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Reflecting on gaps in disaster philanthropy

By Suzanne Coffman
November 7, 2019

Luis standing by the remains of his home after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Image: Jonathan Drake, Mercy Corps

I come from a family of volunteer firefighters and nurses. This heritage has molded many of my habits: I always unplug the iron when I’m done using it. I unplug Christmas lights before I leave the house or go to bed. I never leave the house with the washer, dryer, or dishwasher running. (I will turn them on right before I go to bed, which I’m sure has my maternal grandfather spinning in his grave.)

With this background, it’s not surprising that I find Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy 2019: Data to Drive Decisions particularly interesting. Released today, the report draws from 12 data sources and documents $45 billion in private, public, corporate, and individual disaster-related giving to address major global disasters and humanitarian crises in 2017. Candid partnered with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to produce the report, the sixth in an annual series.

The finding that struck me most is that in 2017, a mere 2 percent of disaster philanthropy went to preparedness and another 2 percent to resiliency. As a woman who religiously unplugs irons and unattended Christmas lights because they’re fire hazards, these paltry amounts distress me. To my fellow donors, I say: think of how much suffering could be prevented, or at least lessened, if we gave as much to help people prepare for and withstand disasters as we do for immediate relief.

Almost equally disheartening, only 17 percent of donations in 2017 went to reconstruction and recovery efforts. In most disasters, long after reporters and volunteers have departed the scene, the people left behind are still rebuilding their lives. I recently visited Grand Turk, where I learned that people on the island are still recovering from Hurricane Irma, which happened two years ago. And I’m sure that, like me, you’ve heard news reports about Puerto Rico’s continuing struggle to rebuild after Hurricane Maria, which cut a swath of destruction not long after Irma.

I get it: when a hurricane or tornado hits, you want to help now, for that disaster. I feel the same way. But think about how much impact gifts toward preparedness or long-term recovery could have. We (I’m counting myself here) don’t have to stop giving to specific emergencies, but we might consider devoting some of our contributions to either preparedness or long-term recovery—or both.

Here are other key findings from this year’s report:

  • Disaster philanthropy totaled $504 million in 2017.
  • Disaster-related funding by the top 1,000 largest U.S. foundations doubled between 2016 and 2017.
  • The majority—65 percent—of funding in 2017 went to natural disasters.
  • In terms of disaster-assistance strategies, 64 percent of dollars were for response and relief, 17 percent for reconstruction and recovery, 2 percent for resilience, and 2 percent for preparedness.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed $15.6 billion for U.S. disasters in 2017, an $11.9 billion increase from 2016.
  • Available data indicates corporate giving programs committed at least $275.4 million to disasters and humanitarian crises in both cash and in-kind donations.

If you’d like to learn more about the state of disaster philanthropy, download your free copy of the report, check out the interactive dashboard and funding map, and join the free webinar, “Measuring the State of Philanthropy 2019,” on Thursday, November 14, at 2:00 p.m. ET/1:00 p.m. CT.

Tags: Disaster philanthropy