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What happened in 2020 disaster philanthropy beyond COVID-19?  

Cover of the disaster report

The year 2020 was an astounding year for disaster philanthropy, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy report, published by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) and Candid, tracked roughly $121 billion in aid to date in 2020 across multiple sources—including bilateral and multilateral aid, U.S. federal agencies, donor-advised funds, and giving platforms.  

Of the $5.2 billion from private and community foundations and public charities, 96% of dollars addressed disease outbreaks (mainly COVID-19).i What did the remaining $223 million in disaster aid address? The numerous other disasters and humanitarian crises occurred or continued to occur that year—events that were overshadowed by the pandemic.  

Chart showing distribution of funding during 2020. 96% went to epidemics, mainly COVID-19. 2% went to other natural disasters, 2% went to general disasters, less than 1 % went to man-made accidents or complex humanitarian emergencies.

Here’s a reminder of what else happened in 2020, how institutional philanthropy responded, how COVID-19 affected other disaster response efforts, and what this means for the future of disaster philanthropy.  

5 disaster events from 2020 to remember 

  • Wildfires. The year 2020 began with bushfires in Australia and ended with wildfires throughout North America. In between these events, a significant portion of the Amazon rainforest burned. “Wildfires are becoming more intense and more frequent,” according to the UN Environment Programme, exacerbated by climate change and land-use changes. In the annual disaster philanthropy report, we tracked nearly $37 million in wildfire funding to date in 2020 by institutional philanthropy.ii 
  • Syrian refugee crisis. Since 2011, more than 13 million Syrians have been displaced. Refugees have sought asylum around the globe but primarily in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Millions are also internally displaced within Syria. It is one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Some $2.3 million in funding was identified for this crisis in 2020 by foundations and public charities.  
  • Beirut explosion. On August 4, 2020, two explosions rocked the port area of Beirut, Lebanon when a warehouse containing explosive ammonium nitrate detonated. The blasts caused destruction for several miles, killing nearly 220 people and injuring more than 6,000 others. Philanthropy responded to one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history with $1.4 million in aid.   
  • Puerto Rico “earthquake swarm.” Puerto Rico experienced a series of earthquakes beginning in December 2019. On January 7, 2020, a 6.4 magnitude mainshock left nearly 1 million people without access to power. Relief efforts were hindered by more than 4,000 aftershocks, registering 2.55 or greater on the Richter scale. Four lives were lost, and the estimated economic damage was $3.1 billion. We identified $791,176 to date in earthquake funding for Puerto Rico. 
  • U.S. Midwest derecho. On August 10, 2020, a line of severe thunderstorms moved across the Midwest. The destruction of a derecho can be like that of a tornado, except its damage occurs in a relatively straight path. Like tornadoes, there can be little to no warning before they strike. CDP’s Cari Cullen describes a derecho as a “storm with hurricane-force winds in a place where the infrastructure isn’t built for hurricane-force winds.” A mere $401,350 in funding was identified specifically for the costliest thunderstorm event in U.S. history. 

This list isn’t exhaustive, and far more could have been written about hurricanes, droughts, and other disasters and humanitarian crises that happened in 2020.  

How COVID-19 impacted disaster response efforts 

The pandemic complicated response efforts to other disasters. Why? Protocols that are now standard in 2022 had to be figured out on the fly in 2020. 

For example, emergency managers struggled to find extra stockpiles of face coverings, disinfectant, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) at a time of limited supply. Urgent medical care was a challenge with hospitals already overrun with COVID-19 patients. Health screenings and social distancing protocols had to be organized. Emergency community shelters, typically located in tents or large indoor spaces, were deemed unsafe, and responders had to arrange for other solutions, like hotels or university dorm rooms. Emergency meals and relief supplies were now distributed via drive-through pick-ups or individual deliveries. Programs shifted to virtual offerings (e.g., telehealth and electronic cash payment systems). Non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) staff deployment, coordination, and collaboration also needed to take place virtually.  

Navigating the challenges of the pandemic was a crash course in managing multiple disasters at one time. It also taught us that now is the time for a more proactive approach to disaster philanthropy.  

“All funders are disaster funders” 

The large-scale global response to the pandemic, amid other concurrent crises, demonstrated that all funders are, indeed, disaster funders. As Regine Webster, vice president at CDP, explains, “It fundamentally does not matter what your funding focus is. At some point, that geography, that issue, or that population you care about is going to be affected by a disaster event.”  

Philanthropy and social sector organizations played a vital role in responding to multiple crises in 2020. And the sector will continue to respond, as we anticipate more frequent and severe natural hazards and as forced displacement of global populations worsen

CDP sums up its recommendations for disaster philanthropy in this year’s annual report, urging the social sector to: “Support equity. Know your local organizations. Be flexible. Provide unrestricted funding. Fund recovery. Support racialized communities. Share your data with Candid.”  

To learn more, please join CDP and Candid on November 17 for a free webinar to discuss the annual report and the unusual impact of COVID-19 on giving in 2020. To find out more about a specific disaster event, follow CDP’s disaster profiles—which are summary snapshots of major disaster events: their impact, critical needs, and ways to help. And when you’re ready to dive deeper into shaping your organization’s strategies and practices, consider visiting CDP’s Disaster Philanthropy Playbook.

i Differences in total philanthropic giving figures for COVID-19 compared to previously published Philanthropy and COVID-19 reports are due to different ways of analyzing the data and additional data collection. In this year’s Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy report, awards by corporate giving programs and high-net-worth individuals are not included in institutional philanthropy and are tracked separately. Pledges (announced intentions to award a monetary or in-kind contribution) are also not counted in total funding.   

ii Data collection for 2020 is still underway and, therefore, all giving figures are presented as funding “to date.” 


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  • Mariam youssef says:

    May 30, 2023 10:57 am

    Thanks alot for your support