Giving After Disaster? Still Need to Think Strategically...
President & CEO, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors
In the wake of a disaster, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal, philanthropists naturally want to take action. If ever philanthropy should step up to help, many donors believe, it is in such times of dire and unexpected need. However, donor urgency to act can lead to mistakes. In the confusion and uncertainty following a disaster, the haste to do “something” can end up creating more harm than good.
To this end, we offer some key thoughts to consider—a way to respond thoughtfully as well as quickly in crisis situations.
1. Prepare - Emergencies don’t eliminate the need for planning and strategy, they heighten it. The trick is not to wait until the emergency is upon you. Some donors create their own crisis plan with specific roles and specialized resources. In developing guidelines, some questions to consider include: In what stage of the recovery timeline do you fit in? To what types of disaster will you respond? Are there streamlined decision-making processes in place for such situations?
2. Be quick, but don’t hurry – Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used this phrase often to characterize an approach that combined readiness and responsiveness with good judgment. Solid research, cogent analysis and the ability to say no to a poorly thought-out proposal are all hallmarks of good crisis giving. It’s natural to feel an emotional pull to take action. But the impact of any action will be enhanced by taking time to learn the specifics of a disaster.
3. Waste not - The stories of misdirected emergency aid are as common as they are painful. Low priority aid can clog transport, storage and distribution and slow urgently needed supplies. Donors should keep in mind that cash grants are often much more useful than goods unless those goods come in response to a specific and credible request. And grants designated for general operating support can provide much needed flexibility and stability during times of crisis.
4. Communicate & Collaborate - Information is king during a disaster. But initial news reports can be misleading and needs often change dramatically from day to day. Updates should come from trusted local sources and informants. Donors can be active in seeking out local partners and NGOs already working in the disaster zone, not only to find out what is going on and what people need, but to ask if their ideas for philanthropic support might be useful. Philanthropists also can work with peers to pool funds and share information.
5. Consider the Longer Term - Communities recover from disasters over many years and yet crisis philanthropy often focuses only on the short term. Sending the vast majority of resources into the disaster area in the very early stages can have significant drawbacks. Often, an effective approach is to split funding – initially supporting the capacity of groups that are already mobilized and deferring part of a grant for weeks or months to see what important needs remain after the first wave of relief aid. Communities eventually need to plan and rebuild, and philanthropists with the patience to fund these longer term efforts can make a huge difference.
6. Increase impact by being flexible – Consider doing things differently in light of a particular crisis. The ability to improvise can prove valuable as a disaster changes over time. One important element of donor flexibility is being willing to support local institutions that affected populations know and trust, which may not always be the kind of nonprofits that you are used to funding. Building on existing capacity in a community affected by a disaster is important to long-term recovery and future preparedness.
7. Do your due diligence – Many philanthropists wonder if they should give money to a big organization like the Red Cross in response to a crisis or if they should try to keep within the framework they’ve built for funding smaller organizations. There is no simple answer. Support to major aid organizations is vital. At the same time, philanthropists should keep in mind that big international relief organizations sometimes receive more contributions for a specific disaster than they can spend. There may be organizations you already know working to help affected populations whose response efforts you could support. These trusted partners may also be a valuable source of useful information.
Like with any kind of giving, having clarity around values, motivations and goals will help donors create a successful disaster relief strategy. It’s impossible to predict exactly how a region will bounce back from adversity or what aid will be most effective, but one thing is certain: philanthropy has a role to play in recovering from every disaster. And donors who balance courage with prudence will always contribute to those efforts.
Melissa Berman is CEO and President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors