June 17, 2019

4 Strategies for Impactful Disaster Relief Giving

Author Joan Allmaras, Philanthropic Services Associate

When disasters strike, the immediate reaction is often “How can I help?” Finding the answer to that question can be overwhelming and paralyzing, from researching organizations to deciding how much to give. Access to news from every corner of the world can make it seem that tragedy is constant and unavoidable, but there are a few strategies to keep in mind to ensure your giving makes the most impact.


1. Recognize the multiple phases of natural disasters.

The disaster life cycle includes four phases:

Mitigation – Efforts such as risk analysis for future events.

Preparedness – The phase immediately before a disaster hits, characterized by activities such as preparing sandbags for a flood or stockpiling food and water in advance of a snowstorm.

Response – Most of us are familiar with the response phase, when the focus is on saving lives and minimizing damage in the immediate aftermath of an emergency.

Recovery – The work to return a community to its pre-disaster state, including rebuilding of homes, businesses, and other infrastructure.

Not all disasters experience these phases in the same time frame or even in the same order. For instance, floods are slow-moving disasters, giving communities a chance to focus on preparedness in advance of floodwaters. Tornadoes, on the other hand, occur suddenly and with little warning, leaving mere minutes to prepare.

Understandably, most philanthropic assistance focuses on the immediate response to a disaster, when public attention is at its highest. Research by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and Foundation Center found that one-third of total giving is completed less than four weeks after a sudden disaster, and two-thirds of giving is done within two months. By the time recovery efforts are underway, donations have nearly ceased.[1]

But donations during the phases of recovery, mitigation, and preparedness can have tremendous impact. A study from the National Institute of Building Sciences found that in the United States, every $1 the federal government spent on natural disaster mitigation efforts saved $6 in future costs, in addition to hundreds of lives saved and the creation of thousands of new jobs.[2] Given the remarkable return on investment, mitigation efforts can provide an opportunity for philanthropy to make a significant impact, especially in areas that are prone to seasonal weather events such as hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes.


2. Support long-term efforts as well as immediate needs.

In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, cash is the best donation. Needs can change swiftly, and those working on the ground are best equipped to determine what those needs are.

However, when you are moved to give in the days following a disaster, consider also making an equivalent donation to long-term recovery or prevention efforts, or directing your donation to an organization that also addresses the other phases of a disaster. Much like mitigation of natural disasters can have an enormous return on investment, giving to long-term projects can minimize damage in the future. While an Ebola outbreak requires immediate investment to support hospitals, healthcare workers, and other logistics, for example, a simultaneous donation to research into treatment and prevention of the disease could help ensure future outbreaks are far less severe.

Donations made soon after disaster hits can still be directed to long-term recovery efforts. Hurricanes Florence and Michael decimated the southern United States coast six months ago, and communities are still just beginning to rebuild. Even areas of New York and New Jersey are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, which struck six years ago. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has a number of funds to address mid- and long-term recovery efforts in a variety of geographic areas, and community foundations often maintain funds for rebuilding long past immediate media coverage.


3. Beware of scams.

Unfortunately, tragedies often spark an increase in bogus charitable organizations looking to take advantage of well-intentioned individuals. Resources such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator provide information such as financial statements and IRS filings that can help you determine if an organization is legitimate.

Community foundations in the affected areas can also be great resources. When tragedy strikes, these organizations often set up recovery funds that are granted out over a longer time period to trusted nonprofit partners working directly in the affected geographic area. Or, if you prefer to give directly, community foundations can provide a wealth of information regarding reputable local organizations.


4. Build disaster relief into your philanthropic budget.

It is not a matter of if but when disasters will occur. Consider setting aside a percentage or amount of your annual giving for immediate disaster relief, then re-balancing your giving portfolio as needed. If your philanthropic strategy focuses on a particular sector, support organizations working in that topic area. For instance, if your philanthropy supports health-related causes, consider giving to hospitals or other organizations working to contain a sudden disease outbreak. As another example, donors focused on education might assist with rebuilding schools damaged by a natural disaster.


NPT is here to help.

By using your donor-advised fund to help when and where tragedy strikes, you can be assured that your dollars will go directly to legitimate organizations that are making the most impact. NPT handles the due diligence necessary to ensure that the charity you wish to support – whether local or global – is operating legally. NPT also has multiple channels to help you support international charities, so no matter where disaster hits, we can help you give.

If you’re not sure where to start, our Philanthropic Services team can help you determine your giving goals. We’re here to help you help others.

[1] https://disasterphilanthropy.candid.org/

[2] https://www.nibs.org/news/381874/National-Institute-of-Building-Sciences-Issues-New-Report-on-the-Value-of-Mitigation.htm