Disaster Grantmaking Strategies

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In the aftermath of major disasters, individuals, corporations, foundations, and government agencies—often from all over the world—give vast sums in response to compelling situations. What impact can small grants make when regions are devastated by disaster?

“While we live in an age of large organizations and institutions, there are still many circumstances where small is not only beautiful but sometimes the most effective,” says Ambassador James Joseph. “To borrow the Five F’s that once made the round in organizational theory, small units in some settings can be faster, more focused, more flexible, friendlier, and even more fun.”

Immediate and meaningful

A small foundation’s appropriate response to disaster may be to provide funding for immediate needs, including needs unmet by state and federal relief agencies. For example, Copper Alvarez of the Baton Rouge Economic and Agricultural Development Association reported in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that foundation grants of $500–$1,000 would “repair electrified fences to keep herds from wandering, purchase hay for those herds, repair tractors onto which trees fell, hire workers to prune damaged citrus trees,” and so on.

Among the many Exponent Philanthropy-member grants in the aftermath of Katrina, the Florida-based Bernice Barbour Foundation funded equipment purchases at the Houston American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, for animals evacuated from Gulf Coast communities. More than 1200 animals were rescued and evacuated to Texas. Some foundations also split their grants, giving part for immediate relief and holding part to fill gaps in the weeks or months after the emergency phase passed.

Small foundations, with their flexibility and existing grantee networks, are well positioned to make meaningful grants in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Foundations, United Way chapters, associations of grantmakers, and other organizations serving the affected region are good resources to recommend relief funds and appropriate grantees.

Long-term transformation

For some foundations, funding in the immediate aftermath of disaster is not the best fit, however. “We tend to stand back more than we did in the past,” says Linda Miller of the Miller Family Foundation. “We jumped in immediately for the 9/11 victims and felt that there was a question as to the impact the funding actually brought with the influx of such huge amounts of donated funds, services, and goods.”

If your foundation prefers not to make grants in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, there are additional ways to help.

The emergency phase of disasters attract the most attention and resources, but expert thinking about disasters focuses most often on disaster management, a term that encompasses community involvement in prevention and preparedness, emergency relief, rehabilitation, and long-term development (see Disaster Grantmaking: A Practical Guide for Foundations and Corporations, published in 2001).

Private foundations of all sizes, with their flexibility, long-term perspectives, and ability to collaborate with each other and across sectors, are uniquely positioned to help with disaster management. “We need help that is transformational, not merely restorative,” wrote George Penick, president of the Foundation for the Mid-South, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many small foundations are well situated to fund such long-term transformation.

In the early 1990s, the Council on Foundations and the European Foundation Center created a working group to address the best ways foundations and charities can respond to major disasters around the world. Here are some of their recommendations for foundations interested in funding beyond immediate relief:

  • Fill the gaps between emergency relief and long-term redevelopment—Examples of gaps include rebuilding schools and health clinics damaged by Hurricane Katrina or funding the purchase of fishing boats and supplies for tsunami victims who lost their means of livelihood in the disaster.
  • Think about grants for disaster prevention or preparedness—Dollars spent on prevention ultimately can save huge amounts when disasters strike. In communities that consistently experience the threat of disasters, grants enable residents to develop disaster plans, raise public awareness, and train local response teams. Look for disaster grantees that support long-term community and economic development programs, and fund efforts to integrate disaster preparedness and prevention into their long-term plans.
  • Strengthen local organizational capacity to respond to future disasters—Recent reports by the Fritz Institute in San Francisco on relief following the December 2004 tsunami show that logistical barriers, administrative inefficiencies, and a lack of adequate tracking capabilities hampered the effectiveness of the relief effort.
  • Work in collaboration with others—This collaboration may include other funders, local nonprofits, businesses, and government. Consider funding an ongoing coordinating body to address a specific disaster to ensure coordination of services.

Important tips for funding disaster relief

The Council on Foundations and the European Foundation Center created a joint working group to address how charities and foundations could provide the greatest good in the arena of disaster grantmaking. Their recommendations include:

  • First, do no harm; not all disaster relief is beneficial.
  • Stop, look, and listen before acting.
  • Don’t act in isolation.
  • Think beyond the immediate crisis to the long term.
  • Bear in mind the expertise of local organizations.
  • Understand how prospective grantees operate.
  • Be accountable to those you are trying to help.
  • Communicate your work as a means of education.

Be prepared to respond before disasters strike

If disaster grantmaking seems right for your foundation, take steps to prepare now.

  • Establish guidelines on when and where your foundation will make grants, and to what types of grantees. Some grantmakers only respond when they have partners on the ground; others only respond in certain countries or regions. Think about whether you will support local, national, or international disaster relief. Also think about whether you will give directly to individuals, nonprofits, or collaborations. (Be aware of the legal restrictions when giving to individuals or internationally.)Does your foundation prefer to make grants for immediate relief, long-term redevelopment, or both? Remember to make your guidelines flexible enough to respond to unanticipated situations.
  • Decide if you want to link disaster grantmaking to your mission. Funding outside your mission is completely legal, but many foundations still strive to link their disaster relief funding to their mission or values. For example, foundations primarily focused on education might decide to address education needs that arise during a disaster. If your foundation values self-sufficiency, you might fund efforts to help the victims become self-sufficient after a disaster.
  • Take time to identify potential grantee partners in advance. Think about grantees appropriate for your region, as well as agencies to which you would turn for recommendations when disasters strike regions or countries with which you are unfamiliar.
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