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Disaster Philanthropy

Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are donated to assist in disaster relief. While disasters often strike when you are least expecting them, your organization can ensure that a plan is in place to continue your business operations and strengthen your relationships with supporters. Currently, the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve rapidly and many in the social good community have raised questions about how to navigate this unprecedented time. In addition to this page, please see our fundraising and event resources to stay armed with the insights you need.


While no disaster is the same, there are tangible steps that your organization can take to ensure that you are prepared in the event of an emergency. Consider these strategies as you rally your team around disaster preparedness.

Create a preparedness plan. Your organization should have a continuity plan that spells out how you will operate in the event of an emergency. Disruptions due to an emergency or extraneous event can cost your organization revenue. Having a plan in place to continue crucial work is essential. Your continuity plan should identify the critical functions that your organization cannot afford to lose, as well as the ones that you may be able to postpone or defer. It should account for where and what each staff member is responsible for in the event of an emergency, as well as how it may affect your operations and IT infrastructure, the constituents you serve, and the supporters that make it possible.

Designate a preparedness taskforce. Whether this is a separate arm of your board of directors, or a responsibility of your risk management, make sure that there are individuals at your organization in charge of your emergency planning. Update this group regularly as staff or board members are added. You’ll want to be sure this group has a coordinated response that is able to quickly communicate need-to-know information with staff and key constituents.


Immediate Response

In the aftermath of a disaster, social good organizations may find themselves along the frontlines of service, providing food, shelter, water, medical care, or other services to those affected. You’ll want to be sure that you are prepared to take action on behalf of your staff and key constituents or clients.

Discuss your immediate and long-term plans. While your organization may have outlined an emergency preparedness plan, your actions following an emergency are highly dependent on the nature of what has occurred. Group your core organizational stakeholders together immediately to discuss how you will continue to execute your strategy and address your staff and constituents’ needs.

Activate communication channels. You should have a plan in place to communicate with staff and constituents after an emergency. Some organizations have opt-ins for emergency communications. While this depends on the nature of your organization, you may consider instituting such channels in the event of an emergency for your staff or board of directors. You’ll want to be sure that you can communicate with the stakeholders that need to be addressed – whether it’s to send out emergency calls to action or recurring updates.

Assess the damage. Disruptions in normal business operations can affect your revenue and fundraising strategy, or even the physical infrastructure of your organization. In the wake of an emergency, you’ll want to assess the damage and critical needs that may have been incurred so that you can continue to strategize toward long-range goals. By getting a sense of your immediate needs, you can better plan your campaigns and calls to action to enlist supporters.


Best Practices

Research by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy consistently finds that most disaster giving is allocated for immediate response and relief and that donations peak during the immediate relief of a disaster. As a result, a far smaller share is designated for recovery and rebuilding. However, we know from experience that it could take months, if not years, for a community to fully recover from a disaster.

Your disaster giving plan must be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice when disaster strikes, but it should also help facilitate a path to longer term support. There are several core principles you can learn from to ensure that your organization has the support it needs:

Amplify your message. It’s critical to portray the urgency of your need and the impact that your supporters can have. You’ll want your calls to actions to be short and noticeable. Whether you are cancelling an event or crafting a special appeal, these communications are your opportunity to encourage supporters to continue making a difference. Your content should be concise, poignant, and immediately relevant.

Communicate that fundraising efforts must continue. Whether you must reschedule events, fundraising and volunteer opportunities, or campaigns, make sure that your supporters understand the important role that these elements play in your ability to accomplish your mission. For example, if you must cancel an in-person event, consider writing to attendees and including a paragraph on the importance of this event to your overall fundraising strategy.

Tweak communications strategies where needed. Even if you’re in the middle of an ongoing marketing or fundraising campaign, consider how your communications might distract or de-value more urgent calls to action. Continue to post and share the content that provide value to your supporters, but mindfully maintain an economy of posts to ensure that communications relating to an emergency or disaster are not watered-down by over-posting.

Go virtual. If you move forward with in-person events following a disaster or unplanned emergency, remember that some supporters may not be able to attend. Supplement in-person events with a virtual experience. Whether you broadcast the event or leverage social media or livestreaming platforms, be sure to consider how you can make your programming accessible to the individuals who cannot attend events as they occur.

Make sure that your technology stack is prepared. A disaster could bring an influx of donations to your organization. Small, incremental tasks like regularly updating your addresses can have a huge impact in managing your preparedness down the line. When properly managed, your database will provide incredible insight that remains through any staff, organizational, or market changes. Work with your IT team and technology vendors to ensure you have a broader plan in place to be able to accept an unplanned increase in donations and outreach if the occasion arises.

Leverage partnerships. The largest theme in disaster philanthropy is partnership. Corporations, independent and family foundations, and public charities are essential in helping distribute the immediate help needed to provide relief and in laying the groundwork for long-term recovery. Be sure that you are maintaining relationships with funders and able to explore certain funding pathways in the event of a disaster.

Give thanks! While it may be a stressful time, make sure to thank donors, and especially the individuals that immediately give. As a part of your emergency planning, you might create thank you-templates that can be easily leveraged in campaigns following an emergency. At these times more than ever, it’s important to recognize the people and organizations doing their part to protect your mission.


Long-Term Recovery

Following a disaster, it could take several years to rebuild the infrastructure and restore the natural rhythm of your community. Social good organizations can play a key role in strategizing for the long-term recovery of the institutions hardest hit by an emergency.

Designate a liaison. Depending on the disaster at hand, you may need to cooperate and collaborate with your local or state recovery leader in order to continue your business operations. You’ll want to be sure that someone on staff can represent your cause and mission throughout this transitional time period.

Shine a spotlight on long-term needs. Many organizations struggle to maintain campaign momentum after media attention begins to fade away from a disaster, and inevitably returns to other news stories, causes, and events. Make sure that you can keep your supporters looped into your own disaster recovery. Whether you profile ongoing news or share compelling spotlights about your organization’s recovery, it’s a critical time to maintain attention and support.

Pivot where needed. Depending on your campaigns and grant proposals, you may be able to advocate for recovery-related budget items where needed. Remember to utilize the fundraising opportunities you already planned (like a gala, giving day campaign, or other fundraising events) to assist in your recovery efforts.