In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, a familiar narrative is already taking shape. It goes like this: A major disaster triggers a flood of donations to major humanitarian organizations. These groups, with their big marketing departments, are scrambling to apply for funding, even though they don’t have the capacity on the ground to provide help. In the meantime, local nonprofits in disaster areas are working overtime to meet community needs, often without reliable electricity or internet service – or the ability to focus on fundraising in the days following a disaster.
On each anniversary of these megastorms, earthquakes, wildfires and other catastrophic events, the same questions are asked: what has been achieved? How have affected communities benefited from the outpouring of generosity that followed the disaster? Have these benefits been distributed fairly? The answers are generally disappointing.
Donations sent to large national and international organizations such as the American Red Cross are often delayed and diverted — sometimes for months or even years — before only a fraction reaches local nonprofits. And studies show that every time funds change hands, at least 9% is taken for overhead. Overhead spending is fine when deserved, but too often large organizations take those funds when they’re not providing any real service – a problem that was well documented after Super Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the earthquake. land in Haiti in 2010.
Meanwhile, most international disaster and humanitarian aid from foundations in the United States continues to bypass the local groups that can use it most effectively. A new report from Candid and the Council on Foundations found that only 13% of humanitarian funding from US philanthropy “went directly to organizations based in the countries where the programs were implemented.” Other research shows that number to be as low as 3%.
Given all that the philanthropic and nonprofit world has learned from past disasters, isn’t it time to change that narrative? The answers are not complicated, but funders and individual donors should adopt them consistently.
Tap into local philanthropy
The most obvious starting point is with the country’s more than 900 community foundations, which typically have a keen sense of local needs. Rather than sending money to national or international organizations based in Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago with minimal direct connection to affected areas, donors can direct funds to credible community foundations in the most hardest hit.
More than a dozen community foundations are located in areas of Florida where Hurricane Ian was most destructive, and several have already launched disaster relief funds. For example, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s Suncoast Disaster Recovery Fund works with local nonprofits, school districts and governments to ensure resources go directly to neighborhoods in need.
These local relief funds have proven to be among the most effective vehicles for giving immediately after a disaster and the years of recovery that follow. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, philanthropic leaders from across the country came together to create the Louisiana Foundation (first known as the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation) to act as a local channel for disaster fund. The foundation has since supported hundreds of nonprofits in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, serving as a model for how to raise and spend dollars equitably after the disaster. Similarly, the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City quickly and impressively raised and disbursed over $82 million to local nonprofits in the wake of Super Hurricane Sandy.
Many community foundations across the country have well-established crisis and disaster funds that have successfully provided ongoing relief following recent disasters in California, Houston, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico, and all of them need support. continued support.
Identify effective community nonprofits
When considering supporting charities after a disaster, donors often look to organizations that publish information about the effectiveness of nonprofits, such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator. For general audit purposes, both platforms provide extensive information on governance, finance, and general and administrative expenses. But such measures are less helpful when it comes to disaster giving and too often lead donors in the wrong direction. For example, Charity Navigator Hurricane Fiona’s “how to help” list shamelessly excluded Puerto Rico-based nonprofits when verified more than two weeks after the Sept. 18 storm.
Rather than judging nonprofits by slightly different overhead data, donors should ask themselves if an organization can really help with a disaster in a particular area. While nearly all charities say they deserve donations, most lack existing relationships in communities and culturally competent local staff and volunteers.
The non-profit organization I lead, the Disaster Accountability Project, discovered the scale of the problem when we surveyed hundreds of organizations following the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal and found that many were collecting funds without having the capacity to provide services. While the results attracted media attention, publication of this research six months or a year after the disaster was too late to influence donor behavior. We recognized that real-time, data-driven insights were needed to know how and where to donate.
To help fill the void, we created SmartResponse.org, an independent information platform that curates lists on how to help after a disaster and provides immediate, localized information to donors. Since its launch in fall 2017, more than 600 nonprofit organizations from more than 60 countries and 25 states and US territories have registered on the site for free. After going through a basic vetting and approval process, they share information about their services, local staff, finances, and background in the area.
This information makes it easier for donors to differentiate between giving to Feeding America’s national headquarters in Chicago and donating directly to a local food bank or food pantry, for example, in Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian or in San Juan, Porto. Rico, after Hurricane Fiona. Many of these groups don’t even have a functioning website, so SmartResponse may be their only way to provide critical information to establish their credibility with donors, especially for those looking to donate quickly after a disaster.
Local nonprofits know which members of a community are most vulnerable, who might need housing or assistance, and which neighborhoods or communities are hardest hit. By hiring local staff and purchasing local supplies, they inject life into economies during otherwise devastating times. They strengthen community services such as food banks, independent living centers, disability and housing advocacy groups, legal aid and other social safety net programs that ensure needs are met. satisfied and that people do not fall through the cracks. Finding these groups can be a little trickier than responding to another solicitation from a large humanitarian organization, but it’s worth the effort.