10/5/22 Chronicle of Philanthropy – Opinion: Typical Post-Disaster Giving Practices Could Hamper Hurricane Ian Recovery

By Ben Smilowitz

Chronicle of Philanthropy

October 5, 2022

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, a familiar narrative is already taking shape. It goes like this: A major disaster sparks a flood of donations to the big relief organizations. These groups, with their large marketing departments, scramble to solicit funding, even if they lack the capacity on the ground to deliver aid. In the meantime, local nonprofits in disaster zones work overtime to address 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 get asked: What was achieved? How have the affected communities benefited from the outpouring of generosity that followed the disaster? Have those benefits been distributed equitably? The answers are usually 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 each time funds change hands, at least 9 percent is taken for overhead costs. Spending on overhead is fine when it’s deserved, but too often large organizations take such funds when they aren’t delivering any actual services — a problem that was well documented following Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the Haiti earthquake 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 by Candid and the Council on Foundations found only 13 percent of U.S. philanthropy humanitarian funding “went directly to organizations based in the country where programs were implemented.” Other research shows that number is as low as 3 percent.

Given all that the philanthropic and nonprofit world has learned from past disasters, isn’t it time to change this narrative? The answers aren’t complicated, but grant makers and individual donors need to consistently embrace them.

Tap Into Local Philanthropy

The most obvious place to start is with the nation’s more than 900 community foundations, which typically have a strong sense of local needs. Rather than sending money to national or international organizations headquartered in Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago with minimal direct connection to the impacted areas, donors can direct funds to credible community foundations in the hardest hit places.

More than a dozen community foundations are located in the parts 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 is working with local nonprofits, school districts, and governments to ensure resources go directly to neighborhoods in need.

Such local relief funds have proven to be among the most effective vehicles for giving in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and the ensuing years of recovery. Following Hurricane Katrina, philanthropic leaders from across the country came together to create the Foundation for Louisiana (first known as the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation) to act as a local conduit for disaster funds. The foundation has since supported hundreds of nonprofits in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, serving as a model for how to raise and equitably spend post-disaster dollars. Similarly, the Robin Hood Foundation in New York quickly and impressively raised and disbursed more than $82 million to local nonprofits following Superstorm Sandy.

Many community foundations across the country have well-established crisis and disaster funds that have successfully provided ongoing relief following recent disasters in CaliforniaHoustonOklahoma, and Puerto Rico, and all need continuing support.

Identify Effective Community Nonprofits

When considering charities to support after a disaster, donors often turn to organizations that publish information about nonprofit effectiveness, such asGuideStar and Charity Navigator. For general vetting purposes, both platforms provide ample information about governance, finances, and overhead and administrative costs. 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’s Hurricane Fiona “how to help” list shamelessly excluded nonprofits based in Puerto Rico when checked more than two weeks after the September 18 storm.

Rather than judge nonprofits according to slightly differing data on overhead expenses, donors should consider whether an organization can truly help when disaster strikes in a particular area. While nearly every charity says it deserves donations, most do not have existing relationships in communities and culturally competent local staffs and volunteers.

The nonprofit I head, the Disaster Accountability Project, discovered the extent of the problem when we surveyed hundreds of organizations following earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal and found many were raising funds without the capacity to deliver services. While the findings generated significant media attention, releasing this research six months or one year after the disaster was too late to influence donor behavior. We recognized that real-time, data-driven information was needed about how and where to donate.

To help fill the gap, 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 launching in the fall of 2017, more than 600 nonprofits from more than 60 countries and 25 U.S. states and territories have registered on the site at no charge. After undergoing a basic vetting and approval process, they share information about their services, local staff, finances, and track record in the region.

Such information allows donors to more easily differentiate between giving to Feeding America’s national headquarters in Chicago and giving directly to a local food bank or pantry in, say, Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian or San Juan, Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Fiona. Many of these groups don’t even have a functional website, so SmartResponse may be their only way to provide information essential for establishing credibility with donors, especially to those seeking to make expedited gifts after disasters.

Local nonprofits know which members of a community are most vulnerable, who might require accommodation 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-rights and housing-advocacy groups, legal aid, and other social safety-net programs that ensure needs are met and people don’t fall through the cracks. Finding these groups may be a little trickier than responding to another solicitation from a large relief organization, but it’s worth the effort.

Ben Smilowitz 

Ben Smilowitz is the founder and executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project and SmartResponse.org.