The great collision of 2020: Philanthropy’s moment is here


Alan Kwok


We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn this moment of focused attention, collective commitment to social justice, and unprecedented wealth into big, lasting change for communities hardest hit by the triple crises of racism, COVID-19, and wildfires in the US West Coast. Working hand in glove with government partners, philanthropy’s nimble capital can go where it’s needed most: to prevent nature’s hazards from becoming human disasters. Generations of disinvestment in communities of color, especially Black and Latinx communities, has left them in the deadly crosshairs of natural hazards. Funders have relational, political, and financial capital ready to deploy.

We at Northern California Grantmakers we have two messages for the sector:

  1. Wildfires, earthquakes, and floods are natural hazards, not natural disasters. Society, not nature, creates disasters.
  2. With upstream investments, communities can safeguard themselves against the collision between natural hazards such as wildfires and racism.

First, wildfires and other natural hazards do not cause disasters. Wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and viruses have long been here, and we—individuals, organizations, governments—have made decisions that put certain people in vulnerable conditions so they are unable to adequately prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural hazards. For instance, the virus that causes COVID-19 is a natural hazard, but the socio-economic and public health crises that follow are a disaster created by decision-makers long before the pandemic. Decades of under-investment and denial of resources in communities of color in health, housing, education, and workforce access and equity have created conditions that make Black and Brown folks more susceptible to contracting, spreading, and suffering from the disease. Only our actions can address the root causes of disasters.

Second, the U.S. philanthropic sector spends two-thirds of its total disaster grantmaking to support disaster relief. Significant philanthropic dollars are going to emergency relief for COVID-19 and wildfire relief. Even as we rise to meet these immediate challenges, we must shift our funding to center people closest to the harm so we can prevent wildfires and other natural hazards from becoming disasters.

Investing solely in disaster relief preserves power in the hands of those with political and financial resources and exacerbates racial, gender, and economic inequities, because disaster relief doesn’t resolve the conditions that cause vulnerability in the first place. If we continue to spend only when disasters hit, we are simply maintaining power imbalances, preserving wealth in the hands of people with the greatest protection from harm, and leaving communities of color to cope with the aftermath for which they’ve not had the resources to prepare. Disaster relief is just that—relief—it doesn’t change conditions that put people and communities in vulnerable situations in the first place.

Vulnerabilities of this Moment
Racially-motivated housing policies have created heat islands in communities of color and higher natural hazard risks for low-income communities across cities in the U.S. These communities are now more likely to live in places with higher wildfire risks and exposure to wildfire smoke.

With income and wealth as the key predictors of disaster resilience, the grim reality is that people of color are less resourced to prepare for, respond to, and recover from hazard events. The events themselves then further exacerbate economic disparities along racial lines, in which disaster policies increase wealth for white folks while Black and Latinx folks lose significant wealth. The costlier the natural hazard event, the bigger the racial wealth gap. You can learn more about that from our recent event here.

While we don’t yet know how COVID-19 will impact income and wealth accumulation by communities of color in the long-term, we do know that Black and Latinx folks are disproportionately affected by job losses, small business closures, food and housing insecurity, and adverse health impacts. Similarly, we saw these trends in previous wildfire disasters in California, particularly that undocumented Californians and Californians of color were most affected by loss of housing, job displacement, and smoke-induced health impacts.

Rethinking disaster investments: Tackling vulnerabilities
As a sector, we have the know-how to tackle vulnerabilities and hazard-induced racial inequities through investments that address challenges resulting from climate change and disasters. We must increase our investments upstream to reduce vulnerability by building power and mitigating natural hazard risks. Together we can do that by:

1. Building power for financial strength
Decades of divestment in communities of colour mean the ability to attain economic security is determined largely by zip code. Turning policies around that advance economic justice requires philanthropic support to build community power. To shift the power, we must include people of color in the decision-making and ensure governments are accountable to them. My own research shows that building community power leads to long-term policy and structural changes that lead to greater community resilience for a range of societal hazards, whether they are financial downturns or wildfires. Every foundation can take part in building community power through supporting advocacy efforts and building the capacity of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led organisations.

2. Reducing community risks to natural hazards
Wildfires have affected over two dozen counties and millions of people across the state. In preparation for the wildfire season, Philanthropy California and our partners at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, Resources Legacy Fund, Vibrant Planet, and Smart Growth California recently hosted Building Wildfire Resilience, a series of programs to educate funders about building wildfire resiliency in the West.

The series surfaced several investment streams: 

  • Build diverse state- and federal-level coalitions for policy change centered on prescribed fire, tribal leadership, land use planning for wildland-urban interface, community resilience, and wildfire prevention funding.
  • Advance technological solutions through early fire detection, evacuation planning, alert systems, real-time air quality monitoring, smart grid, etc.
  • Ensure land use planning and building retrofits reduce wildfire threats to existing communities and direct development toward less risky environments.
  • Implement solutions to address long-standing social inequities, including vulnerabilities to wildfire smoke, access to health care, access to home hardening resources, access to community-based electricity, and more.
  • Harness market mechanisms to build wildfire resilience such as forest restoration bonds and opportunities to influence the insurance industry so that the risk from a wildfire is embedded in development costs.
  • Create workforce opportunities and economic transition for job creation and sustainable well-paying work.

Choosing to Act
Philanthropy has responded generously and rapidly. The collision of COVID-19 spread, racial injustice, and wildfires present philanthropy with an opportunity to act in unison to build power and reduce natural hazard risks where it will do the most good: in the communities bearing the greatest risks and cost. We must work with other sectors—government, private, and nonprofit—to harness our resources, experience, connections, and agility to catalyse community-driven solutions. As Ilan Kelman, a disaster researcher argues, ‘Vulnerability cannot be eliminated unless those who can, choose to act.’ As a sector, we are built for this. It is philanthropy’s moment to act.

Alan Kwok, PhD, Director of Disaster Resilience, Northern California Grantmakers/Philanthropy California

This article was originally published by the Northern California Grantmakers on 16 September 2020.

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