News and analysis
December 11, 2014

‘Disaster Lifecycle’ Needs More Attention From Grant Makers, Study Says

When disaster strikes, there’s a lot of work to be done — but in many cases preemptive aid may be the most effective way to help. A new report, "Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy 2014," encourages foundations to think more strategically about the aid they can provide before, during, and after disasters, whether caused by natural or human forces. The report was published by the Foundation Center and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

"In a way, we’re all disaster philanthropists; no matter what our area of grant-making, it’s likely to be affected by disaster," Robert G. Ottenhoff, president and chief executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said in a news conference. "We’re hoping we can make large foundations be more intentional in their giving to disasters."

Recognizing the importance of aggregated data about disaster aid in helping donors collaborate and allocate resources wisely, the Foundation Center and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy published the report and announced the creation of an online disaster-data network.

"A holy grail in philanthropy is to figure out how to assess impact," said Lawrence T. McGill, vice president of research at the Foundation Center. "In order to make an impact on things, you need to know first of all what the situation is and what you’re trying to change."

The report provides data on all grants of $10,000 or more made for disaster assistance in 2012 by 1,000 of the largest U.S. foundations. The data account for about half of the total grant money given by U.S. foundations.

According to the report, more than half — or 58 percent — of disaster-related foundation grants in 2012 were made to provide support in natural disasters. Of the rest, 29 percent went to "general disasters" such as the American Red Cross’s annual disaster giving program; 11 percent went to "complex humanitarian emergencies," such as war and mass migrations; and 2 percent went to man-made accidents. The majority of funds given — 62 percent — focused on disaster efforts in North America, which was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

Top funders of disaster programs in 2012 included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($17.9 million), the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation ($7.8 million), and the Rockefeller Foundation ($5.4 million). Top recipients included the American Red Cross National Headquarters ($12.7 million), Mercy Corps ($4.7 million), and Oxfam America ($4.6 million).

The analysis useda category system developed by the Foundation Center and Center for Disaster Philanthropy to identify four types of disaster-assistance strategies: resilience, risk reduction, and mitigation; preparedness; response and relief; and reconstruction and recovery.

Response and Relief

It’s the third strategy, response and relief, that attracts the most media attention and therefore the largest response from individuals and governments, according to Mr. Ottenhoff.

"What happens often, I think, is people give because they want to do something, but they’re not exactly sure what to do or how to do it," he said during a news conference.

But foundations may be more effective by awarding grants that target the other three areas of the "disaster lifecycle," according to Mr. McGill of the Foundation Center.

By doing so, he said, foundations "can take the opportunity to highlight innovation and innovative approaches to this kind of work, which can then serve as models to be taken to scale by others. They can draw lessons from this work because they don’t have to immerse themselves in direct relief efforts."

The data suggest that many foundations don’t currently follow Mr. McGill’s recommendation: In 2012, the largest segment — 46 percent — of funds donated by foundations in the study aided response-and-relief efforts.

One that bucks the trend is the Rockefeller Foundation. Mr. McGill said its focus on making communities and ecosystems resilient in the face of climate change demonstrates the constructive work that can be done apart from response and relief. For example, one of the foundation’s grants created a model for lake rejuvenation and conservation in Indore, India, to ensure that local water is available during drought-related emergencies.

"Over the last 10 years, we’ve invested about a half-billion dollars in helping communities and organizations of all kinds build resilience against a range of shocks, and also to address slower-burning stresses, such as economic inequality or water issues, for example," said Nancy Kete, managing director for resilience for the Rockefeller Foundation, in an email. "What we’re seeing is that investing in resilience also generates returns beyond the immediate aftermath of a disaster. It can also provide for economic gains or increased social harmony."

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.