A Smarter Response: The Center for Disaster Philanthropy Looks to Leverage Donor Dollars

  Photo: MDay Photography/shuttterstock

 Photo: MDay Photography/shuttterstock

The internet offers us instant gratification. A movie is a mouse click away. Need to go somewhere? A car and driver are at your fingertips.  Want a date for next week? You can meet someone from the comfort of your couch. Reading about Hurricane Harvey as you scroll through Facebook and want to help? You don’t even have to open a new tab.

Many of you may have seen the prompts from Google and Facebook to donate to Hurricane Harvey recovery. What you may not have noticed is that the recipient of those funds was a small nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., called the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

The center hopes to satisfy the public’s need to help in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and temper it with the knowledge that recovery lasts well after donations dry up.

About 70 to 80 percent of money donated in the wake of a disaster goes to near-term relief. But disaster recovery always requires long-term, sustained work. 

“In a case like Harvey it’s going to take months and probably years to get kids back in school, get businesses open again, solve all the many housing problems, and for this effort there’s usually very little philanthropic support,” CDP’s President and CEO Bob Ottenhoff told me. 

The center, which was founded in 2012, is keen to make disaster philanthropy work better and increase donor effectiveness. In a short time, it's become a leading source of research in the field, publishing data on the state of disaster philanthropy (in collaboration with the Foundation Center) and conducting analyses of best practices for response and recovery.

But CDP isn't just another group of Beltway wonks. The center works in a hands-on way with donors—foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals—to deploy their money more strategically and effectively when disasters strike. Last year, CDP launched the Disaster Philanthropy Playbook, which is a compilation of strategies and lessons learned to improve donor effectiveness when calamities occur. Topics addressed in the playbook include everything from ensuring animal welfare to rebuilding homes and schools. 

Helping donors get smarter about playing the long game of disaster recovery is a key thrust of CDP's work. Analysis of philanthropic giving underscores just how quickly donations can taper off. "Over a third of private giving is done in less than the first four weeks of a sudden disaster... and two-thirds within two months," the disaster expert William Paton has found. "This giving stops almost completely after five or six months."

One of the center's strategies for smarter giving is to hold on to donations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster until it can coordinate with government agencies and national and local nonprofits to find out where funding gaps are and where money will be most effective.

That could entail supporting groups that are helping people with insurance or FEMA issues. It could be making sure there are enough case management personnel on the ground to get victims the things they need—including support for mental health issues, something we may not think about in the wake of a disaster. Ottenhoff said, “there’s going to be a lot of that, because it’s very traumatic to, in one day, lose your house, maybe lose all of your belongings, maybe lose your livelihood, and maybe even lose a loved one.”

The silver lining for a disaster like Harvey is that the media coverage tends to lead to an outpouring of donations. As of Friday evening, businesses had pledged $157 million for relief and recovery efforts, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Foundations and wealthy individuals have also promised millions. Perhaps the biggest donation so far is by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which committed $36 million to launch a Rebuild Texas Fund, which aims to raise $100 million. Another prominent philanthropic couple in Texas, John and Laura Arnold, contributed $5 million to the Greater Houston Charity Foundation.

The money is there, it just needs to be used effectively. For many of the disasters the CDP works on, that is not the case. And too often, donations trail off even as the hardest work begins. Even worse, funders may never pay attention to large-scale human suffering that unfolds out of view or over an extended time period. 

“Slow, complex, humanitarian crises do not get donors very engaged," Ottenhoff said. Generally, it takes an event like a tornado or a hurricane to generate the public awareness and media coverage that bring a swell of donations.

As Inside Philanthropy has reported, philanthropic support has badly lagged for the global refugee crises and funders are also paying scant attention to a set of four famines that now threaten millions of people in Africa and Yemen. More immediately, even as Harvey devastated Texas, extreme rainfall caused floods across Nepal, India and Bangladesh that claimed 1,200 lives and displaced millions of people from their homes. This massive disaster has attracted little media attention and limited private pledges for relief.