Responding to natural disasters: as the unexpected becomes more common


Strategic Philanthropy

Hilda Vega

Hilda Vega

In the midst of the media coverage exploring different angles of the situation in Haiti one year after the earthquake, there has also been coverage of recent natural disasters including the floods in Brazil and Australia (and, to a lesser extent, flooding in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa).

As we know, making quick decisions in response to emergency situations is becoming increasingly complicated due to both the overwhelming number of natural disasters we are seeing around the world and the many organizations vying for our attention. Sometimes we feel confident about where our money goes. In a study released by Charity Navigator, 60 per cent of donors surveyed felt confident or somewhat confident that their gifts had been appropriately spent by the charity (or charities) they selected. This confidence is owed in large part to the fact that most Haiti relief and recovery donors made gifts to organizations with which they already had a relationship.

But even this confidence has its detractors. Many donors and disaster response professionals have been openly critical about the lack of progress in providing basic services – such as homes, healthcare and safety – to Haitians (this topic is explored in depth in a recent article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy). The reasons for such poor progress in Haiti are complex but not entirely unique to this particular situation; we have learned over the years that good intentions do not always translate into appropriate, efficient and culturally relevant solutions on the ground.

This combination of factors (ie an overwhelming series of disasters, the large number of organizations seeking assistance, and concern over how to help most effectively) prompted us to work with some of our clients last year to develop specific disaster response strategies.

These family foundations felt compelled to respond to the need presented by the destructive earthquake in Haiti, but had not previously funded work there. Building on past experiences, our staff conducted inquiries with organizations that our clients had already funded, to engage in some form of disaster response. By understanding which groups were responding in Haiti and how they were targeting their resources, we were able to select a small number of grantmaking intermediaries to support. Our primary focus was on organizations with which we had a strong relationship and about which we already had essential information (number of staff, size of budget, ability to transfer funds quickly to partner organizations in other countries). In essence, we trusted these organizations and knew the money would be well spent.

Our clients also wanted to make sure they reached the most affected sectors of society, which meant that we needed to look at organizations we had not funded before. We began by researching groups with a history and presence in Haiti whose philosophies were based on partnership and equal participation of diverse Haitian communities. In this review we relied upon the relationships built through participation in grantmaking affinity groups and on peer recommendations. Selected organizations were then further screened for general alignment with our clients’ publicly shared vision and principles.

As a result of this process, our clients selected a small and trusted group of organizations in which to invest. To streamline our response time, we did not ask for proposals, but we did request one-year follow-up reports. After reviewing these reports, our clients feel that their donations were well spent to serve both short- and long-term efforts to help rebuild Haiti in a just and sustainable manner.

Internally, we used this experience to create and document a process that our clients can use to help them respond to future emergency situations. With established strategies for how to respond to emergencies, our clients can use this process to guide both research and decision-making in a way that allows for a rapid response reflecting their foundations’ interests and values.

Hilda Vega is senior advisor at Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd. Email

Tagged in: natural disasters response Strategic Philanthropy

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