Responding Quickly and Effectively in Times of Disaster: Preparation and Partnerships are Critical

View of Beirut Port after a warehouse explosion. CAF America was able to quickly deploy funding for this disaster due its existing relationship with the Lebanese Red Cross.

At CAF America, we support donors who want to build long-term partnerships with local organizations and create meaningful impact, anywhere in the world. This model is particularly relevant when communities we grant to are impacted by natural disasters, political crises, or other emergencies. After responding to the many global emergencies that have occurred over the past few years—from wildfires in Australia to floods in Germany to the COVID-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine—we have seen time and time again that the most effective international philanthropy requires thinking ahead and using a partnership mindset.

While many family funders limit their grantmaking only to approved US 501(c)(3) organizations, unfortunately disasters and emergencies happen on a global scale. Because the regulatory framework for cross-border grantmaking can be difficult to navigate, many American philanthropists have not built meaningful relationships with local organizations outside of the US. That means that when disasters occur, local organizations responding to the pressing needs of vulnerable communities are effectively cut off from immediate support from American philanthropists. Instead, donations tend to flow to major International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs), such as UNICEF, World Vision, and Mercy . While INGOs do good work, donors looking to make more localized, targeted impacts should consider a proactive and partnership-based approach that enhances a community’s ability to withstand disasters and emergencies. This strategy better positions funders to quickly support organizations outside the US when disasters do occur.

Developing Relationships to Build More Resilient Communities

Before starting to plan for a cross-border giving program, funders should take into consideration the process for approving a new charity partner that is not designated as a US 501(c)(3) charity. Under IRS regulations, funders must complete or acquire an eligible Equivalency Determination (ED) Certificate or undertake Expenditure Responsibility (ER) to approve specific projects of the grantee. While the process of documenting ED or undertaking ER can feel administratively complex, it also allows the funder to develop a strong relationship with the charity partner, as well as a deep understanding of its work. Thus, the process of meeting requirements is in fact an opportunity to be highly strategic in building understanding and trust.

In emergency situations, if donors do not have a standing relationship with a charity partner (as well as the relevant documentation), it becomes far more difficult to quickly disburse funding to that organization, as any disbursement made absent either ED or ER will be considered a taxable event for a US-based funder. Furthermore, grantees facing emergencies and disasters are less likely to have time to fill out a grant application and provide the relevant documents. To prepare for this contingency, some donors take a more long-term approach to disaster and crisis grantmaking that addresses the needs of specific communities, and invests in their capacity to be resilient in the face of predictable emergencies. This ‘place-based grantmaking’ can build capability and strength into partner communities, and in many cases is a more meaningful experience for donors. In the same way that many US-based funders with strong grantee relationships were able to quickly increase their funding during COVID-19 to their community partners, building strong relationships with local nonprofits overseas before disaster strikes will give donors flexibility to react quickly.

CAF America saw this work particularly well when the city of Beirut was partially destroyed by explosion of a dockside warehouse in August 2020. At the time of the explosion, which killed over 200 people, injured more than 7000, and left 300,000 homeless, CAF America was already working with the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) on other projects. Since CAF America had already done our due diligence on the LRC, we could quickly deploy grants without needing to collect or complete additional applications or reviews. We were able to deliver immediate funding to the LRC to support relief efforts—including grants of over $550,000 sent within a month of the disaster. Overall, this relationship enabled the LRC to receive over $2.5 million in grants advised by our donors in the 12 months following the explosion.

As you consider how you have reacted to overseas disasters in the past and how you want to prepare to react in the future, consider the following:

You can’t help everyone: The world is a big place, and you should think about where you want to focus so that your charitable funds can be concentrated to make the biggest difference. Oftentimes, CAF America’s donors feel connected to a particular area through family ties, travel, or religious beliefs. Selecting a community you care about that aligns with your philanthropic values leads to more meaningful and long-term engagement.

You need to plan ahead: Because foreign charities need extensive onboarding, we recommend that you concentrate on building partnerships with charities in vulnerable areas so that you can support those networks when disasters strike. This requires strategy and planning, but the payoffs can be substantial.

You can make a difference before the emergency happens: The most important aspect of disaster response is preparedness. Once you identify a community and build a network of organizations to support it, you should consider how to give before a crisis arises so that your partners can build their organizational resilience. This makes it easier for grantees to activate their response strategies when the time comes.

Intentional reflection on these three elements—choosing a place, identifying partners, and investing in a community before disasters happen—is a first step to ensuring that your international programs for disaster response are impactful.

Brooks Reed is the vice president of business development at CAF America

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.