We're All in the Business of Disaster Philanthropy

September 4, 2014

Kristen Holway, Senior Manager, Learning Practice

Five months have passed since the March 22 mudslide in Oso, Wash. killed 43 people, damaged nearly 50 homes and destroyed approximately one square mile of land, rivers and infrastructure. It's hard to believe that, on the heels of this horrific disaster — the worst in state history — fire crews were also battling the most severe fires in Washington state history in Chelan and Okanogan counties.

As communities across the state continue to define their new normal, recover and rebuild, philanthropic organizations are beginning to ask: "What can we do to ensure our communities are resilient? How can we better prepare our grantees and ourselves for future disasters?"

This was the spirit of a conversation hosted by Philanthropy Northwest last week. On August 27, a group of Philanthropy Northwest members, nonprofit leaders and state and local government employees from Snohomish County, Olympia and Pateros (one of the towns recently devastated by the Carlton Complex wildfires) met in Tulalip, Wash. to discuss emerging needs and lessons learned from the mudslide recovery efforts in Oso, Darrington and Arlington.

The discussion, hosted at the Sno-Isle Libraries Admininistration & Service Center, was led by:

The conversation was rich with emotion, real-time learning and thoughtful reflection. Many of the lessons the panel of four leaders shared echoed best practices I've heard my colleagues from the Northern California Grantmakers, Council on New Jersey Foundations and Colorado Association of Funders share. Here are a few of the most important learnings I heard:

1) Your grantees will likely be called on to serve the community during a disaster - and they are likely ill-prepared

A broad spectrum of faith-based and community based organizations are often called upon to provide disaster relief and related services immediately following a human or natural disaster. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, over 30% of those in need received aid from small community based nonprofit organizations within the first 48 hours after the hurricane; see Hurricane Katrina: Perceptions of the Affected. This dependency on CBOs is due to a number of factors, including the community's familiarity and reliance on these organizations in non-disaster times.

Despite the critical role that these organizations may be called upon to play, very few of them have the necessary supplies, training, or expertise needed to effectively serve their constituents when a disaster strikes. These small organizations are often not connected to, or coordinated with, larger relief organizations or government agencies. Because these organizations are not focused on disaster management and response, few if any receive funds and technical assistance to become prepared to both withstand a disaster and provide ongoing relief.

Disaster preparedness is one important element of overall organizational health and resiliency. If organizations are not able to withstand a disaster and continue services afterwards, all other capacity building and strengthening efforts are for naught. Despite this fact, disaster preparedness is often overlooked by funders and not part of due diligence efforts undertaken in grant review and approval processes.  (Source: Northern California Grantmakers)

2) Your foundation can play an important role in building resiliency

Do your grantees have continiutiy plans should a disaster strike? Do they have arrangements with other community organizations about how they will best serve constituents? Do they know how to talk to the media and electeds about their needs? Do they have a lead for disasters? Foundations can play an important role in supporting nonprofit organizations to answer these questions and be more prepared for a disaster. Foundations' flexibility, as compared to public funding sources, are often the only resources for disaster mitigation and preparedness funding. Foundations can encourage their grantees to prepare for disasters in several ways:

  • Targeted grants: Foundations can create a committed funding stream to provide grants focused on disaster preparation. Grants could be targeted for internal preparation within single organizations and coordination and planning among several organizations.
  • Grant requirements: Foundations can leverage their grant funds by requiring that all grantees engage in disaster preparedness activities. An example of this would be to require that grantees develop a written disaster and business continuity plan during their grant period.
  • Support collaboration: Disasters are critical times for collaboration. An effective response requires coordination and communication between responding agencies, including large relief agencies, local, state, and federal government agencies, the corporate sector, and community- and faith-based organizations. These relationships need to be established before a disaster strikes. Foundations can support the messy work of examining responsiblities across jurisdictions, and support planning and discussions that will be needed for effective collaboration in the midst of a disaster.  (Source: Northern California Grantmakers)
3) If you don't know your foundation's disaster philanthropy strategy, ask

Does your foundation have an explicit disaster philanthropy strategy? If you don't have a strategy, you may consider guiding your board through the following conversation:

  • What circumstances spark your organization to fund disaster response? What type of disaster will we respond to?
  • How will we respond? With grants? Mission-related investments? As a convener?
  • Who does our community want us to be - and are we in a unique position to play that role?
  • How will grantmaking, investment, and other decisions be made?
  • What rules are we willing to relax?
  • How will our foundation prioritize needs?
  • Who will be eligible for grants?
  • What will be the timeframe for disaster grantmaking?
  • What vehicles will we use for funding?
  • Mission-related investments?
  • Pooled grants?
  • Pre-approved grants?
  • Contributions to a relief fund established by another organization?
  • In-kind support? If so, is it needed? (As I heard one person say, "a small town does not need 27,000 pounds of dog food".)
  • Fund a FTE at the state level?
  • How are we going to communicate with the media? (Source: Northern California Grantmakers)
4) Understand the general disaster response-recovery-preparedness-mitigation framework

Before a disaster strikes, take the time to understand who the disaster response leaders are in your community. It's important to understand the differences between local, state and federal response to disasters. Locally, you will have county, city and tribal emergency management agencies who are first responders and responsible for managing centralized emergency operations. These agencies will work closely with your local United Way, American Red Cross and/or your local chapter of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster to share knowledge, resources and responsiblity for immediate needs. Local government agencies are responsible for asking the state's department of emergency management for an emergency declaration. If the impacted area is large enough, your governor may declare an emergency; it's at this point that your regional FEMA office will evaluate the damage and report to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. From here, the President could choose to make an emergency or disaster declaration. These declarations make available a limited amount of federal resources for housing and other disater-related expenses. The Small Business Administration also provides disaster loans to individuals, households and small businesses. 

5) Use your foundation's influence to figure out who you need to know

Apart from the general process outlined above, it's important to understand who else has influence in your community. Who do people listen to -- your mayor, school superintendent, county health and human services department? What systems have influence or act as community hubs -- your library, local community foundation, United Way, civic organizations, family service organizations, businesses or faith-based organizations? These organizations and individuals are commonly called on to play a leadership role when disaster strikes. Many United Ways, for example, manage in-kind donations and the onslought of unsupervised volunteers that frequently arrive in the aftermath of a human or natural disaster. Your local community foundation may set up disaster relief funds or coordinate funding across a broad spectrum of foundations. And, your community bank may be instrumental in managing individual donations.

6) Build relationships early

Now that you know who you need to know, lay the groundwork for partnerships early. As Mary Jane Brell-Vujovic put it, "if you don't have a culture of working together, it's not going to magically happen" when a disaster strikes. Know your community, it's culture, and your role and strengths in relationship to supporting that community. Start talking to people. Don't let triage efforts for natural or human made disasters be trumped by the triage you need to do on unproductive partnerships.

7) Taking risks (or even losses) can lead to greater impact

Coastal Community Bank, which recently won the Healthy Community Corporate Champion Award from the Puget Sound Business Journal and The Seattle Foundation, has been repeatedly praised in the media for forgiving the debt on a former Darrington branch manager's home, one of many damaged in the Oso mudslide. The bank also forgave uninsured debt -- such as home, car and business loans -- for people and organizations affected by the mudslide. The bank's willingness to take a loss inspired other lenders to follow suit.

8) Be nimble if funding long-term recovery

The business of rebuliding after a disaster is complex. Some needs will emerge that seem obvious. For example, it does not come as a shock to hear that there are increased reports of chemical dependency and incidence of mental health crisis in Oso, Darrington and Arlington post-mudslide. However, other needs may not become apparent for several months or even years. For example, the federal government has provided seed money to the Snohomish region for planning and redevelopment, but depending upon the community's vision for re-building, community economic development needs could vary.

9) Be transparent and manage expectations

We aren't suggesting you be all things to all people when disaster strikes. It's important to understand the boundaries within which you will operate and be clear to grantees and grant seekers about your capacitiy and desire to facilitate preparation and response. The media has also been questioning use of disaster funds, so at the very least, you may want to consider being transparent about who you give to during disasters -- and why.

What's Next?

Philanthropy Northwest is in the process of completing a report on the mudslide; if you have lessons to share for our philanthropic network please contact the report's author - Allison Eltrich at aeltrich@philanthropynw.org.

We are also inviting all members to participate in a national survey developed by the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers and and The Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Data collected from the Strategies for the Philanthropic Sector in Response to Disasters and Tragedies Survey will be compiled into The Playbook, which is an online, interactive tool highlighting the innovative strategies, effective best practices, lessons learned, and successful collaborations that grantmakers and regional associations nationwide have supported and/or developed in response to natural disasters, terrorism, wide-scale violence and mass shootings. Your responses will also be reviewed by Philanthropy Northwest so we can strategically support you in your disaster preparedness, relief and response efforts. Please submit all responses by September 30, 2014.  If you have any questions or need assistance with the national survey, please contact Elizabeth Murphy at elizabeth.murphy@disasterphilanthropy.org.  Philanthropy Northwest is also developing a localized toolkit that reflects strategies and lessons learned from this region and we welcome your contributions. Please contact kholway@philanthropynw.org for more information.

We also want to express our deepest gratitude to the four panelists and our regional association peers in Colorado, New Jersey and Northern California. The four panelists have been gracious with their time and leadership to foundations, businesses and individuals across our region. We are lucky to have the opportunity to learn from their experiences. Our regional association peers have allowed us to borrow heavily from their research; we are better because of their expertise.

Finally, please see the below information for your state and federal emergency contacts.

State Emergency Departments

Alaska Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management
Department of Military & Veterans Affairs
PO BOX 5750, JBER, AK 99505-5750
Phone: (907) 428-7000

Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security
4040 Guard Street, Building 600
Boise, ID 83705-5004
Phone: (208) 422-3040

Montana Disaster & Emergency Services
PO Box 4789
Fort Harrison, MT 59636-4789
Email: mtdes@mt.gov
Twitter: @MontanaDES, @readymontana

Oregon Office of Emergency Management
PO Box 14370 (3225 State Street)

Salem, OR 97309
Phone: (503) 378-2911

Washington Military Department Emegency Management
20 Aviation Drive
Building 20, MS TA-20
Camp Murray, WA 98430
Main Switch Board: (800) 562-6108 or (253) 512-7000

24-hour State Alert & Warning Center: (800) 258-5990
Search and Rescue: (888) 849-2727
Emergency Operations Center: (800) 854-5406 or (253) 912-4900
Twitter: @waEMD

Wyoming Office of Homeland Security
5500 Bishop Boulevard
Cheyenne, WY 82002
Phone: (307) 777-4663
Email: wohs@wyo.gov

Twitter: @wyohs

Local FEMA Contacts


From its offices in Bothell, Washington, FEMA Region X works with the emergency management agencies of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington to accomplish FEMA’s mission to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards. Region X’s most common challenges are winter storms, flooding, landslides, earthquakes and fires.

Federal Emergency Management Agency
Federal Regional Center
130 - 228th Street, Southwest
Bothell, WA 98021-8627
(425) 487-4600


From its offices in Denver, FEMA's Region VIII works in partnership with emergency management agencies of Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. Region VIII's most common challenges are tornadoes, severe storms and winter storms that can also cause flooding, flash-flooding and landslides throughout the region.

Federal Emergency Management Agency
Denver Federal Center
Building 710, Box 25267
Denver, CO 80225-0267
(303) 235-4800


Foundations interested in helping their grantees or key community organizations prepare for a localized emergency or a community-wide event can support the development of a robust emergency plan through the 501 Commons nationally recognized Prepare/Respond/Serve program. This program has served over 20 organizations, most funded by United Way of King County and 18 low income housing facilities funded by the Volunteer Generation Fund, including 5 King County Housing Authority sites that just completed plans. Utilizing volunteer consultants, many of them military veterans, this program is a key component of succession planning as well. The cost is only $2500-$5000 per organization, a fraction of the cost of market rate services. Visit www.501commons.org