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Beyond Ukraine: Why Grantmakers Need to Address International Disasters

Date: July 26, 2022

Patricia McIlreavy

President and CEO, Center for Disaster Philanthropy

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From a global pandemic to the recent invasion of Ukraine, globally impactful disasters are an increasingly frequent part of our reality, and thus an important factor as funders consider grantmaking priorities and the funding landscape in which they operate. In light of these events and global trends that will make disasters of this scale and complexity imminent, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) reflects in this series on why grantmakers must consider disaster funding, what we’ve learned from the last two yearswhat individual donors can do to help in a disaster, and how to approach this work with an equity and community-based mindset.


A simple yet essential question regularly asked by philanthropy in developing their disaster giving strategy. It is a query that guides the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), which I lead, in determining where, when, and how to fund efforts that help communities prepare for and recover from a disaster.

We know that the disaster-giving demands on philanthropy will continue to increase. In their giving, some philanthropists may see the need to further their current focus on funding disasters originating from natural hazards, especially those that hit closer to home.

However, when the ripples of a complex crisis halfway around the world devastate and create life-threatening realities for people closer to home, this proximity becomes harder to define. And thus, I ask that you consider a “yes and” approach to your disaster-giving strategy, and I offer a few why’s of my own.

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: Where Crisis, Conflict, and Vulnerabilities Meet

How we define and speak of disasters is critical to helping to guide philanthropy. In simple terms, a disaster is when a hazard meets a vulnerability. Vulnerabilities can stem from root causes such as systemic inequities or power inequalities. Dynamic pressures, such as rapid urbanization or a lack of press freedom, and unsafe conditions, such as poor building codes or disease prevalence, are also sources of vulnerabilities.

Hazards, traditionally thought of as naturally occurring events, are the earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes that overwhelm communities. However, a list of disaster threats also includes war and conflict. The more vulnerabilities that exist, often exacerbated by governance breakdowns, the more significant the impact of the hazard. These contexts of spiraling needs are called complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs).

It takes only the most cursory glance at the news today to understand that disasters are increasing in scale and frequency. Last year, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reacted to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report by calling it a “code red for humanity.” Recently, the UN World Food Program warned of a “looming hunger catastrophe,” a crisis worsened by the pandemic and the Ukraine invasion and likely to create political, economic and social turmoil around the globe. This global hunger crisis will certainly exacerbate the already tenuous livelihoods of the peoples of Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Venezuela.

And yet, in CDP’s experience, CHEs are often severely underfunded. Our research has shown that donations happen for three reasons: personal nearness to the disaster, the scale of needs, and media coverage. For CHEs such as that created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an additional answer to “why” arises: the humanitarian imperative, the principle to address human suffering wherever it is found.

It is through recognizing the incredible generosity of philanthropy to a few CHEs over the past decades — the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now Ukraine — that we can see its glaring absence in other CHEs. When asked why more funding is not directed to the ongoing CHEs in Syria or the Horn of Africa, donors will often cite the challenges of working in these environments, the outsized risks, the protracted nature of the crisis and the concern over not being able to make a difference.

There is no denying the truth in the first three of these observations. CHEs can be challenging environments in which to work, but not impossible ones. Philanthropy can address their concerns by supporting partners proven to understand the country, context, and culture and who have strong connections with the community.

As to the last challenge, impact, I have over a fifteen years of direct experience living and working in countries in conflict and am a firm believer in the philosophy that not being able to help everyone should never stop us from helping those we can. As you explore how to help in CHEs, here are a few other suggestions to help guide and support your strategy:

Funding CHEs advances your organization’s equity journey.

The world over, systems and institutions perpetuate racism and marginalization for specific populations that disasters exacerbate. The incredible generosity displayed to Ukraine demonstrated for many that philanthropic funding could be forthcoming to CHEs, especially when scale, proximity, and media were in alignment.

Accompanying this observation was also a recognition of the incredible disparity in support for white Ukrainians compared to black and brown Yemenis, Sudanese, and the Rohingya, to name a few. To create a better world for all its peoples, we must address systemic social and political inequalities, including across nations, regardless of propinquity.

All disasters are complicated and protracted and may be closer than expected.

The impact of and recovery from disasters are long-term. In 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, there were 50.8 million people internally displaced due to violence or disasters from natural hazards, including 1.7 million Americans. Added to this number are the 27.1 million refugees and 4.6 million asylum seekers, with an average length of displacement of over 17 years. The pandemic and the impending hunger, climate, and economic crises threaten to increase these numbers and push others into poverty in the U.S. and worldwide.

While the solutions to these crises are political, it is incumbent upon those of us who can to help those affected. The disaster isn’t over when the event ends; it is over when a community recovers, which can take years or decades. Within an interconnected world, the help you offer far away today may benefit someone closer tomorrow.

Traditional funding is not enough.

Most funding for response and recovery activities in complex humanitarian emergencies comes from bilateral government assistance or United Nations appeal processes. Due to parliamentary restrictions and organizational missions, this funding is funneled into traditional programming that, while critical and lifesaving, struggles to be innovative and nimble.

At the same time, while philanthropic dollars remain a small percentage of the total, they are proven to challenge nonprofits to alter their approaches, fund local actors more efficiently, and drive change in the humanitarian sector. Through their engagement, philanthropy can pull attention to underfunded crises, call for more substantial equitable recovery outcomes in the earliest days of a disaster and reduce the need for future assistance through support for mitigation and preparedness.

Now that we know why philanthropy should fund within CHEs, the hard work of how and what commences. As with funding for disasters from natural hazards, keep your approach simple: find organizations whose work aligns with your mission; create internal systems that allow you to share or mitigate risks faced in the context; provide these organizations with multi-year funding in support of innovative programming and operational sustainability.

Through these actions, together we can deliver a better future for all.

Patricia McIlreavy is the President & CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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