Disaster Philanthropy: What is the role of family giving in preparedness, response and recovery?

We’re pleased to present a very special edition of Ask the Center, featuring answers to questions on disaster philanthropy from two of the presenters from our June 13th webinar on the topic of “Disaster Philanthropy: The Role of Family Giving in Preparedness, Response and Recovery.” Lori J. Bertman is president and CEO of the Baton Rouge-based Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, Louisiana’s largest private family foundation. Bertman serves as chair of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Regine A. Webster serves as vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy following stints with Arabella Advisors and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

My organization focuses in three separate geographic areas and our disaster funding to date has been very reactionary. With our resources spread across three areas, do you have any suggestions to increase our effectiveness in disaster grantmaking?

Lori: It may be helpful to allocate a certain amount of your grantmaking per area proactively to meet the needs of each community that is impacted by a disaster. Obviously, in some years different geographic areas will be affected more than others and your budget can reflect that.

What’s the role for public policy advocacy in the wake of a disaster? How have families and how can families help with advocacy efforts? How do families engage and convene local stakeholders in building a better community after the initial wave of relief efforts and donor attention subsides?

Lori: Family foundations are honest brokers and conveners for all types of local, state and federal decision makers. It is most helpful if they collaborate with a nonprofit that has good existing relationships with decision makers, and one that specializes in public policy advocacy to address a change at any governmental level.  It is also important to include the community’s voice in the process—they will advocate for what’s important to them so you have to work with them to understand their needs and how public policy can create positive change in their lives, as well as in those of the broader community.

Every week there is a disaster somewhere. Once you start giving to disasters, how do you say “no” to the next one?

Regine:  This question demonstrates the critical need for all funders to have a disaster plan in place. When you plan ahead, you can determine what types of disasters you will fund, of what magnitude, and in which geographic areas. Having a plan in place provides direction for funders and can also be helpful to both internal and external messaging about your foundation’s focus. I just wrote a blog piece about having a plan and you can read it here.

There has been some negative news about organizations that give only a small percentage of what they raise (most dollars go to solicitors). Many of these organizations deal with response and recovery activities in disasters. What is your opinion about those types of organizations?

Lori: Those stories do end up in the news from time to time, however, it is important to know that most organizations follow very strict policies around how donations are used. Family foundations and other organizations must provide due diligence on the percentage raised vs. percentage granted, and they must follow state and federal laws that outline giving requirements. That said, it is best to give to organizations, people and leaders of organization you know and trust to be assured that money is being stewarded appropriately throughout the entire disaster process from preparedness to recovery.

What are some of the qualifications or factors to look for when reviewing possible grantees active in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery?

Regine: Two things we would suggest you look at are: 1) The organization’s previous disaster response experience; and 2) a pre-existing presence and experience on the ground.  You may not be able to find a single organization that accomplishes both criteria, but this is a solid starting point in your quest to understand an organization’s ability to meet the prevailing needs of a community, effectively allocate scarce resources, and be a resource to the community for months and years after a disaster. In terms of supporting organizations for preparedness work, we would encourage you to look to your existing pool of grantees. Do they have preparedness plans in place? Have they developed a strategy to protect their assets, to support their clients, and to rise to leadership following a disaster?

What I’d like to learn is when you fund in multiple geographies as our Foundation does, how do you decide when a disaster is worthy of a grant? We are a small foundation and could not support every disaster that affects regions where our family members live.

Lori Your board will need to make that decision but it is often smart to fund not only based on geography but also on your Foundation’s mission and areas of interest.  It can also be helpful to fund “low-interest disasters”—the ones that don’t attract the press and the dollars that follow—as others do.

What is the most effective short-term role for family foundations to play in helping victims of natural and man-made disasters recover?  What about long-term recovery? How can we get family members and donors to realize that there is a much broader need beyond American Red Cross and Salvation Army?

Lori:The Red Cross and Salvation Army are traditional relief organizations and do a good job in those roles. Family foundations need to step out of these traditional funding patterns and fund/partner with organizations that truly play a role in longer-term recovery.  This process will take some time to catch on, as do most cultural shifts in giving behavior.

How can we best determine that are funds are well used? How can family funders measure effectiveness in the broad areas of preparedness and response?

Regine: The World Bank and other experts in the humanitarian assistance field have quantified the value of preparedness and prove the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In terms of family funders and their ability to measure effectiveness, we believe that funders need to define what success looks like to them. If success is having children back in school in the aftermath of a disaster, then funding rebuilding efforts is effective.  If collaboration is a hallmark of success for a family funder, then convening NGOs well in advance of a disaster will undoubtedly result in a more effective response in the wake of one.

How do you know if your donation is really getting to the people affected by the disaster?

Regine: The Center for Disaster Philanthropy believes that funders should require both transparency and accountability before making any awards. When providing a grant to an NGO, there is an element of trust that goes into the gift. Our assumption is that your due diligence and the relationships made in advance of the gift facilitate building trust. In a nutshell, you shouldn’t make a gift if you have any concerns whatsoever. Plus know that there are thousands of reputable organizations worldwide that will steward your gift to ensure that lives are saved, repaired, and rebuilt following disasters.

What do you think of the proposed new National Compassion Fund for Victims of Human-Made Disasters? What are the advantages of this new fund, and are there any disadvantages?

Regine: For a while now we have seen extraordinary outpourings of generosity following human-made disasters. It is heartwarming to see this new Fund proposed and we feel that the intentions are well placed.  If a national fund were to be created and to become well known people could channel their dollars there easily following a human-made disaster—that’s the advantage.

The downside is that local donors will have better on the ground knowledge of what the community needs than a national organization. Furthermore, some critics have expressed the concern that the Fund would take an actuarial approach to human life, that it might be difficult to administer, and that there may be differing approaches on how these monies should be applied.

There are a lot of details that need to be worked out before a national fund would supersede the work of local donors. That said, the Compassion Fund is new in concept and we are eager to watch the details and the execution of the Fund unfold.

We work internationally. Are there more strategic investments we could make to change the field in the areas of leadership, local government preparedness, technology particularly communications, coordination, etc.?

Regine: There are so many excellent ways to become involved internationally.  Please email me directly at regine.webster@disasterphilanthropy.org to brainstorm ideas with you.