When Disaster Strikes, How Should Donors Respond?


By Dave Peery

When the Indian Ocean earthquake struck in December of 2004, killing almost 200,000 people, my sister felt lucky that her trip to the Tamil Nadu coast of India wasn’t for a couple more days.  At the same time, continuing with the trip meant a different set of experiences than she’d planned for.  Since that time, multiple natural disasters have taken place, and each time we are faced with the decision of how, whether, or when to respond.  There seems to be more disasters populating the headlines than we can even keep up with, and it’s easy to feel powerless to do anything.  I’ll just summarize a few takeaways and insights we’ve gained over the past few years.

Find the right people:  As always, we look to invest in those who are closest to the population we hope to serve, and who can channel resources to the right places.  In 2004, my sister had the luxury of being on the ground in India and was able to evaluate much of the need as she saw it.  More importantly, she was being accompanied by an incredible woman, Padma Venkataraman, who has worked to build livelihoods for those living in abject poverty for many years.  She was a trusted resource, and someone whose work wouldn’t likely benefit from the tsunami fundraising campaigns run by large NGOs.  Along the Tamil Nadu coast, various organizations filled storage spaces and trucks with clothing and blankets that went undistributed, and was of little use to the population in that area.  From conversations among the coastal fishing villages, it was clear that fishermen were anxious to regain their livelihoods, and needed capital to replace their boats and fishing nets which had been destroyed (see photos above).  We helped Padma put together the financing for these fishermen to begin building their lives as quickly as possible.

Use “stringers”:  With every disaster that has followed, we haven’t been able to respond to such clear and tangible opportunities, but using “stringers” might be one way of doing this.  Bill Somerville of the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation has used news reporters to help him identify philanthropic opportunities in the community.  These stringers are charged with the task of finding stories and writing about them or pitching them to other journalists.  They are a wealth of local knowledge.  Last year when the monsoon rains in Pakistan caused incredible flooding, affecting millions of people, I followed the blogging of TED’s Chris Anderson and wife, Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen Fund, as they traveled throughout the devastated regions of Pakistan.  We live in extraordinary times when we can follow the tweeting and blogging of those who are closest to the devastation, and who can provide recommendations for appropriate response or placement of funds.

Find the right organizations:  After the earthquake in Haiti, I can’t tell you how many people I knew were carrying out, or contributing to, well-intentioned relief efforts by groups who had no history working in Haiti.  If your goal is to simply fund a solid organization delivering appropriate and effective relief, you’d better fund someone who’s been working there for years and knows their way around.  In Haiti, Partners in Health has been doing work there for decades and was in a very strategic position to respond.  Another approach for us has been through our church.  Our family’s church has a highly organized global congregation, with extensive resources dedicated to the welfare and self-reliance of the members, as well as the populations in which they live.  We’ve often given through our church’s humanitarian relief fund, as they have a track record of effective collaboration and volunteer manpower in just about every relief effort.

Figure out the timing and duration of your response:  Any donor should seriously consider whether they will give now or later, and whether it will be a one-time response or a long-term effort.  Generally, people feel moved to respond in the immediate wake of disaster and do so with a one time donation.  While resources are needed immediately, why not wait until the disaster has disappeared from the headlines and the public’s consciousness?  Waiting six months could provide some real opportunities to place dollars in ways that will likely go further, and with better execution.  Thinking long-term, I would be willing to bet that every place that has experienced a catastrophic natural disaster in recent memory is still in need of funds and continuous rebuilding and healing.  I really admire people that approach disaster response with a long-term perspective.  My friend Karan Ansara and her husband Jim responded to the earthquake in Haiti by setting up the Haiti Fund at the Boston Foundation.  They’ve managed to raise over $2 million (and rising) to be spent down over 5 years.  Their strategy is to spend 25% toward direct relief work, and the rest on long term efforts such as building local capacity, infrastructure, and livelihoods.

Finally, what I think we all find frustrating is that in every occurrence of such events, we all know immediate response efforts are not being coordinated properly, funds are often mismanaged, duplication takes place, and much worse.  The recent article on Collective Impact in the Stanford Social Innovation Review advocates for coordinated efforts from various actors to produce impact around shared objectives.  While cross-sector collaboration is necessary to drive change, the approach they describe calls for an independent group which helps coordinate all parties in order to ensure the proper flow of resources and balance of efforts. This is what we need for disaster response.  Is anyone doing this?  I’m sure something is out there, but I’m unaware of it.

The capacity of all donors is limited and there is only so much one can do. However we decide to respond to the ever-increasing catastrophes of mother nature, may we do it more thoughtfully.