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The Maui wildfires: A record in disaster philanthropy, an opportunity to ‘get it right’ 

A sign about the Maui wildfires that says

Part of my work at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) involves monitoring philanthropic giving in response to disasters through our annual Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy: Data to Drive Decisions (SODP) report. However, due to lags in reporting, that data is two years behind. When we can look at numbers immediately after a disaster, it gives us a unique perspective. And 2023 set records in disaster relief funding. 

The Maui wildfires response 

The Maui wildfires in August, which affected Lahaina and Kula, stand out for the funds raised.  By late March, Honolulu Civil Beat’s Maui Fires Money Tracker had tallied more than $450 million in private donations and nearly $2 billion when including government assistance.  

Much of the non-governmental funding went to the Maui Strong Fund at the Hawai‘i Community Foundation (HCF), which received almost $188 million in donations (including earned interest) as of March 22. As far as we know, this is the highest amount ever raised by a single community foundation for a non-terrorism-related disaster. In addition, the Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez Maui Fund pledged $100 million, GoFundMe raised $60 million, the People’s Fund of Maui (Oprah and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) raised $60 million, and Maui United Way raised about $25 million.  

After 10 years of tracking disaster philanthropy through SODP, this is (as far as we know) the highest amount of philanthropic dollars ever raised for a wildfire response and recovery and for a single natural hazard in the United States. (That distinction previously belonged to the Greater Houston Community Foundation, after Hurricane Harvey.)  

And that’s only for one disaster last year. There were many more, including February’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria. A year later, Candid had tracked 465 grants worth $289 million and 55 pledges worth nearly $206 million in response to that disaster. 

Beyond all past disasters 

In December 2023, we released our 10th SODP report, which tracked $3 billion in philanthropic giving for disasters in 2021. In looking at Candid’s Foundation 1000 research sets, excluding epidemic-related funding, including for the COVID-19 pandemic, these large U.S. funders contributed $266.2 million. Only 2017 saw a higher total during this 10-year period, with $266.4 million awarded in response to non-epidemic disasters including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the earthquake in Mexico.  

Hawaii and Turkey combined or individually exceed the disaster-giving totals for a single year when we exclude epidemics (the COVID-19 pandemic skews the numbers because of the incredible response from individuals and philanthropic partners).  

Is the increase in disaster philanthropy due merely to the outsized impact these disasters had and the amount of media attention each received? Or has donor behavior changed as result of the pandemic? 

Pledges do not always equal grants 

SODP tracks philanthropic disaster giving primarily from institutional donors (private and public foundations). Our reporting on disaster giving is always two years behind because of data collection methods which rely heavily on IRS 990s. However, this delay is important, too, for pledges do not always equal final payments. In 2017, Candid and CDP tracked pledges totaling $531 million for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. But two years later, SODP 2019 reported just $255.7 million in confirmed donations. While some storm-specific funding may have been included in the “general” category instead, grantmaking for the entire year for all types of disasters totaled only $504 million, $27 million less than the amount pledged just for the three hurricanes. 

So, we may not be able to capture all sources of giving (individual giving is especially difficult to track comprehensively and consistently), and inaccurate grant descriptions can make it hard to allocate every dollar precisely. Still, more than $400 million in donations for a single disaster highlights just how strongly the Maui wildfires resonated with funders. 

Ensuring an equitable recovery 

Our tracking has also shown that most of the funding received for disasters goes to short-term response. Certainly, there are high needs in that immediate aftermath, but very little money is donated for long-term recovery, which is very expensive. In large part, this is because the costs of immediate recovery outweigh the funding available, or funders are unaware of where their dollars are most needed. Due to toxicity from the fires, many residents of Lahaina likely will have to wait another year before they can even start rebuilding.  

Philanthropic and nonprofit organizations in Maui may have the unique opportunity to save significant amounts of funding from the wildfires for future needs. Currently, government funding is paying for people still displaced by the fires to stay in hotels and other accommodation. The $500 million Interim Maui Housing Plan includes only $60 million from philanthropy but $440 million from government sources. Temporary and short-term housing are a very expensive component of the response phase, often supported by donations.  

Philanthropy can be nimble and fill gaps in government spending, while government funding will save philanthropy and nonprofits significant investment, freeing them up to thoughtfully determine how philanthropic investment in a disaster-affected community can “get it right.” This is a chance rarely afforded after a disaster, when too little money is raised to come anywhere close to addressing needs. Being thoughtful will include ensuring an equitable recovery that focuses on the needs of those most marginalized before the disaster. In Maui, this also means a culturally sensitive response to meet the needs of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. Recovery should help make people more resilient to future disasters.  

Photo credit: Center for Disaster Philanthropy


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