Best practices: ShelterBox in the Philippines

The unfolding news of the horrific tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan continues, with dire needs in the Philippines just beginning to be addressed as public and nonprofit organizations move frantically to reduce the misery and additional loss of life. The devastation is overwhelming, even by current standards. Many ask why is relief is taking so long, while some critics insist that we must prepare a better strategic, global approach to disasters instead of each one seeming ad hoc.

Finger-pointing aside, once again the international independent sector makes us proud. Let’s focus for a moment on a positive–a nonprofit organization that is mobilizing quickly and efficiently, doing essentially what they’ve done for 12 years and doing it exceptionally well. Consider ShelterBox (, one of the first on the ground after the storm, and what their success teaches us:

1.  Collaborate early and often, and choose your partners strategically. ShelterBox started in the U.K. in 2000 and became the project of a local Rotary Club. Today they’re proud to be a huge global partner of Rotary International. (Perhaps you’ve heard of Rotary? We thought so. If you get nothing else from this TIP this week, reach out right now to your nearest Rotary and find out when you can make a short presentation about your mission and impact. Even if your local Rotary cannot take you on as a project, the room is full of civic-minded philanthropists and doers. Can you say “board recruitment?”)

2. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. ShelterBox has remarkable focus. Their boxes do not contain water or food. Someone else is providing that. A corollary to this is, provide what is needed. A large tent, a rope, a stove, aluminum pans, and an axe are not sexy . . . being able to mobilize quickly to meet immediate needs in virtually any disaster is. Should you let go of something that is better suited to another organization?

3. We’ll skip the “think outside the box” comment, but there is a connection between immediate disaster relief and sustainability if you have the right idea. People keep the hardy plastic containers that ShelterBox provides–just as their senders intended–using them as furniture and beds for babies. Even if you’re in the emergency services business, is there any aspect of what you’re doing that could be useful later?

4. What’s in a name? Everything. There is something wonderfully simple about this organization’s name: “shelter in a box.” No need to explain. The elevator speech writes itself. URL? For an unfortunate array of reasons, too many nonprofits have misleading or vague names. Is it time for you to correct this mistake?

5. If you don’t have a quick, easy, on-the-tip-of-your-tongue dollar amount to attach to your program, find one. A gift of $1,000 assembles and delivers one ShelterBox.

6. Your volunteers would likely welcome more and better training. Set high standards. ShelterBox mobilization teams are a disciplined, well-trained crew. A woman we met from the LoDo Rotary in Denver who went to Haiti on her first deployment with ShelterBox had to complete an impressively rigorous training over a period of months.

7. Tempting though it may be to have a large web site with lots of material, if yours isn’t current and maintained, you should have a smaller site. Five well-designed, timely, navigable pages are better than 15 outdated ones that visitors, prospective donors, or reporters are frustrated by.

8. Be media-ready and media-friendly, even if your impulse is on the defensive. ShelterBox has some high-profile fans who have taken to social media this week, too.

9.  In over a decade, ShelterBox has altered their approach, program and process only slightly—because it works really well. They had a winning idea and perfected it before they expanded, not the other way around.

10.  There is one nice innovation in the ShelterBox program, which is involving youth. They’re got programs easily adopted by both Scouts and teachers. Their youth site is actively promoting a program called “Socks 4 Syria,” a way to raise awareness and money for ShelterBoxes through youth groups and schools.



  1. Judi Joubert
    November 19, 2013

    Thank you for the mention. We try! Rotarians all over the world raise funds for ShelterBox (among other things). There’ll be a club near you doing just that right now.

    The TIP at #1 is a very good one: Rotary clubs are always looking for speakers – don’t miss an opportunity to let them hear about your cause.

    …and #6: not only are ShelterBox teams well-trained, they are well-trained in training-the-trainers: so their skills are quickly and faithfully replicated.
    thanks again, from a Rotarian in New Zealand,

  2. Dale Perret
    November 21, 2013

    As an Albertan Ambassador for ShelterBox, I am so proud to be part of this organization. We are a lean machine in terms of where our donations are spent. Volunteers are not paid and we, in Canada, currently have one paid staff to handle our entire country through a small office in Toronto and with the help of many dedicated volunteers in Toronto and across the country who are not paid- many of us do not claim expenses even when warranted. We want every cent possible to go towards putting a roof over heads for those whose lives have been so tragically disrupted through no fault of their own. Anyone interested in donating to a very worthy cause can also check us out through Revenue Canada’s website as all registered charitable organizations are required to file annual returns. These can tell you a lot about how a charity spends YOUR money.

    For those reading this article please visit and see what it is all about and why we are proud to be part of it. I know you will be too.

    A proud ShelterBox Ambassador and Rotarian

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