The Vital Role of Individual Giving in Disaster Funding

Regine Webster

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, how to approach this work with an equity and community-based mindset, and what individual donors can do to help.

The world is awash with disasters — flooding in Kentucky, the war in Ukraine, the rapid spread of monkeypox, a pending famine crisis in the Horn of Africa and many, many more. As well-informed individuals, we eat up these news feeds along with our eggs and cereal each morning.

For many of us, it can be overwhelming. How does one respond? Does it even matter if we do or not? It can feel futile, given that whatever we donate individually and collectively cannot come close to the vast amounts of resources needed to help communities recover from these disasters.

But the truth is, it does matter, and there are several things you can do to mobilize your giving before, during, and after disasters.

Organizational funding for disaster recovery

We know from research conducted by Candid in collaboration with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), where I work, that governments donate millions of dollars to support disaster recovery. Specifically, our report, “Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy: Data to Drive Decisions 2021,” reveals that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) provided $22 billion in official development assistance to disaster-affected areas worldwide. Furthermore, non-DAC government donors and multilateral organizations contributed an additional $2.8 billion.

Here in the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed $3.2 billion for U.S. disasters; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $1 billion in recovery efforts in 2019 for disasters that took place in 2017; and the U.S. Economic Development Administration invested approximately $381.7 million in disaster-related projects.

We also know from that same body of research that foundations and public charities donate between $250 and $400 million annually, not including giving for the COVID-19 pandemic.

But where do individual donors intersect with disaster giving and disaster recovery? What roles do individuals play in investing in the response and recovery of natural hazards?

As it turns out, the answer is that they play a HUGE role.

Our urge to give after disasters

The “U.S. Household Disaster Giving Report” by the Lilly School of Family Philanthropy, in close partnership with CDP and Candid, noted three primary reasons that drive individuals to donate to a particular disaster:

First and foremost is the magnitude of a disaster. Bluntly put, disasters that affect large geographies with large populations and widespread devastation prompt a massive response. For example, the large-scale devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 drove millions of individuals to contribute millions of dollars.

Second is “connection to place.” If you and your family went to the Florida Keys every summer, if your family is Puerto Rican or if you had a home in the Bahamas, the likelihood that you would donate to support recovery following a devastating hurricane like Irma, Maria, or Dorian increases dramatically.

The third factor is media attention. Individuals are influenced by the amount of media coverage given to a particular event.

The same report shows that 30% of U.S. households made disaster-related donations in 2017 and 2018. These households, on average, each gave $80 for a total of approximately $3 billion. That is an astounding amount!

We also know that individual generosity can come in the form of mutual aid, volunteering, and other non-monetary charitable giving to meet urgent needs.

With the crush of disasters and humanitarian crises happening in parallel with one another, some may scratch their heads and wonder where individual donors can “dig in” and be most effective. In my view, every single dollar donated or hour volunteered helps pave the road to an equitable recovery for disaster affected communities. My colleague, Devin Mathias, once told me, “Communities come together to help neighbors when disaster strikes. Likewise, donors of all types and giving levels have a greater impact coming together through an organization like CDP, who can help the gifts fill the gaps in funding for a recovering community.”

Individual donors help fill gaps. Their donations are largely unrestricted, enabling organizations that respond to disasters to allocate the dollars where they are most needed. They are driven by a balance of passion and compassion. And, I believe that they are driven by the knowledge that disasters can strike anywhere and at any time.

Harnessing passion, compassion, and knowledge in disaster giving

While the magnitude of the disaster, the connection to place, and media attention may disproportionately sway the individual donor into supporting big disaster, donors should pay attention to these additional ways to have transformative impact:

  1. Give in response to local and low-attention disasters.

Not all disasters become regional or national headlines. These low-attention disasters are often in rural, isolated or small communities that are already under-resourced on a good day. Disasters recovery often takes months, if not years for these communities.

As Donna Callejon, Interim CEO of Global Giving describes it, “Individual donors are vital to disaster response. It’s essential that funding is diversified so that if any one source of support wanes, projects for a recovering community can continue”.

  1. Give before and after a disaster

Shore up a community’s ability to respond and recover equitably. Individual donors’ unrestricted support before a disaster can help organizations build the capacity and expertise to provide immediate and longer-term assistance to members of their communities and the larger community to get back on their feet. Barbara O’Reilly, founder and principal of Windmill Hill Consulting once said, “When it comes to disasters, donors need to take the long view. It is natural to want to respond to an emergency with a contribution right away. But disasters are long and complex. So ongoing financial support long after the disaster leaves the news cycle is even more important.”

  1. Give to community-based organizations that serve marginalized communities

Communities of color, low-income individuals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized and underserved populations are more vulnerable to the impacts of disasters because of systemic inequities and injustice. Donors can boost their impact by finding and supporting organizations closest to the problem and accountable to the communities they serve.

Grassroots groups such as mutual aid organizations, direct service organizations, and locally-led organizations often have programs designed by members of the most affected communities.

Intermediaries such as community foundations and pooled funds with a track record of working responsibly and equitably with disaster-affected communities are also available to steward your donations.

I invite donors to give in ways that provide communities hit by disasters with resources for immediate and long-term needs, and to have faith in the efficacy of their giving. Big and small donations can be transformative for the communities on the long road to recovery after a disaster.

Regine A. Webster is vice president at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Follow @funds4disaster on Twitter.

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