Disaster Philanthropy: Recommendations to Donors

In Give2Asia’s Disaster Giving in Asia: Lessons, Guidelines and Opportunities, it began by saying we are fortunate to live in a world where people and organizations have both the desire and the ability to help each other in times of disaster, “to reach across the globe to lend a hand.” While the ability comes from the growth of international organizations like Give2Asia, the desire stems from the visceral reaction to horrific disasters and human empathy for those who are left to suffer. In short, disaster response philanthropy is giving from the heart.

Disaster preparedness, however, requires giving of the mind. We know what the effects of climate change will be and how they will continue to destroy lives. We know where, if not when, a disaster is most likely to strike and who will be in its path. Yet, the heart continues to out-give the mind 160,000 to 1 because scientific studies and risk assessments lack the emotional pull and perceived urgency of the disaster events they predict. The discrepancy in funding does not represent a difference in importance.

Just as a single person needs both the mind and the heart to survive, so do many communities. They require both disaster preparedness and disaster response giving to survive the crises they face.

Here is how Give2Asia recommends individual, foundation and corporate donors begin integrating disaster preparedness and resiliency into their philanthropic strategies.

1. Preparedness Saves Money and Lives

The exponential growth in disaster philanthropy during this century is undoubtedly a good thing. Motivated by the heartbreaking news of a disaster, donors of all kinds have given generously. While immediate relief and long-term recovery investment is critical, the need for it would be greatly reduced with an increase in preparedness and resiliency. It’s worth mentioning once more that despite the fact that $1 in preparedness and resiliency saves $7 in recovery, $160,000 is invested in the latter for every $1 in the former. India’s success in mitigating the damage of Cyclone Phailin in October 2013 shows just how important and effective these investments can be.

Exacerbating the investment shortfall is the fact that much of the funding allocated to disaster preparedness ends up going directly to relief. National governments, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, are legally obligated to set aside funding for disaster preparedness. Yet, when a disaster strikes and resources are low, as with Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, this funding is often re-directed to response.

2. Start Close to Home

Disaster preparedness and resiliency can be integrated into almost any philanthropic strategy, and should not only be thought of in tandem with disaster response. For donors of all kinds, disasters pose a threat to normalcy and long-term interests. To figure out where your disaster preparedness investment is best used, it’s necessary to examine where your interests and investments lie.

For corporations, disasters disrupt “business as usual” in a number of ways. Both employees and customers can have their worlds turned upside down, while supply chains and markets can be completely shut off. The Thailand Floods of 2011, for example, disrupted the worldwide supply chain of hard drive, eventually dropping supply and driving global prices up by 15 percent. Similarly, following the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 production in the Tohoku region dropped significantly overnight. As a result, 644 businesses had been forced into bankruptcy by March 2012, leaving over 11,000 people unemployed. In both these cases, corporations with an invested interest tried to mitigate the damage to business afterward, but as we’ve discussed previously, this is much more costly and less effective than investing in preparedness. For corporations, Give2Asia recommends implementing preparedness and resiliency programs in communities near employees, infrastructure and resources that are vital to your organization. In addition, discussing response plans with local corporate offices and employees prior to disasters can help organizations to mobilize quickly when disaster does strike.

For foundations and individual donors, the focus should be on protecting other philanthropic investments. A donor funding rural health should be extremely concerned about how the hospitals, medical professionals and medical equipment he or she supports will be affected by disasters, as that is when medical services will be most needed. An organization funding work in education should be equally concerned about the safety of schools and the continuity of education following disasters. Both organizations should prepare accordingly, either by building preparedness elements into programs they support, or by supporting separate disaster preparedness programs within those communities.

3. Build, not Bombard

Every country and community has a different capacity for disaster preparedness, and faces a unique set of challenges and circumstances. Importing new programs or organizations wholesale can leave communities feeling without ownership, or worse, without understanding of their critical role in preparedness and response. Instead, work with local groups to build on existing efforts within a community and implement a measured consensus-driven approach to introducing new ideas and next steps.

4. Support Programs that Involve the Local Communities & Strengthen Local Capacity

As with disaster response, the community knows its circumstances and challenges best, and therefore is in the best place to assess needs and generate ongoing support. Whenever and where ever possible it is best to use local NGOs, CBOs and leaders to implement programs. This helps ensure community ownership of a program and increases the likelihood that it will continue beyond the initial funding and implementation period, while reducing the risk that resources will be misused. Furthermore, locals are in the best position to determine the appropriateness of specific programs, especially when they involve contentious issues such as resource management or re-location. Inclusion has the added benefit of building the capacity and knowledge of local NGOs and CBOs, which will put them in a better position to respond when disaster strikes, or to address other issues within their communities.

5. Incorporate Disaster Preparedness into Recovery

Among Give2Asia’s keys to disaster response has been to build back better – to ensure that communities are safer than before the disaster. A part of this philosophy involves incorporating preparedness into recovery projects.

Donors who support reconstruction projects, whether schools, houses, or public spaces, should be sure to include funding to make these structures resistant to disasters common to the area. Opportunities also exist in the aftermath of disaster to re-design infrastructure to better meet community needs. This could be as simple as relocating residential spaces away from hazards, or creating mixed use space that benefits the community and protects against disasters, such as designing community spaces that double as evacuation centers.

Donors must push for these opportunities with local partners. Local partners may understandably be in a hurry to provide roofs, food and normalcy to communities, but taking a little extra time to include preparedness in recovery activities can be worth the trouble if it saves lives the next time around.

6. Donors: Prepare to Respond

While most of this paper has focused on how local communities, NGOs and CBOs can prepare for disasters, they are not the only ones scrambling when a disaster strikes. For many donors, contributing to disaster relief efforts is an important part of their philanthropic strategy; yet, they are caught unprepared when disaster actually strikes. Donors wrestle with many questions as they determine their response, including:

  • Can we send volunteers and in-kind donations?
  • Should we make immediate gifts to INGOs?
  • Is there a way to give locally?
  • How much should we give?
  • How can we involve our local employees?
  • Can we find trustworthy local partners in time to meet our communication goals?
  • How can we protect against corruption and graft in the disaster zone?

By establishing priorities and partners ahead of time, a disaster relief contribution can be put into action immediately. Though we cannot predict exactly where or when a disaster will strike, we do know where they are most likely to occur. Many organizations have both the local presence and regional reach to respond to disasters immediately across a wide geographic area.

ShelterBox, an organization that provides high-quality tents and day-to-day living supplies for disaster victims, has over 20 strategically placed reserves of supplies around the globe that are immediately mobilized during a disaster event. By establishing a contribution and response framework ahead of time, a contribution could immediately be put to work in the affected area. Six months after Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, ShelterBox tents remained in use and in the best shape of all relief tents.

Similarly, some Give2Asia donors elect to set aside a contribution every year for disaster relief. These funds are automatically directed toward Give2Asia’s local partners when a disaster strikes in an area of their interest. With Give2Asia’s due diligence process and network of field advisors across Asia, this ensures a quick response while eliminating concerns about corruption, capacity and cultural insensitivity. Some of these arrangements also involve the establishment of employee giving funds and incorporate matching gift programs.

Both of these approaches ease the burden on donors while directing funds to affected communities as quickly as possible. Give2Asia and other similar groups such as The Resource Foundation and King Baudouin Foundation US can help donors find a strategy that will meet their disaster relief goals quickly - but it is much easier and more effective to begin making those arrangements before a disaster strikes.

It is important to note that because each disaster is a unique event, short and long-term recovery needs can be difficult to predict, whereas relief needs tend to be universal. Give2Asia does not recommend this approach for recovery programs, where local input, assessment and context are critical. Rather, this approach is ideal for relief, where quick action can save lives.