Strategic Disaster Giving in the Face of Competing Demands

Patricia McIlreavy
President and CEO
Center for Disaster Philanthropy

The strong need for disaster relief and recovery efforts has continued this year. Between the humanitarian crisis caused by the end of the war in Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti, increased concerns around COVID-19, the wildfires on the West Coast of the US – just to name a few – it’s difficult to know where to focus your time and attention as a CSR professional.

Patricia McIlreavy, President and CEO of Center for Disaster Philanthropy, shares insights and guidance on disaster strategy.

While we all wish it were different, 2021 is proving to be another difficult year for communities already stretched to the breaking point by the pandemic. Climate change is exacerbating the size and scale of disasters caused by natural hazards. The world is facing record-breaking floods, heat waves, storms and wildfires, all of which compound the pre-existing needs of so many at home and abroad. Add to this the man-made crises of inequity, social injustices, and poor governance, and philanthropy faces a plethora of choices tied to the stark reality that budgets are limited.

Where and how to help is the ever-present challenge for all disaster philanthropists. And if the past 18 months are an indication, the competing demands for finite resources and political support will only increase.

The 2021 CDP/Candid report, Philanthropy and COVID-19: Measuring one year of giving, found that corporate foundations and corporate giving programs accounted for $9.4 billion of total COVID-19 funding in 2020. While this number is commendable in its generosity, it is also noteworthy in its percentage of the total. At 44%, this was the largest lean-in that corporate philanthropy has ever had into a disaster.

Since the start of the pandemic, my conversations with CDP’s corporate donors have been a clear commitment to communities and their recovery. I have also heard of aspirations to return to pre-pandemic priorities or shifts towards equity programming. I would posit that there is no tension in these desires, for the best disaster programming is that which mitigates the impact of the disaster through either stopping it from happening or diminishing the harm it causes.

As you explore your disaster strategy, a few suggestions to keep in mind:

Be intentional

A disaster is the intersection of people with hazards, be those hazards natural, economic, or human-made. Disasters are by nature incredibly personal, and the resulting needs and recovery solutions will vary for each person and community. Thus the entry points for disaster philanthropy are many, including addressing and averting hazards before they exacerbate vulnerabilities.

In examining your giving, encourage your partners to see the full arc of a program’s potential. The pandemic has demonstrated the interconnectivity that exists within community development and disaster mitigation or recovery activities. Take the learning into your future giving. Averting a disaster through holistic programming that addresses the root causes of vulnerabilities will have a more powerful outcome than being present for the response and recovery after.

Be collaborative

No one organization or philanthropist can respond to all the needs arising from a disaster. See this truth not as a discouragement but a motivator. Develop and grow collaborative partnerships across all of your philanthropic work. Seek alignment in mission to advance a program even further, and promote partnerships with those working in areas that may not intersect with your program but influence a community’s development.

Take the long view

Human nature and our innate desire to help those in need often results in the bulk of disaster philanthropy being done in the early days of a disaster, when the images of personal turmoil, intimate loss, and physical devastation flood our screens. This generosity is commendable, and yet the only timeline recovery respects is that it is longer than the memory of those who forget. Recognize that a community’s recovery will take many months and potentially years after a disaster happens. Retain a flexible and innovative approach within your disaster philanthropy to be part of the longer-term solution.

We all hope for a sustainable, independent future for communities where individuals thrive and live in dignity. Recognizing the vulnerabilities that disasters exacerbate and mitigating these risks through a proactive strategic approach should be an intrinsic part of any philanthropic strategy.