Exploring Disaster Philanthropy: Part 1

October 11, 2017 Kim Lynes

If disasters cannot be predicted or planned, is it reasonable to expect a situation where the philanthropic world is prepared to immediately address the pressing needs that surface in affected areas, both short and long-term? Whether it be massive destruction from a hurricane, an Ebola outbreak, or a persistent wildfire, the social sector’s approach to disaster aid has traditionally been reactive, focusing on immediate aid. This outpouring of aid is essential in areas that have been flattened by circumstances beyond their control. However, focusing solely on immediate action is not sustainable or effective. Did you know that after five to six months private giving has almost completely stopped to areas affected by disaster?

To put this into perspective, consider this: Two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, hundreds of thousands of houses and 500,000 cars had been destroyed in Houston. 800 waste water treatment facilities were not fully operational (leaving thousands without access to clean water), and 200 school districts and charter schools statewide had cancelled or delayed classes. To be able to fully address the need for long-term recovery and the necessary rebuilding of infrastructure, funds need to be attributed to these geographic areas for a long time.

The only way to ensure that there is enough funding available in the long-term for these unexpected events is to prepare. Many funders learned of the need for a disaster plan after September 11th, and were able to put these new steps into action in response to Hurricane Katrina. One such lesson learned by the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation was the need to evaluate where the immediate response funding was going, and identify other areas where aid was needed and they could support.

Other foundations in the aftermath of Katrina focused on funneling their support through organizations they had worked with in the past. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established a process for evaluating how they would respond to disasters, and a large part was contacting local grantees in affected areas to see how they could assist. This was essential in not only communicating to areas that may be without power, but also in prioritizing immediate help.

To be best positioned for maximum impact in these situations, we have learned that grantee relationships, collaboration, flexible grantmaking and a plan are essential. However, a study done by the Center of Disaster Philanthropy in 2014 found that 73% of total disaster funding targeted immediate response and relief efforts. This same report shows funding overall for disasters from large U.S. foundations and corporations was up significantly from 2013 to 2014. But if most is still going to immediate relief, is it enough? How can developments in technology in the last 10 years help us to act on the lessons learned from Katrina, and possibly be applied as we currently grapple with the aftermath of numerous, devastating natural disasters? In the next two installments of this series, we’ll review some of the biggest lessons learned and observations made in the philanthropic world after Katrina in 2005, highlighted in Foundation Center and Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s “Giving in the Aftermath of the Gulf Coast Hurricanes” report.

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