A billion dollars is a lot of money.

A billion dollars in damage is the US government’s benchmark for measuring the relative impact of natural disasters. In the United States alone, the number of billion-dollar disaster events—from western wildfires to Texas tornadoes—continues to climb, with new threats rising almost faster than we can measure them.

When disasters strike, advances in philanthropy as a field of practice—leverage, collective capacity, and coalition-building—should kick into high gear. Yet research and our own experience indicate that private giving, including from foundations, remains loosely coordinated and dramatically declines after five or six months.

What does this mean for struggling communities?

We know that the people most adversely affected by disasters are the people who were already at risk and vulnerable pre-disaster. We also know that risk is distributed according to larger social forces, particularly those affecting the allocation of resources, such as the power to determine where a levee is built or money to afford a safe home. In other words, we know that disasters strike where we in philanthropy live.

Whether we recognize it or not, many of us in the social sector are working on disasters every day. We don’t call it that, but increasingly that’s what the work is. Climate change, predatory lending, unemployment, youth substance abuse, the dismantling of voting rights, “pay or stay” disparities in the justice system—these are all disasters. Their scale and frequency are increasing, and our current, very best efforts are not sufficient. We need to shift our focus to preparedness and resilience.

FEMA’s 2011 disaster recovery framework offers a useful lens for examining the social sector’s resilience at a whole-systems level, and highlights the key to resilience—to surviving a disaster intact or even stronger—is preparedness. As a sector, we need to better prepare for a rapidly changing operating environment—an environment where the basic infrastructures of law, accountability, and opportunity may be under siege, and where recovery is measured in years, not in months or election cycles.

What does better preparedness look like?

Over the last two years, our foundations have experimented with new ways of working in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The storm’s high-water mark was recorded on New York City’s Staten Island—one of the most severely impacted areas in the mid-Atlantic region. Recognizing the storm’s devastation created a new level of urgency, the New York State Health Foundation (NYS Health) and the Staten Island Foundation (TSIF) teamed up to share knowledge, networks, capital, and other resources that would support recovery. We engaged a top-notch consultant to help us take quick action, revamped our internal processes to facilitate rapid community engagement, and sped up grant cycles. Together, we significantly increased our return on investment beyond what either foundation could have achieved on its own, producing tangible benefits for Staten Island’s most affected communities.

Our experience offers insight on the sector’s preparedness in two critical areas—a shared sense of urgency and improved data infrastructure—that have implications for philanthropic practice generally, regardless of how one defines “disaster.”

Share a sense of urgency.

Funding practices can have dire consequences, and for many communities can mean the difference between vulnerability and resilience.

The genesis of our foundations’ collaboration was simple: In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, NYS Health recognized that the storm thrust TSIF—an important funder in the Staten Island community—into unchartered terrain.

Acting on research on the value of local philanthropy, NYS Health quickly offered TSIF a flexible grant to engage a consultant who could serve as thought and implementation partner. NYSHealth’s modest but catalytic investment helped TSIF leverage its long track record as a trusted community partner, an advocate for and with community networks, and a local nonprofit supporter. TSIF secured tremendous additional support as it became the go-to resource for Hurricane Sandy recovery activities on Staten Island, and contributed to the policy recommendations of the Federal Hurricane Sandy Task Force.

Contrast this funder-to-funder approach with practices that routinely keep nonprofits, at the best of times, under-resourced and on the edge of preparedness. For example, the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that only 52 percent of nonprofit leaders believe their funders are aware of the everyday challenges their organizations face, and just 31 percent believe their funders “take advantage of their myriad resources to help address” these challenges. New research by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations found that only 25 percent of funders support nonprofit resilience with general operating support.

How we engage with grantees often sets up unrealistic, unfinanced, and unattainable goals—and leaves many nonprofits vulnerable in what are increasingly high-risk environments. Funders, alone and together, can do better. A good place to start is by examining our funding practices and taking steps to improve them—today.

Improve the sector’s data infrastructure.

The important and diverse roles foundations play across the spectrum of post-disaster relief, recovery, and resilience have been well documented. Much literature on disaster philanthropy offers “how-to” instructional guidance or “who funded what” retrospective analyses—often published years later. This after-action research is critical to developing funders’ insights and response over time, but its focus is largely on funder behavior not community capacity.

What communities affected by disaster need most is good, real-time data on current needs, resources, and gaps. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the limits of our sector’s data infrastructure became painfully apparent to us. Absent good data, nonprofits in affected areas—often the first-responders—must instead navigate a rush of new attention and potential funders. Many attend multiple briefings with well-meaning supporters, hoping to cultivate relationships for the long haul. Philanthropy New York (PNY), for instance, convened invaluable weekly phone meetings to facilitate communication across the regional association’s membership. PNY’s early support also enabled TSIF to establish a special grantmaking fund.

But when the rush of funder interest subsides, funders and nonprofits are often back where they started: Data infrastructure remains underinvested, and at-risk communities struggle to map resources and gaps, collectively leverage large-scale data analyses, and actually move toward resilience. Beyond disasters, at a sector level, this unrealized potential has a clear dampening effect on everything we do, including policy research, community organizing, and advocacy.

What could a whole-systems level of preparedness look like? The experience of disaster-affected communities dramatically illustrates what a shared sense of urgency and improved data infrastructure can accomplish. Communities that leverage data effectively play an important role in directing valuable resources and effecting positive outcomes.

The Foundation Center’s new online grant visualization tool Foundation Maps is a potential game-changer, offering both funders and nonprofits a common framework to define, map, and share data in real time. We are hopeful that funders of all kinds will invest in and adapt such tools for multiple uses, including documenting disaster grantmaking in real time.

Whether it’s an Ebola outbreak in West Africa or a bankrupt Detroit, “disaster” communities are our proverbial canaries in the coalmine—not just for what they reveal about the underlying state of society’s infrastructure, but how they impact us as people. Because often when disasters happen, we see ourselves. We see our own fragility and vulnerability. For a few moments, we see “us,” not just “them.”

As we’ve seen so clearly in Staten Island, the first responders in the wake of disasters are often the communities who are most directly affected. Communities spring to action and self-organize before others even begin to mobilize. Images of communities pulling together after a disaster enable us to connect in profound ways.

We must find ways to sustain that connection, to make more visible the disasters that continue to unfold around our program goals and strategies, to bring forward a sense of urgency and commitment in our work and communities. Together, we can move from preparedness to resilience—and together is the only way we will.

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