COF: Disaster Déjà vu

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

By Eric Kessler, Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors

One year ago the Council met and the hallways were filled with talk of the Cyclone that had just struck Myanmar, followed 10 days later by the earthquake in China.  People were dying and communities were destroyed.  And the philanthropy community was the deer in the disaster headlight.  Today the Council meets as the H1N1 Flu Virus fills participants morning newspapers and, some suggest, the planes that brought us to Atlanta and the buses that take us to site visits.  Judging by discussions I’ve had with participants here in Atlanta, the philanthropy community appears to be maintaining its position as a deer in the disaster headlight.

At today’s session on Disaster Philanthropy (featuring Ronna Brown of Philanthropy NY, Akhtar Badshah of Microsoft, and Regine Webster, a consultant to the Hilton Foundation and Arabella Advisors.) few audience members believed that the H1N1 virus had reached disaster proportions.  A quick non-scientific survey suggested that 10 deaths in one’s community might lead to engaged philanthropy.  1000 deaths would be a real motivating factor. 

What motivates us to get engaged during or after a disaster is second to the bigger question of what it take for philanthropy to think proactively about disaster philanthropy.  How many hurricanes, wildfires or terrorist attacks will it take for family, institutional and corporate philanthropists to examine their average annual donations following disasters and think ahead about how those dollars could have a greater impact when the next one hits?  Disaster-related giving surely is the one are of grantmaking that has the highest volume of dollars yet the smallest amount of strategic planning.

If every foundation present at the Council conference supported their grantees in building preparedness plans, maintained relationships with disaster recovery organizations with the capacity to act quickly, and considered their own grantmaking continuity should a disaster impact their own operations, the long-term impact of everything from Katrina to the H1N1 flu would be significantly reduced – saving millions of philanthropic dollars. 

The Council is going to host a donor teleconference on the flu virus on Thursday (details forthcoming on their website.)  Hopefully that will have some impact on the philanthropic response to this crisis.  And hopefully this disaster will be the tipping point that finally engages donors so we get ahead of the next disasters headlights.


  1. Pete Manzo says:

    If I could suggest one aspect of disaster preparedness and response the funders and others might discuss in the meeting you mention they are having on Thursday, it would be the need for a coordinated system of providing information to the public in event of a public health emergency or natural disaster. It would be best to have a network in place, whatever can be supported, before a disaster occurs. To take the swine flu as an example, in San Diego, California, within a day or two of swine flu cases being reported in San Diego (on the California border with Mexico), San Diego County public health officials quickly began referring callers to the 211 service in San Diego, and 211 providers throughout the state also began to receive a high volume of calls. What the county officials realized is that, while putting out a recorded message or using reverse 911 is a good way to blast out information, that exchange is only one-way, and also, many people want to ask for more information, or more current information, than a recording or automated system can provide. They want to speak with a live person.

    An efficient 211 network is essential – it can be the best way to get accurate information flowing, in both directions, and not overwhelm government systems, many of which are hastily arranged by public officials or organizations and agencies that are set up only to be active in immediate response to disaster. 211 services can be available to respond immediately when a disaster strikes, and, often more importantly, the service is around after the emergency situation has subsided to assist people in disaster recovery which can take from several weeks to several months. Hotlines from government or disaster relief agencies pop up after a disaster strikes and shut down soon afterwards, leaving the public with no where to go for assistance unless they have a 211 in their community.

    A 211 network also gets put to much better use, day-to-day, outside of disasters, so investing in 211 may provide a better return than investing in something that only gets used when disasters hit .

    I’m only aware of 211 in the U.S. and Canada, but there are probably equivalents elsewhere. Countries without such a system, however, especially developing ones, could really benefit from 211. Cell phone and text message may be best way to reach folks, and also, again, help collect and funnel information to government, medical and other responders.

  2. Eric Kessler says:

    I think there is consensus among disaster response and recovery professionals that effective communications structures are critical — and lacking. Some efforts I am familiar with that are inching towards what you are suggesting include NetHope and some of the information sharing platforms offered by Interaction and ReliefWeb.

    These aren’t working at the municipal level you are looking for, but they are among the best aggregrators of disaster information out there.

    I suspect some philanthropists would argue that the dial-in service you describe is squarely in the quadrant of government’s role. Of course we could be waiting a long time for government to take that up.

    Perhaps as a starting point, and more closely related to philanthropists core competencies, social service organizations at a local level could be resourced proactively to build their own disaster communications networks among their existing constituencies? I know this is happening in a few communities, but not nearly enough.

  3. Alyssa says:

    Hi Eric,
    Thanks for your overview. Was there any discussion about focusing more on mitigation through public policies that assess and reduce risk? This has seemed to me to be the missing link in the disaster management system for far too long and though I have heard foundations talk about preparedness I have yet to hear much talk about mitigation. Thanks!

  4. Eric Kessler says:

    Alyssa, great question. This wasn’t a point of discussion at the CoF session we led. More due to a lack of time than a lack of concern. There are some great cross-sector conversations going on about this though. In my opinion, any policy discussion about climate change, for example, is inherently about disaster mitigation.

    If you are able to join CoF’s call today about disasters, this could be another good venue to raise the point. (Details on their website.)

    As I continue to beat the drum on disaster philanthropy I’ll try to do a better job of integrating the mitigation issue. Thanks for the nudge.