Philanthropy Blog: How to Help Neighbors and Communities in Time of a Natural Disaster

September 18, 2017

With national attention once again turning to the wrath of a powerful hurricane, we are returning to a topic about which we have written before, the persistent question of how to help neighbors and communities in times of a natural disaster. With such disasters unfortunately becoming more common than any of us would like, and with their destruction often disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities (domestically or internationally), where should donors focus their charitable response? Below are a few points to help guide your considerations of how and where to respond to needs created by natural disasters.

Give now, later, or both?

Research conducted by The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (which was created as a resource and clearinghouse for disaster philanthropy information in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2004) shows that most disaster giving is made within a few days after a disaster, primarily by donors without ongoing disaster experience. The needs are real and the images on television, in print, and across the Internet show just how important giving to disaster response is.

Even while a donor is supporting immediate needs, it’s important to remember that it takes time for impacted communities to assess the full range of needs and to understand how private support can boost public resources for disaster recovery. It will take weeks, months or longer for Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the rest of the Caribbean, and Florida to fully understand the scope of destruction and to develop plans for recovery and rebuilding. Philanthropic support will continue to be a necessary component of mid- and longer-term recovery. In addition, the more vulnerable and isolated communities (the U.S. Virgin Islands, for example, where food supply and volunteer support take longer to deploy) might need relief efforts for longer than other geographies.

Where do I give?

Technology has made immediate charitable response to natural disasters just a click away. Whether it’s text-to-give, online donations or giving at the cash register, mobilizing donors for immediate response has been faster than ever. Our advice to donors is the same as it would be when developing their overall giving priorities. Start with your passions or what moves you. Are you most concerned about the safety and stability of people most impacted by a natural disaster? Are there geographic areas that are more isolated or vulnerable, and are likely to be slower to move toward recovery? Are you moved by the images of animals in need? Are you concerned about the availability of fresh water and food? Look to local resources who know their community’s needs and the necessary delivery mechanisms. Increasingly, municipal officials (mayors or governors) have partnered with local or state-wide community foundations to establish relief funds, to be used for longer term recovery efforts (as seen most recently in Houston and Florida, as well as for recovery after Hurricanes Sandy and Irene).

Donors should also take care when giving immediately following a disaster. Is the organization or people involved legitimate? Sadly, there are instances where fraudulent efforts attempt to take advantage of those in vulnerable situations. In addition, we have learned that, in the case of a disaster, money is most appreciated in the immediate aftermath. The logistics of delivering goods can be overwhelming, especially if transportation routes are compromised. But there are instances where neighbors can help neighbors in very tangible ways. For example, a friend’s sister in Houston offered to collect and distribute gift cards for food and supplies (such as grocery store and drugstore gift cards) to her neighbors who had needs immediately after the flood.

Learn from past experiences

Much has been written about disaster response, recovery and resilience. What can we learn from past natural disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina or Irene or Sandy? With two storms happening in rapid succession, how can areas prepare better in advance? For example, Comcast set up Wi-Fi hot spots across the potential path of Irma in anticipation of the storm’s arrival, not after it passed through like it did with Harvey. The state of Vermont spent several years focused on rebuilding “resilient” communities after Irene, so that future natural disasters would not be so devastating. Typically, local leadership will take the lead on assessing need and in developing public/private partnerships to coordinate the response.

While we wish we never had to write blog posts like this, helping donors be organized in their response to natural disasters will hopefully ease the burden of those impacted by these terrible storms.

About the Author

Gioia Perugini is Associate Director, Family Office and Philanthropy Services at Hemenway & Barnes. She works with individuals, families, advisors, charitable trusts and foundations to provide a range of philanthropic and client services.

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