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Disaster Philanthropy: What Matters

January 12, 2016

Few foundations think of themselves as disaster funders … until the next disaster strikes. Their desire to be strategic and have impact leads them to shun program areas and ways of working that are reactive in nature. But the desire to help those in need is so hard-wired into foundations' DNA that many cannot help making emergency grants when news is dominated by coverage of the next big disaster. So they act quickly as the situation demands, though frequently with little knowledge of who the experienced funders are, what approaches work best, and how their giving fits into what Bob Ottenhoff of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy calls "the mosaic of funding," formed by the collective (but uncoordinated) efforts of corporations, governments, online givers, and other foundations.

Disaster-philanthropy-2015And that is precisely what makes Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy from the Center for Disaster for Philanthropy and Foundation Center so valuable. Rich in data and trends, this new online data dashboard, funding map, and report (PDF, 28 pages) frames disaster philanthropy as an emerging field mobilizing billions of dollars around the world. In them we learn that there are different types of disasters (natural, man-made, and humanitarian) and different strategic approaches to addressing them (resilience, preparedness, relief, and recovery). These and the accompanying sub-categories provide funders with an essential framework that enables them to be intentional and strategic about disasters in much the same way they are about their other funding priorities.

The report, my own long experience as a funder, and, more recently, as president of Foundation Center, sparked a few thoughts about foundation giving in response to disasters and what matters.

Media matters — Every year disasters occur around the world that we hear little or nothing about. But the ones that strike in or near our own backyard and dominate the news media are the ones that drive the lion's share of philanthropic giving. It's impossible to fund something about which you never hear and difficult to fund that which, because of lack of information, you can't understand.

Disaster type matters — The report shows that the overwhelming majority of U.S. foundation giving for disasters, some 68 percent, goes toward natural disasters, primarily storms. That makes sense. Storms strike quickly, are often devastating, and their victims did nothing to deserve the death, suffering, and havoc they create. The need is clear and funders respond. This contrasts with complex humanitarian emergencies, which are difficult to understand and frequently progress from emergencies into the types of long-term crises foundations feel they cannot effectively address. Even less support is given to what the report refers to as "man-made accidents" because when it comes to oil spills or factory disasters, foundations understandably feel that the primary burden for response should lie with the companies, governments, or others responsible for the accident in the first place.

Disaster location matters — The outpouring of foundation funding for the earthquake in Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world, far outstripped foundation funding for the tsunami in Japan, one of the richest. But there was significant corporate giving in the case of Japan, driven in part by commercial interests. When Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard of the U.S., both foundations and corporations came to the aid of victims.

Strategy matters — Of the four types of strategies outlined in the report, foundation giving trends toward "response and relief." But this could begin to change with the kind of longitudinal information Foundation Center has begun to provide and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy's efforts to professionalize the field of disaster philanthropy. Future studies may well show increased interest in funding different inflection points in the full cycle of disasters — resilience, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Small foundations matter — The report shows that many small foundations respond when disasters strike and that the agility afforded by their lack of bureaucracy can be a real asset when speed is of the essence. In some cases, we see foundations with little or no previous record of international giving making grants for relief or recovery in other parts of the world. Although this has not been deeply researched, it seems evident that some of this giving is driven by the growing presence of immigrant populations in major metropolitan areas. As disasters and economic globalization increasingly dislocate entire peoples, we may well see an increase in this type of giving.

Funder type matters — While foundations like Rockefeller, Cargill, and Conrad Hilton have sought to address the full cycle of disasters or concentrate on what the report calls "complex humanitarian emergencies," the latter tends to be the focus of governmental funding and bilateral aid. Syria, for example, ranked second only to "unspecified" (government data is not always precise!) in the report with regard to global government aid spending related to disasters.

This is what Bob Ottenhoff was talking about when he used the term "mosaic of funding." As the Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy report describes, disasters are complex, and while some demand an immediate response aimed at alleviating suffering, others that unfold slowly and have effects that can last for generations require a longer-term approach. Foundations, with their agility and independence; governments, with their enormous resources and infrastructure; and emerging online giving platforms, with their people-to-people connection, all have a role to play. All that is missing is to see this as a whole rather than disconnected parts. Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy is an important step in the right direction.

Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. In his previous post, he wrote about the reluctance many of foundations to entertain unsolicited proposals – and what foundations and nonprofits can do about it.

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