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Grantmaking in response to disasters

Posted on 21 Mar 2009

By Chris Borthwick, thinker-in-residence, Our Community

If there's one thing we have no shortage of these days, it's disasters. Correspondingly, a number of grantmaker associations have gone to the trouble of collecting and distilling the wisdom on the best ways for dealing with them.

As Victoria reels from record-breaking heat and fires, Queensland mops up after cyclones and floods, and the whole country contemplates the prospect of ongoing drought and climate change, GMQ goes looking for the best advice about what can grantmakers can do to support the victims and the agencies that work with them.

If you were looking for a succinct statement of the problems of disaster grantmaking, you couldn't go past Mark McMaster.

Mr McMaster contacted Centrelink 28 times during February and March to claim the $1000 Federal Government disaster recovery payment.

Each time he gave a false name and date of birth, and a street address he picked from Melway.

At the same time, Centrelink was coming under strong attack in the media for seeking identification from those seeking government assistance in the wake of the February bushfires and floods.

When there's a disaster, things have to be done fast. The usual precautions take too long. The usual precautions, though, are there for a reason, and when you omit them you have to expect trouble to follow.

With disaster grantmaking, you don't have the chance to get everything right; all you can do is to balance your risks against your priorities and the urgency of the need. It's not an easy balance, and you need all the help you can get.

You can get quite a bit of help from Best Practices in Disaster Grantmaking; Lessons from the Gulf Coast, by the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers.

Developed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated vast swathes of the Gulf coast of America in 2005, the guide sums up the lessons from that disaster, as outlined below:

  • Use key people in the affected communities. Recognise, respect, and utilise the skills and knowledge of key people and local leaders in the affected communities.
  • Utilise existing relationships to gather information. Leverage existing relationships with non-profit partners in the local community.
  • Be willing to take risks. Overcome the inherent cautiousness of grantmakers and invest in non-profit organisations that have not previously received significant support.
  • Share information with other funders. Foster collaborative relationships with peers, share ideas and funding opportunities, and encourage direct communication with non-profit organisations in the affected communities.
  • Put staff "on the ground." Use staff to develop relationships in the affected communities to garner knowledge about the ever-changing needs of the communities as they move through the recovery process, and to provide practical support to non-profit organisations in the days immediately following a disaster.
  • Be proactive. Don't wait for non-profit organisations in the affected communities to request assistance- make phone calls and offer support.
  • Create collaborative funding efforts. Work with your peers to pool funds and maximise financial resources available to the affected areas.
  • Defer a portion of grant dispersal. Rather than providing only short-term funding to the affected communities, wait to see what "gaps" need to be filled, and provide medium- and long-term funding in those areas.
  • Expand your funding focus. Recognise the extraordinary circumstances that arise following disasters and look for opportunities to fund outside traditional funding guidelines.
  • Simplify the application process. Modify the grant application process to minimise demands made on non-profits in the weeks and months following a disaster, and use common application forms whenever possible.

The guide also warns against:

  • Paternalism. It is imperative that affected communities be allowed to determine what they need for recovery. Trust those on the ground to make the decisions and listen to what they need.
  • Failing to modify application and reporting requirements. Loss of data, lack of basic equipment, and decreased staffing may make it impossible for non-profit organisations to submit traditional applications and collect data typically required for reporting. Grantmakers must recognise these very real limitations and adjust expectations accordingly.
  • Failing to recognise recovery time required following a disaster.Funders need to recognise that it may take years, not weeks or months, for communities to return to their pre-disaster levels of operation.
  • Investing quickly rather than well. If funders don't have existing relationships in a region, talk to other funders and learn. Don't give money to the largest institutions in the region in the hope it will trickle down to those that are actually serving the communities in need.
  • Forcing non-profit collaboration. Disaster recovery is not the time for non-profit organisations to be developing radically new programs. Collaboration between non-profits must occur organically and should not be forced.
  • Failing to respect the time of non-profit leaders. Some grantmakers expected non-profits to arrange tours, participate in meetings, and introduce them to other non-profits and then failed to provide funding to the organisation. Visits should not be made to a non-profit organisation unless funding for that organisation is almost certain.

Even in the aftermath of disasters, it seems, there's time for a little grant rage -

"At a time when people were struggling to rebuild all aspects of their personal and professional lives," the guide says, "when leaders in the non-profit community were working 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, the need to again stop work to show yet another potential funder the damage caused by the disaster led to feelings of frustration and resentment."

These comments illustrate the importance of stepping carefully into a disaster zone. Don't go there unless you mean to stay there.

An earlier guide produced as a result of a Euro-American collaboration between the European Foundation Centre and the US Council on Foundations, provides similarly good advice.

Disaster Grantmaking: A Practical Guide for Foundations and Corporations, which was released in 2001, sets out eight principles of good disaster management, many of which overlap with the advice given above (and in fact are good practices to adopt in ordinary times as well as during emergency situations).

  1. First, do no harm.
    Not all disaster assistance is beneficial. Aim to ensure that your grant contributes to the solution and not to the problem.
  2. Stop, look and listen before taking action. Information is the key to good disaster grantmaking. Every disaster has unique characteristics. Learn the specifics of a disaster before deciding how to respond.
  3. Don't act in isolation. Coordination can reduce duplication of effort, make efficient use of resources and ensure that the highest-priority needs are addressed first.
  4. Think beyond the immediate crisis to the long term. Grantmakers can play a very useful role before the crisis by supporting disaster prevention and preparedness activities and afterward by filling gaps between emergency relief and long-term development programs.
  5. Bear in mind the expertise of local organisations. Community-based organisations and NGOs with a local presence are the first on the scene when disasters occur. They know best what assistance is needed and they understand the complex political, social and cultural context of a disaster.
  6. Find out how prospective grantees operate. Organisations that work on disasters vary greatly in their approach and overall philosophy. It is wise to know what approach you are supporting.
  7. Be accountable to those you are trying to help. Grantmakers should be accountable to the people they seek to assist, and need to engage their grantees in a process that assesses social impact.
  8. Communicate your work and use it as an educational tool. Highlighting examples of good disaster grantmaking is an excellent way for grantmakers to educate both internal and external audiences.

As you can see, this advice is directed at grantmakers who make grants to organisations rather than those that make grants to individuals. However, most of the advice is scaleable, and among the report's practical suggestions are some more specific tips.

  • Identify potential grantee partners in advance. Link disaster grants to your organisation's mission, expertise or program focus.
  • Explore partnerships and cooperation with other grantmakers.
  • Establish internal guidelines and criteria for when and where your organisation will make disaster grants - but make them flexible enough to respond to unanticipated situations.
  • Set up streamlined internal decision-making procedures for disaster grants. Some grantmakers require only a brief written proposal in emergency situations, or they may permit the grantee to write a formal proposal after the grant has been made on the basis of a verbal agreement. Other grantmakers allow partners in disaster-affected areas to redirect previously approved development grants for emergency purposes.
  • If you have local employees in the disaster area, develop a disaster plan for communicating with them (as well as their families) and for meeting their needs.
  • Don't make assumptions about what's needed in a particular disaster situation; every disaster is different.
  • Media reports can provide spot information, but can't substitute for a professional assessment of disaster needs.
  • Don't feel pressured to make a quick grant when a disaster takes place. It's unlikely that your funds will make a difference in the first 48 hours when most casualties occur. Take time to find out about the situation.
  • Cash assistance is nearly always preferable to donated goods, because it allows for maximum flexibility to meet the highest priority needs and can be used to purchase required items in the disaster-affected area, thereby boosting the local economy while minimising transport costs.
  • Grants that strengthen local organisational capacity to respond to future disasters are a good investment in saving lives and livelihoods. Consider making grants for general operating support.
  • Organisations which have an ongoing presence in a community, a local staff, and a commitment to participatory development are better positioned to respond to all phases of the disaster cycle than external organisations like yours that enter a community only during the emergency and then withdraw.
  • Require grantees to provide more than just a financial report that shows how the funds were spent. Press them to assess the social impact of the grant.
  • Make grants for research on the root causes of specific disasters, how people have traditionally coped, and what modern technology can contribute to mitigating future problems. Be sure to include funds to disseminate the results.
  • Convene or support meetings of funders and grantees to exchange experience and ideas with respect to disaster management issues.
  • Work with the media to raise public awareness about disasters by encouraging disaster coverage that goes beyond dramatic events and personal stories to include an examination of root causes of disasters; the political, economic and social factors that contribute to them; and the important role of disaster prevention.
  • Consider making a grant to send a member of the media on a site visit to a disaster area to publicise why the affected population was so vulnerable and what steps could be taken to reduce their vulnerability in the future.

Looking at these American summaries, it's clear that a high priority for Australian grantmakers should be to get together and work up their own version.

Everyone hopes that each disaster we face will be the last. Sadly, it seems there's always one more around the corner.

Examine your processes in the light of the information above and think about your own lessons from recent months. Get ready for next time.

This article first appeared in Grants Management Quarterly, Edition 27, March 2009.

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