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What Donors Can Learn From Past Disasters

January 21, 2010

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his previous post, he wrote about the late Brooke Astor's many contributions to and generous support for neighborhood development efforts in New York City.)

By a twist of fate, I was president of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (now Philanthropy New York) during both the Indian Ocean tsunami and hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The New York City area has the greatest concentration of international donors in the world. Major international foundations such as the Atlantic Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, Open Society Institute, and Rockefeller Foundation, and multinational corporations such as Citigroup, American Express, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, among others, are all based in the metropolitan area.

As a result of their presence, it was clear to us at NYRAG that we had an important role to play in galvanizing a philanthropic response to disasters outside our area. At the same time, the efforts of NYRAG members after 9/11 had resulted in a number of important lessons for donors that could be applied to other disasters.

By the time the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated communities from Thailand to Kenya, private donors had recognized that traditional governmental mechanisms and "first-line" responders such as the Red Cross were no longer enough to respond effectively to a major international disaster. Individual donors, foundations, and corporate donors were all needed to ensure that affected communities had the resources at their disposal to rebuild. Indeed, much can be gleaned from the experiences of grantmakers that responded to those two disasters -- experiences that can serve as guideposts for the massive charitable effort under way to help the people and nation of Haiti.

Key lessons:

1. Donors have to be prepared for engagement over the long haul. There are four distinct stages before and after a natural disaster that warrant donor investment: preparedness, immediate relief, recovery, and reconstruction. While dramatic and heart-wrenching images of suffering drive us to want to act immediately after a disaster, New York foundations learned after the 9/ll attacks on the World Trade Center how important it was to also focus on the post-relief recovery period, when a disaster ceases to command the attention of the media and charitable interest among the general public wanes.

2. Disasters beyond our borders affect us in ways we could not have imagined just a few decades ago. Due to affordable air travel, the rapid growth of diaspora communities, the immense popularity of social networking, and instant global communications and the Internet, a disaster in almost any country affects New Yorkers (and many other Americans) directly. Matters of nationality suddenly fade in importance, and community and locally based foundations find that many of their existing grantees and donors have ties to and/or an active interest in the country that has suffered the disaster. In my own case, although I never lived in Haiti, my two trips to Port-au-Prince in the early 1970s left me with a lifetime interest in and commitment to the well-being of the Haitian people.

3. There are different appropriate charitable beneficiaries at each stage of the relief/recovery/rebuilding process. Many individual and institutional donors rely on a "one-stop giving" approach -- support a single organization that promises to be engaged in both the short- and long-term work needed to rebuild a community/region/country after a disaster of mammoth proportions occurs. Such beneficiaries are unusual, in that few organizations have the experience and competence to do both. Decide what's important to you -- and do your due diligence.

4. Local community-based nongovernmental organizations are critical to any recovery effort. While often overlooked and even ignored by members of the international donor community, unaffiliated local organizations that work in specific neighborhoods and communities are integral to the success of long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts. I can't emphasize this enough. And foundation and corporate donors with a history in a particular region or country are vital resources for those who want to find these groups. After the Indian Ocean tsunami, Ford Foundation staff in Jakarta and Nairobi served a valuable intermediaries to these kinds of local NGOs.

5. Well-intentioned but uninformed efforts can do more harm than good. I vividly recall the story told to me by the leader of a nongovernmental organization in a part of rural Thailand that found itself in the path of the tsunami. He recounted how local clothes merchants were driven out of business after the disaster by the sudden availability of free clothes shipped to the region from the West. While donors are generally encouraged to send cash rather than goods, many individuals and organizations continue to send clothing, which can inadvertently create hardships for local tradespeople.

In reading and watching news about the disaster in Haiti over the last week, I have been comforted by the overwhelming charitable response and the heroic actions of so many. What would make me really happy, however, would be to see all sectors of the philanthropic community -- individual donors, foundations, companies, faith communities, and civic associations -- focus their money and efforts on identifying the community-based NGOs that have long served the Haitian people and, at the same time, make a commitment to supporting the long-haul investment that Haiti will need to recover from this epic disaster.

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by Allison Fine  |   January 21, 2010 at 05:28 PM

This is a terrifically informative post, Michael, thanks so much for sharing your experience and wisdom.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   January 22, 2010 at 04:08 PM

Thanks, Allison for your wonderful comments. It means a lot.

I hate to see the wheel re-invented every time a disaster occurs, and am always concerned that local ngo's/cbo's are acknowledged for their important work.

Be well,


Posted by Kristen Ruff  |   January 25, 2010 at 03:48 PM

Thank you, Michael, for reminding us of important lessons learned from previous disasters.

We have created a section on our website (http://www.philanthropynewyork.org/haiti) where funders can find relevant announcements from New York-area foundations and corporations, disaster grantmaking best practices, and other resources we hope funders will find helpful as they consider both short- and long-term strategies.

Kristen Ruff, Philanthropy New York

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   January 26, 2010 at 04:27 PM

Dear Kristen:

Thank you so much for bringing to the attention of other PHILANTOPIC readers this valuable resource available through Philanthropy New York's website. We cannot afford for any donors to reinvent the wheel, since the stakes are so high in Haiti. Donors can glean much insight into effective grantmaking from the informed decisions of the foundations and corporations who have been involved in other human disasters.

Michael Seltzer

Posted by Matt_solis  |   August 20, 2010 at 08:12 PM

It’s easier to work towards your own interests than working together as a group to solve a problem. It's even harder to unite other countries with different global agendas towards a common goal.

There's a lot of thought provoking video clips regarding complexity and how global problems become almost impossible to solve on a Facebook community page

Why do we have a tendency to fight one another when we know sharing results in the most optimum outcome for everyone? Why does our biology cause us to hurt the ones we love, hoard resources and compete with one another?

Heres the link to the video

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