How to respond when disaster hits

If there's one thing we have no shortage of these days, it is disasters: record-breaking heat and fires; cyclones and floods; ongoing drought; extreme weather linked to climate change. Grantmakers can support the victims and the agencies that work with them. When disaster hits, you don't have the chance to get everything right: you must balance the risks against your priorities and the urgency of people's needs.

In the midst of the crisis

Make use of local expertise

Local leaders, experts, community-based organisations and not-for-profit groups are first on the scene when disaster hits. They will know best what assistance is needed and they understand the local (and often complex) political, social and cultural context of the disaster. Use their skills and knowledge. Don't presume that you know better.

Ensure you understand the situation before taking action

Every disaster is different. Media reports can provide information, but they are no substitute for a professional assessment of disaster needs. Leverage existing relationships with not-for-profit partners in the local community if you can. However, do not visit an organisation unless funding is certain. Respect the strain on their time.

Be willing to take risks

Consider investing in organisations that have not previously received significant support. At the same time, don't feel pressured to make grants without carrying out any checks. It is unlikely that your funds will make a difference in the first 48 hours, when most casualties occur.

Share information with other funders

Fostering collaborative relationships and sharing ideas and funding opportunities can maximise the return on efforts and reduce the burden on the local community by reducing the number of contact points. Coordination can reduce duplication of effort, make efficient use of resources and ensure that the highest-priority needs are addressed first.

Locate staff in the affected area

They can get to know the ever-changing needs of recovering communities and provide practical support in the days immediately following a disaster. However, don't go to the area unless you mean to stay there and support the recovery. Having to take funders on tours of the damage increases the burden on the local community.

Be proactive

Make phone calls and offer support. If you don't have existing relationships in the region, talk to other funders. Don't give money to the largest institutions in the region simply in the hope that it will trickle down to those that are actually serving the communities in need.

Understand that cash assistance is nearly always preferable to donated goods

It allows for maximum flexibility to meet the highest priority needs and can be used to purchase required items in the disaster-affected area, boosting the local economy and minimising transport costs.

Modify your application process

Aim to minimise demands on not-for-profits in the weeks and months following a disaster. Loss of data, lack of basic equipment and decreased staffing may make it impossible for not-for-profit organisations to submit traditional applications.

Modify your reporting requirements

The same loss of data etc. can make it impossible for those organisations to fulfill typical reporting requirements. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Recognise the recovery time required following a disaster

It may take years, not weeks or months, for communities to return to pre-disaster levels of operation.

Do not force not-for-profit collaboration

Disaster recovery is not the time for not-for-profit organisations to be developing radically new programs. Collaboration between not-for-profits must occur organically and should not be forced.

In the aftermath

Defer a portion of grant dispersal

Rather than providing only short-term funding to the affected communities, wait to see which gaps need to be filled and provide medium- and long-term funding in those areas. There might be gaps between emergency relief and long-term development programs, for example.

Be accountable to those you are trying to help

Engage your grantees in a process that assesses social impact, not just how funds were spent.

Communicate your work

Highlighting examples of good disaster grantmaking is an excellent way for grantmakers to educate both internal and external audiences.

Thinking ahead

  • Support disaster prevention and preparedness activities.
  • Have a modified application process ready for times of crisis.
  • Link disaster grants to your organisation's mission, expertise or program focus.
  • Identify potential disaster grantee partners in advance.
  • Explore partnerships and cooperation with other grantmakers.
  • Establish guidelines and criteria for where and when your organisation will make disaster grants - but make them flexible enough to respond to unanticipated situations.
  • Set up streamlined internal decision-making procedures for disaster grants.
  • Develop a disaster plan for communicating with employees in the disaster area.

NOTE: This help sheet summarises and combines the recommendations of two reports produced (or updated) following Hurricane Katrina: Best Practices in Disaster Grantmaking: Lessons from the Gulf Coast and Disaster Grantmaking: A Practical Guide for Foundations and Corporations.