Weather & Natural Disasters

Is your company sending disaster aid? First, do no harm

Disaster aid: when corporate goodwill goes wrong

The announcements came almost like clockwork. Just days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, destroying entire communities, companies and large organizations from FedEx to the NBA started pledging aid in various forms, just as they have after other recent disasters.

This ought to be good news for the afflicted areas—and for the companies involved. Certainly the assistance does much to burnish a company's image. But whether it provides a comparable benefit to a stricken area is often another matter.

Unsolicited donations of food, blankets and other supplies may not match what is needed on the ground. Donated goods may pile up on roadsides and in storage spaces that are already in short supply, impeding the progress of workers from relief organizations (NGOs) on the ground. Even worse, if a stricken area is hard to reach because of damage to roads and airports, an influx of unsolicited goods can make it harder for supplies that are actually needed to reach the area.

"All the logistical resources in the areas should be geared toward facilitating the flow of moving supplies that are exactly what are needed at the moment," said Jose Holguin-Veras, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an expert on disaster relief. "Corporations and companies and groups should think about the needs of the survivors, not about what might be good for the company."

Water bottles from Spain sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake
Source: Jose Holguin-Veras

Bob Ottenhoff, chief executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, agrees. When unsolicited donations of goods come into a place like Tacloban, one of the worst hit communities in the Philippines, "the airports can't handle it, the roads can't handle it, the relief organizations can't handle it," he said. "This is not a time for amateurs."

(Read more: How to help: Organizations offering relief to Typhoon Haiyan survivors)

Sometimes, even identifying what's needed isn't enough. Companies also need to think about the most effective way to get supplies into victims' hands. Donating actual goods may well be less cost effective than giving cash to relief organizations on the ground that can then buy the supplies locally, saving transportation costs and giving the local economy a boost.

A case in point: Holguin-Veras recalls coming across water donated from Spain when he traveled to Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010.

(Read more: Global giving surges following Haiti quake)

"I showed it to one of the guys at the relief group, and he wanted to cry," Holguin-Veras said. "For every bottle that came from Spain, four or five people were left without water. If they had donated the cost of transporting that water, you could buy five times that much water."

By and large, major corporations have made substantial improvements to their relief efforts in the past decade. When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck in 2004, few companies had developed relationships with NGOs, and their relief efforts were often ad hoc. A review of the relief efforts found that tins of pork were sent to Banda Aceh even though it's heavily Muslim and Islam doesn't allow consumption of pork. Expired medicines and canned foods also were donated. But since then, corporate disaster response overall has become more strategic and organized, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

(Read more: Megastorms don't care about your preparation)

Economic impact of Super typhoon Haiyan

Ottenhoff agrees that large corporations have made progress since tarmacs in Indonesia were littered with unwanted supplies in 2004. "They probably have some people on staff who work full time on this," he said. "They probably have in place memos of understanding or other relationship with disaster relief organizations. Many make cash available. They've worked this out in advance."

FedEx, for one, has pledged aid to the Philippines in the form of transport. It intends to fill an MD-11 aircraft with supplies from Direct Relief International and Heart to Heart International, NGOs that have worked with the company before, and fly them into the afflicted areas.

Some companies have had help from initiatives like the Business Civic Leadership Center, a part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The center was founded in 2000 as more companies were making corporate social responsibility a part of their management strategy. Gerald McSwiggan, the director of issue networks at the center, says large companies have made particular strides. And while he says it's harder to track the efforts of small to midsize businesses, anecdotally he hasn't seen as many drives to collect canned goods or similar programs.

(Read more: Rethinking the way your company should respond to a disaster)

The chamber recently held a conference call with several large NGOs like the Red Cross about their aid efforts in the Philippines, and roughly 75 businesses called in, McSwiggan said.

Still, even the smartest companies would do well to think about disaster philanthropy more comprehensively, experts say. McSwiggan recommends that companies do more advance planning so they have a strategy in place before a disaster happens.

"We try to tell companies, 'Disasters are not the time to hand out business cards,'" he said. "You want those relationships established with NGOs already. Small businesses should use large NGOs and focus on cash donations. If you don't have those relationships built, don't fund a start-up organization. Don't try to ship goods into the country. You're not prepared to do these things."

Ottenhoff says companies need to think about the long haul when they plan post-disaster donations. Assistance "still tends to be focused on immediate relief," he said. "What we still see missing is sufficient resources being focused on planning and preparation and mitigation before the disaster, and then a lack of attention paid to long term recovery and rebuilding."

(Read more: Typhoon was our 'Black Swan:' Philippine exchange COO)

In the case of Typhoon Haiyan, the rebuilding could be extremely prolonged. "Millions of people have fled their homes and are living in temporary housing and getting emergency food and clothing," Ottenhoff said. "Will they be able to come back to their homes or continue fishing or farming, or come back to their small business? This is an issue that doesn't get sufficient funding attention.

"We're not saying, 'Don't send money for emergency response,' but don't forget about those people once they've been rescued. They've got a long road ahead of them."

—By CNBC's Kelley Holland. Follow her on Twitter @KKelleyHolland.