and add more distraction than solution.
3. Local leaders to work with could be churches- especially in strongly faith based communities, and schools.
They already have a hierarchy and structure in place, with the principal or pastor at the top, and they know the details of the small community that they serve. They know about existing and new needs, health and financial issues, and alliances and friendships that can be utilized to distribute aid and personal follow up. They have the authority to send people, and can create a sense of normalcy in chaos, by using familiar structures such as a church gathering or a classroom, to get people something meaningful to do.
4. If possible, get military veterans involved for distribution. Since they left the service, they are unlikely to be called for duty, but their training and discipline will kick in and they will get the work done quickly and effectively.
5. If you hand a task over to veterans, clearly define the intended outcome and important parameters. Then let them take care of the rest. Don’t micromanage them, but let them be in charge.
6. Make sure that you let the veterans organize themselves. Military hierarchy and command will still be important, and higher ranking veterans might want to and be expected to take the lead. You may not know who those leaders are, so trust their decisions in this.
7. The most important asset is always transportation! It’s NOT the goods in need. People are always able to get donations. But the crucial part is to have the money to ship it quickly.
8. Don’t donate goods, clothing,… to organizations that deliver pallets of prepackaged goods. They truly don’t know what to do with your stuff, as you have no bar codes that they can scan, package sizes that they can calculate with, and if in doubt, they will just leave it in a warehouse.
9. If in country, make sure you know where delivery centers are and that local leaders know about them, and what they can ask for. I have seen huge storage halls full of stuff, while people were desperately waiting. The problem was communication between community leaders and warehouse.
10. Connect people! Know of others who are doing what you are doing and see how you can work together. Make sure they are ethically sound (we have seen people sell donations in Bosnia) and stay away from anybody who seems like they want to swing a buck on people in need!
11. Communicate with the press! They are interested in your story and can open doors for you.
12. It is crucial to take pictures! You have to bring proof of your activities in country, if at all possible. Social proof, especially video and photos of your delivery, are essential, in case someone doubts your integrity. Respect, compassion and and preserving dignity Tor those you are helping go a long way when asking to take a picture!
13. People will want to thank you and find a way to give back to you. Let them do that! You don’t want them to feel like beggars who have nothing to offer, or who are forever in your debt. If they offer coffee, drink it! If they want to cook, make sure, you only eat perishable things, so they don’t use their non-perishable items up for you.
14. Many will be to proud to ask for help. Ask them if there might be someone else they know, who could use support, and then slip their ration to them in the process
15. Always make sure that you’re a part of the solution, not add to a problem.
Don’t ever make a promise that you can’t keep. Don’t promise medication or highly specialized items. Don’t promise you come back unless you know exactly when. Don’t add to their pain by getting their hopes up and then disappoint by not following through. Rather promise less and do more. Your word must count!
And remember: You don’t need to tell people that they inspire you. Instead, just do what they inspire you to do