The Center for Disaster Philanthropy aims to better funnel relief after events like the devastation of New Orleans. (Photo by Federal Emergency Management Agency) 

The launch of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, timed to coincide with the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, took an unexpected turn when Hurricane Isaac barreled toward the Gulf Coast in August. Isaac turned out to be far less destructive than the 2005 storm, but left those in its wake with a powerful reminder that disasters are inevitable. So is the need for donations to respond to them.

Helping donors make better informed, smarter decisions about disaster philanthropy worldwide is the goal of the new center, based in Washington, D.C.

“We want to encourage people to focus on helping across the entire life cycle of a disaster,” says director Robert Ottenhoff, “not just in the immediacy of the event.” Money that’s given “in the passion of the day,” he adds, “is not always well spent.” By helping donors leverage their support to fund disaster mitigation, preparation, and long-term recovery, he adds, “we think we can really increase our impact.”

Foundation directors from the Gulf Coast region were the first to suggest a new center focused specifically on disaster philanthropy. “Katrina was the defining experience for them,” says Ottenhoff. Some local charities were overwhelmed by the flood of compassion that the storm unleashed, and turned away would-be donors. “We want to make sure we have the plans in place so nobody will have to ask that question again,” Ottenhoff says. He became the first executive director of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy in July after a decade at the helm of GuideStar, which provides research and analysis about nonprofits.

As the new center ramps up, Ottenhoff expects it to focus on three areas. As a knowledge center, it will compile and share research and resources about disaster philanthropy. The center also will create new funds to allow donors to pool resources and work collectively. Third, it will offer advisory services to foundations and private donors.

A parallel effort to educate potential donors about disaster response was launched in late summer by the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a coalition of more than 100 charities. Their message in a TV and radio campaign: “Give responsibly.” Along with educating potential donors, the coalition is encouraging charitable organizations to have fundraising plans in place in case disaster strikes.

Nonprofits that provide direct services to disaster victims are looking to the new center to help advance their mission. Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian agency that works in conflict zones as well as in regions hit by natural disasters, sees “a ton of potential value” in the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, says Jeremy Barnicle, chief development and communications officer for Mercy Corps. “It would be very helpful for donors to have a better appreciation for the benefits of disaster preparedness, which can greatly reduce the vulnerability of people to inevitable natural disasters. It would also be great if more donors understood the importance of long-term recovery after disasters.”

Patience is another message that donors might need to hear. Those who open their wallets after a disaster, with the best of intentions, can sometimes apply pressure “to spend disaster dollars fast, and yet that’s not always the best thing for those most affected by the disaster,” Barnicle adds.

From his work at GuideStar, Ottenhoff understands the value of providing donors with data and information. He also understands that not all donors are the same. “It sounds simplistic,” he adds, “but we need to find out what kind of services donors need and then meet those needs.” By providing donors with information tailored to their interests, Ottenhoff hopes they will “have more confidence, ultimately giving more money to disaster relief.”