We Are All Disaster Philanthropists

Patricia McIlreavy

At the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), we say that all philanthropists are disaster philanthropists seeking to strengthen communities.

Prior to 2020, this adage was a way to remind donors that no matter their focus or mission, there was a tie-in for them in supporting a community’s response to and recovery from a disaster. But with the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying crises, philanthropy’s role in aiding society has reached new heights of relevance.

Where do root causes end and disasters begin?

Recent research from CDP and Candid finds that, in the face of COVID-19, funders have leaned in and are working for the good of others like never before. With more than $11.9 billion awarded for COVID-19 response globally, many grantmakers and major donors have demonstrated that not only can they be generous in a crisis, but they can lead others by showing how to help as well.

Philanthropy’s substantial response to the pandemic is unique in disaster-related giving as institutional funders and major donors have not traditionally seen a central role for themselves in responding to disasters. More focused on the long view of addressing the root causes of society’s ills, many in philanthropy often defer to government agencies, such as FEMA, to both tackle the immediate suffering caused by disasters and support the long path to recovery that follows (which most often occurs out of the spotlight).

However, the concurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a movement for racial justice powered with new urgency, and numerous disasters from natural hazards across the United States are forcing all of us to question if this bifurcated approach is working.

Many of my colleagues in the sector have written about the need for philanthropy to shift from being verbal allies for societal change to active advocates, such as ABFE’s call to action, signed by more than 60 Black foundation chief executives, urging philanthropy to stem anti-Black racism. We need a similar transformation in how grantmakers and donors perceive their role in responding immediately to disasters, supporting equitable recovery, and boosting communities’ capacity to withstand future catastrophes.

While working with communities during the recovery period following a disaster is the norm for CDP, we decided that it was vital to support COVID-19 response efforts that provided immediate aid and relief to those most impacted. You can imagine our surprise, then, that some of the “immediate needs” identified by communities were all about long-term approaches to addressing societal ills. Sound familiar?

In our approach to response and recovery, we must recognize that some communities are more vulnerable to disasters due to structural inequalities and discrimination. Projects that address food deserts, healthcare gaps, and child-care needs should focus on individuals often left furthest behind or at specific risk — including immigrants, low-income families, and Indigenous people — and explore how to mitigate those risks.

We need to fund programs that lessen the impact of natural hazards and help affected people recover and build back better. For example, if your organization supports education, in a post-hurricane environment you might look beyond rebuilding the brick and mortar of a school and seek to address the achievement gap. If you are focused on housing issues, you might address mortgage redlining and recognize that homes are often a critical component of safe and healthy learning environments for children.

Start with localization and build from there

Disaster philanthropy isn’t always easy, but it starts with trusting those closest to the crisis to guide your approach.

In our COVID-19 response, CDP listened to local organizations working with affected communities during the pandemic and sought their guidance. What we heard steered us to programming that recognizes the interconnectivity of immediate needs and longer-term solutions, and that works to address both.

For example, CDP funded food security projects that provide for the immediate needs of meal distribution centers or food banks and also reinforce local agro-economies by purchasing supplies from small-scale farmers. Additionally, we provided support for rights-based advocacy, mass media, and educational programming to help ensure that communities have access to vital information about the pandemic. These efforts went even further by explaining how healthcare issues, the 2020 Census, and voting were essential to building these communities’ power and future well-being.

The pandemic is an experiential equalizer. We all now know how it feels when a disaster enters our home, our family, and our community — uninvited and unwanted. Even our capacity to manage the disaster is a shared experience. It is no different whether the hazard is an illness, fire, wind, or rain — it will affect everyone individually.

There has never been a greater need for philanthropy to refresh its image of itself and take on a civic responsibility to aid the country and the world towards a common prosperous future. With that goal, here are some tips on how we can be most impactful in ensuring a vibrant and thriving future for all:

Practice courageous leadership. Find ways to aid others on their path towards a shared purpose, despite uncertainties. For example, in June, five foundations committed to increasing their grant giving by $1.7 billion over the next two years to help stabilize and sustain the nonprofit sector.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Be willing to challenge the age-old interpretation of your mission and embrace intersectionality in programmatic approaches. Look beyond regular partners with cyclical programs, defined timelines, and guaranteed outputs and put an eye towards the not-yet-known. The rewards can be momentous.

Be flexible. Take to heart the Council on Foundations’ Call to Action and put your commitments to being a better donor into action beyond COVID-19.

To my peers in the sector, I call on you to embrace your inner disaster philanthropist. As Booker T. Washington said, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” There is no better time to lend a hand then when people are in the greatest need.

Patricia “Patty” McIlreavy is president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. You can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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