Yet when these calls for things to be gathered inevitably follow a natural disaster of this magnitude, I can't help but think of the enormous deadweight loss that results as a consequence of the donation process.
First, the typical scenario: Sydney comes home from school telling mom and dad that the elementary will be collecting relief items in the cafeteria to be sent to Joplin over the weekend. The family buys a couple cases of water and some pillows to contribute. Sydney, who normally rides the bus, is taken the following day by her mom so she is able to bring the stuff to school. The janitorial staff clears out space in the cafeteria for all the items that are gathered along with local volunteers who help coordinate the drive and load and unload the stuff, and a few parents with F150s offer to either drive the stuff directly to Joplin (depending on proximity), or to a location in their city to be loaded on semi-trucks that will freight them overland to the Red Cross on-site makeshift disaster relief distribution center.
Now, an alternative scenario: Sydney comes home from school telling mom and dad that the elementary will be collecting WalMart and CVS gift cards to send to the people of Joplin tomorrow via airmail (or, even less expensively and more quickly, via e-cards). The family goes to the front of said retailer or to their home computer in the den to purchase the gift cards. The school secretary collects them the following morning and sends them off with the USPS that afternoon to the same Red Cross center in Joplin.
The typical scenario is slower (the stuff has to be gathered first at homes then at the school and then at some central location in the sending city before finally hauled off to the ravaged city), more costly (WalMart trucks are moving the stuff to Kansas City for it to be moved by others to Joplin, instead of just moving it to Joplin in the first place) far more time-intensive for the givers (the family has to do the actual shopping for things they assume the ultimate recipients need, and then get that stuff to the school) and provides less utility for the victims (who may get four cases of water but no toothpaste, etc) than the alternative scenario. In short, WalMart's logistical operation is far more efficient than a haphazard group of well-intentioned students, parents, and teachers are.
Yes, the WalMart on Rangeline road was completely destroyed, but a town of 50,000 supports more than one Supercenter, the other being on 7th street on the north side of town, which was spared by the EF-5. And if a catastrophe wipes out a town's entire retail establishment, the situation becomes one of evacuation, not of recovery and rebuilding--one where former residents are immediately being moved to nearby towns (that have WalMarts) anyway.
People involved in charitable operations will tell you, to varying degrees, that giving is as much about the giver as it is about the recipient (and if you're a parent who has footed Santa Claus' bill before, you are already aware of this). Humans aren't entirely rational creatures, and there is certainly some truth to the objection that the typical scenario makes the givers feel like they're volunteering more than the alternative scenario does. And, in terms of the personal sacrifices made, it's true. But the benefits from the extra cost and effort accrue entirely to the givers, not to the victims.
There is also the practical question of how to persuade people to favor the alternative scenario. It's not politically feasible for WalMart to encourage people to buy their gift cards and send them to Joplin, as they'll be accused of trying to profit from the devastation. Of course, the givers are buying the same items at their local WalMarts as the victims would be buying from the WalMart on 7th street, so in reality it's a wash, but that's not how it will be interpreted. Parenethetically, WalMart and Home Depot have each pledged over $1 million in donations for relief efforts, but publicizing as much is perceived as being in poor taste.
In fact, from WalMart's perspective, there is no incentive (nor disincentive) for the giftcard method. It's organizations like the Red Cross (in addition to those who donate, although their generosity is reflexive--they are not involved in relief efforts frequently to really think about the process in a systematic way) that have the greatest incentive to receive money and money substitutes instead of the physical items that money would buy. Indeed, that is what such organizations tend to emphasize, though perhaps not as vociferously as they should.