Inside the UPS Foundation and How It Responds to Disasters

The UPS Foundation’s rapid responses to disasters like the earthquakes in Nepal and humanitarian efforts like its ongoing commitment to the Syrian refugee crisis have piqued our interest for some time now. To get an inside perspective on these efforts, we recently got in touch with the foundation’s Humanitarian Relief & Resilience Program Director Joe Ruiz, who told us “We’re in every community in every city in the world, so every disaster is local to us.”

Related: In Nepal and Beyond, This Corporate Funder Takes on the World’s Biggest Disasters

Since it was established in 1951, the UPS Foundation has always had a hand in disaster relief and recovery efforts around the world. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it created what Ruiz refers to as a “tipping point” for the foundation:

We had thousands of our customers that were asking us for support, and the group wasn’t really ready to handle the massive influx of requests. So we decided to develop a framework of what we were going to, who we were going to do it with, and how we were going to do it.

What they came up with was the UPS Foundation’s Humanitarian Relief and Resilience program, which “provides support across the spectrum of humanitarian relief.” This includes emergency preparedness, disaster response and post-crisis recovery through a full package of assistance. This package often includes large grants, transportation, inventory tracking software, and technical experts who advise the foundation’s strategic partners regarding the distribution of food, medical supplies, and other necessary goods as efficiently and rapidly as possible.

Related: More Dollars for Disaster from the UPS Foundation

Speaking of strategic partners, UPS works with around 20 partner organizations around the globe. Around half of those are big outfits like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, UNICEF, and the UNHCR, while the other half are a bit smaller like Good360, the St. Bernard Project, and FIA Foundation.

So how is it that the UPS Foundation is so nimble in the often slow-moving world of natural and humanitarian disaster response? Preparation and technology.

At the beginning of every year, the UPS Foundation gets together with its strategic partners to talk about their emergency funds and in-kind budgets. When a disaster strikes, the partners are able to choose whether they want to pull resources from their in-kind budgets or their emergency funds. According to Ruiz, these budgets are one of the reasons why UPS is “able to act so quickly.”

Then there’s the Skilled Volunteer program, which includes a logistics emergency team to provide expertise in areas like warehousing, airport operations, and customs, just to name a few. These 70 or so volunteers are able to deploy to a disaster area within 72 hours and stay onsite for three to six weeks. According to Ruiz, the idea behind such a highly skilled team of volunteers is to do “whatever it takes to get those life-sustaining supplies to those (disaster) areas, which may otherwise take two to three weeks.”

When things move quickly, as they do in disaster response, steps are bound to be missed—especially when it comes to shipping and tracking supplies. This is where UPS’ logistical expertise comes into play, and currently, that means scaling its Relief Link program. In partnership with UNHCR, UPS and its foundation launched the Relief Link program earlier this year. The overall goal of the program is to improve humanitarian supply chain logistics. Relief Link combines the use of handheld scanning devices and identification cards to improve the distribution and tracking of critical supplies, as well as minimize theft. As Ruiz says: 

During disasters, many, many people can get stuff to countries, but can they get it to the last mile and can they prove they got it to the last mile? And that’s why we’re so excited about the potential of Relief Link.

Last-mile delivery of supplies, which Ruiz refers to as “the holy grail in disaster relief,” is difficult for a number of reasons ranging from data errors to inconsistency in supply distribution. Relief Link allows for the tracking of supplies to their final destinations and provides up-to-date information regarding the items most urgently needed by people in remote areas.

UNHCR is currently working to scale its use of Relief Link within the next five years as part of its commitment to track at least 80 percent of its shipments, but UPS’ logistical applications in disasters doesn’t end with Relief Link. It’s currently working with UNICEF on building a barcoding framework to help it track the movement of its supplies.

So why does the UPS Foundation place so much importance on the logistics of disaster relief? Ruiz explains it best: “When organizations like UNICEF fly supplies out to developing countries, it’s like going out into the Wild West.” Many times, it can take days or even weeks to verify that these shipments have arrived in country.

Working on technologies like Relief Link and UNICEF’s barcoding framework makes it easier for aid workers to keep on top of the supplies they have and what’s still needed, and helps to ensure that those supplies are adequately distributed.

As for the foundation’s dedication to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, UPS is allocating additional funds to UNHCR this year. More to come on that later. In the meantime, you can read more on the subject below. 

Related: With “Help Dwindling” for Syrian Refugees, Western Union and UPS Step Up