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Natural Disaster Philanthropy

Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

2017 has been a terrible year for natural disasters around the world: earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, fires and floods have impacted people across the US and abroad in unprecedented numbers. Many funders would like to help victims of natural disasters but may not know the best ways to invest to have maximum impact.

Following are some considerations:

Maintain flexible funding reserves for disasters – Foundations may have rigid guidelines that clarify funding limitations including parameters such as geographic boundaries, types of grants and grant size, how grant funds may be used, when grants can be made, etc. Because disasters are generally unexpected, some funders set aside funds that can be used for emergency purposes. These relief funds can be free from many of the restrictions that typical grant programs have.

Connect with other funders and consult experts – Disaster funding is a new endeavor for many funders and donors and best practice can be outside of their general grantmaking expertise. It is therefore important to understand how others, especially experts and seasoned disaster funders, address this type of giving. Community foundations located in areas that have been affected may also be able to channel funds to the most effective service providers.

Provide long-term recovery support - Immediate needs such as emergency medical care, shelter, clothing and food are of course important. Donations surge in the aftermath of a disaster. However, virtually all disaster-related giving stops within three months after a catastrophic event. Long-term recovery can be more challenging than immediate relief. It can take months or years to restore a community impacted by a natural disaster, but once the media decreases its coverage, people tend to forget that there is still a significant need for response. Long-term issues such as housing, repairing infrastructure, restoring local services, or employment do not pull on the heartstrings of donors as much as immediate needs. Multi-year donations and continued investment in an impacted community are incredibly important.

Consider ongoing healthcare needs – Besides the immediate injuries that people may suffer, outbreaks of communicable diseases can rise exponentially. Where there is a loss of power, structural damage or flooding, there is a probability that toxic substances such as asbestos or lead will be released into water supplies or become airborne. Symptoms related to illnesses caused by toxin exposure can take years to appear and illnesses can be irreversible. Mental health needs also skyrocket after a disaster and are often underfunded.

Channel support to specific high-risk subpopulations – Groups like the medically fragile, elderly, disabled populations or the homeless are critically in need during times of catastrophe, especially when the services for which they depend are interrupted. If a funder’s giving priorities are focused on a specific social or health service or subpopulation in need, it can consider supporting local organizations that cater to this population.

Don’t forget about disaster planning and preparedness - Many funders don’t consider providing funding for disaster preparedness; however, communities that have comprehensive planning, especially those at-risk for certain disasters, have been shown to have significantly less deaths and injuries as well as property and infrastructure damage. Being prepared therefore reduces the need for short-term and long-term funding assistance. Private philanthropy can play a huge role in ensuring that losses are at a minimum by providing funds to improve and implement high quality preparedness plans.


Center for Disaster Recovery


Florida Philanthropic Network

New York Times

ALN Magazine

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