Give them cash. (AP)

Giving cash to the needy is the simplest and most effective form of charity – one which has stood the test of millennia. Gussied up as “unconditional cash transfers,” it’s now changing the world of development and philanthropy, and being embraced by the likes of the International Rescue Committee and many others.

As anybody with a television can tell you, there’s no shortage of need in Houston right now – and there’s no shortage of cash, either. Michael Dell is trying to raise a $100 million fund, JJ Watt is up to $20 million, the Red Cross has surely raised an eight- if not nine-figure sum by this point, and soon there are going to be tens of millions of dollars in telethon proceeds, too. On top of that is the official Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, which will also be receiving enormous sums of money from both the public and the private sector.


When people give to these organizations, they’re not generally trying to find the place which they think will be most effective at spending their money. If they did, almost no one would give to the Red Cross. JJ Watt has said that he doesn’t know how he’s going to spend his money, just that he’s going to take his time and listen to experts. Michael Dell is almost equally vague: his Rebuild Texas Fund just has an action-area shopping list comprising “health and housing; schools and child care; workforce and transportation; and capital for rebuilding small businesses”. Which, if you put them all together, would probably include nearly all of the $100 billion plus in damages caused by Harvey.

Given the enormity of the devastation, it’s clear that private charitable donations aren’t going to be able to move the needle very far when it comes to the full cost of rebuilding the fourth-largest city in America. On the other hand, just because you can’t do everything is no reason not to do something. And there’s at least one bit of good news when it comes to these disaster-relief shops: nearly all of them are going to spend nearly all of their money within two or three years. If you give money today, it will end up being spent somehow, and is very unlikely to be sitting in the bank in a couple of years’ time.

Still, it’s likely that very little of the money being donated right now is going to become simple unconditional cash transfers down the road. Places like Habitat for Humanity and Feeding Texas, which are getting money from the telethon, are worthy organizations, but they give out stuff (food and shelter) rather than money.


Meanwhile, there’s a gathering consensus in the charity world that cash transfers are the baseline standard. If you can’t do better than giving cash, you should just give cash. That makes perfect sense in theory – but in practice, what you need is an actual giving-away-cash option. And that’s what’s missing in Houston.

What we need, then, is the option to ensure that the money we’re donating for Houston’s neediest goes straight to those individuals, in cash. If Give Directly doesn’t want to mission-creep, then someone else should do it: set up an organization which gives out cash (or, more realistically, reloadable prepaid debit cards) to the people who need it most. There are hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in Houston, for instance, many of whom have lost their homes and their jobs, and who are in truly desperate straits. If there was a way to send cash directly to those families, I would do it in a heartbeat. But so far I haven’t been able to find one.

The next-best thing would be for someone to set up a charity which has the ability to give out large amounts of cash whenever and wherever (in the US) a future disaster hits. If we don’t have that ability now, in the wake of Harvey, that’s bad – but let’s build that ability, so that we’re prepared for the next earthquake or hurricane or wildfire. Such an organization would have non-zero overhead costs, of course. But its overhead costs would be much lower than the costs of something like the Red Cross. And once such a shop was set up, choosing between the two would be a no-brainer.