Disaster Relief: Help Now, Help Later, Help Better

Disaster Relief: Help Now, Help Later, Help Better

hands distributing oranges in a food distribution
If you’ve had the impression that you’ve heard more about natural disasters in recent years, you’re right: Between 2006 and 2015, an average of 127 disasters were declared annually in the United States alone—more than double the average amount of annual disaster declarations in the country over the previous 63 years.[1]

Rising temperatures have caused the atmosphere to hold more moisture, increasing the intensity of rainfall and thus increasing the likelihood and intensity of floods and the deadliness of hurricanes and monsoons. At the same time, rising sea levels heighten the risk of storm surge in coastal areas, while inland higher temperatures paired with lower than average precipitation have resulted in droughts, extreme heat waves, and wildfires.

As the frequency and intensity of natural disasters rise, the threat to the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable becomes more severe. A United Nations and Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters joint report on global disaster mortality from 1996 to 2015 found that an average of 327 people died per disaster in low-income countries in that 20-year span, almost five times more than the average mortality per disaster in high-income countries.[2] Additionally, survivors of disasters in poor countries are at least five times as likely to be displaced by extreme weather than people in rich countries.[3]

As disasters become more and more commonplace, it is increasingly important for donors to understand how to make their giving more effective. Keep these strategies in mind as you plan your giving.

Help Now

When disaster strikes, give cash, not goods. Unless people at the site of the disaster report that specific items are needed, sending cash is best. The early days of responding to a disaster are often chaotic. There isn’t time to sort through donations, which then take up space or likely go to waste. Needs also change fast, and cash donations allow organizations responding to the disaster to shift purchases and programming as the situation evolves. If you want to give something more tangible, consult NeedsList, which matches the specific needs of NGOs and disaster victims to donors and local suppliers of needed goods. Purchasing needed goods from local suppliers avoids shipping costs and supports the local economy in addition to helping victims.

For immediate relief, give locally as well as to national and international groups. When a disaster hits, local organizations in disaster-affected areas are often able to determine what their communities need most to recover. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, RAPIDO, a coalition of six organizations in Texas worked to accelerate disaster recovery in the area through a bottom-up community-based approach, considering architectural issues such as inadequate building codes as well as the social, economic, political and policy environment.

Large national and multinational organizations can provide important support post-disaster, too. Because these organizations often have presences and networks in place in areas before disasters hit, they are often able to mobilize and provide emergency response very quickly. For example, CARE, an international humanitarian agency, has a presence in 95 countries around the world and emergency response experts in all continents, meaning the organization is able to provide emergency relief supplies to survivors shortly after a disaster hits.

Help Later

Plan on recovery taking a long time. For example, it took a full year for almost all communities in Puerto Rico to regain electricity after Hurricane Maria took out the island’s power grid in September of 2017, and even in 2019 houses and major infrastructure, like bridges and roads, are still being rebuilt.[4] In contrast, media and donor attention to a disaster is quite short. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy estimates that one-third of all giving is complete within one to four weeks of a disaster occurring; two-thirds of giving is complete one to two months after the disaster; six months post-disaster, giving has stopped.

Full recovery efforts are typically on the scale of years, and philanthropy is still needed well after the event. Strategies donors can use to combat this mismatch of short-term giving and long-term needs include giving to a pooled fund that gathers donations when attention is greatest but disburses grants to individual nonprofits over a longer time period. Examples include several funds run by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Donors can also consider setting aside funds to make multi-year gifts to organizations which are engaged in longer term recovery efforts, and monitor the progress over time.

Help Better

Donors can have a significant long-term impact by taking the opportunity to dedicate part of their donations to preventing and preparing for future disasters. Although just 11% of disaster assistance giving in North America in 2016 went towards resilience, risk reduction, mitigation, and preparedness, research shows that every dollar spent on disaster preparedness results in at least six dollars of savings.[3] Consider supporting efforts promoting innovation, coordination, accountability, and prevention.

What follows are examples of initiatives working to address both immediate disaster relief and long-term preparation and mitigation with a focus on innovation, coordination, accountability, and prevention.

Fund innovative approaches. After a disaster hits, one of the most effective ways of improving the lives of survivors is direct cash transfers. For example, in 2017, the World Food Programme assisted 19.2 million people at risk of starvation with cash transfers, amounting to 30% of WFP’s food assistance portfolio. Dispensing cash instead of food where possible is a relatively new approach, and has reduced the cost of assistance, maximizing the number of people that can be reached, and allowing for more flexible and responsive help. Studies have shown that every $1 given to a refugee or vulnerable citizen results in another $2 in the local economy.

Other innovative approaches address climate change. More than 150 million people live on land that will be below sea level or regular flood levels by the end of the century.[5] Mitigating the damage of rising sea levels requires considerable innovation and creativity. The Rockefeller Foundation established 100 Resilient Cities in 2013 in order to help cities build resilience to 21st century challenges, like increasing natural disasters. 100 cities were selected to join the 100RC network, representing more than one-fifth of the world’s urban population, and were provided with the resources to develop a plan to become more economically and physically resilient. Although the existing 100 Resilient Cities organization concluded on July 31, 2019, The Rockefeller Foundation announced that same month that it would dedicate $8 million to continue supporting member cities within the network.

Coordinate for more efficient distribution of aid. When a disaster strikes, the sheer volume of organizations on the ground trying to help can make providing effective and efficient aid to those who need it most difficult. Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid nonprofit, coordinates with local, national, and international responders to avoid duplications of efforts, logistical bottlenecks, and to ensure resources are used efficiently.

Coordination and information sharing between disaster relief organizations can lead to more effective organizations and targeted aid. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) is an association of organizations involved in the mitigation and alleviation of disasters that works to improve the delivery of services to disaster affected communities by providing a forum promoting cooperation, communication, coordination, and collaboration. National members include the American Red Cross, Americares, Direct Relief, Feeding America, Habitat for Humanity, among others.

Improve accountability. Keeping track of organizations and their effectiveness is challenging, especially since the chaos of disasters can invite corruption or misuse of donor funds. The Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) has various reports investigating the effectiveness of agencies operating in a range of locations, including Haiti, Nepal, and New York after Superstorm Sandy. DAP also offers resources such as the Disaster Policy Wiki, which has more than 1,000 post-disaster relief policy recommendations to improve management systems. In 2017, DAP launched SmartResponse.org, a platform designed to help donors make more informed decisions about their disaster relief aid while simultaneously increasing organization transparency by requiring organizations to share data in order to be included on the “how to help” lists SmartResponse provides donors.

Immediately following disasters, it can be difficult for those affected to directly engage with the government and other aid organizations attempting to help them. To address this problem, Accountability Lab partners with local NGOs around the world to promote greater accountability and responsiveness of government and other institutions. After the Nepal earthquake, for example, Accountability Lab partners set up citizen “help desks” to coordinate relief efforts and serve as a conduit for on the-ground information about what was and was not working.

Include prevention efforts and long-term support. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, some areas of Puerto Rico went without power for months. In order to prepare for next hurricane season, The Solar Foundation is installing solar and battery storage at health clinics, community centers, and other critical locations in Puerto Rico through their Solar Saves Lives initiative, funded in part by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the Clinton Foundation. Because solar energy can be stored in batteries, solar energy and battery storage will ensure that these critical locations don’t lose power next time a storm hits.

Organizations with pre-existing networks on the ground before a disaster strikes are uniquely positioned to prepare for and provide aid immediately after disasters. Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs in the United States, positions emergency food supplies throughout the country to distribute in the event of a disaster. After most disaster organizations have moved on, Feeding America remains in communities providing aid to the low-income and at-risk populations who are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters.

For those living in constant conflict and recurring cycles of natural disasters, linkages to comprehensive, quality healthcare services are needed to ensure health and build community resilience. As part of a community-based approach to prevention, International Medical Corps (IMC) provided immediate medical services following the devastation of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, through mobile medical teams and house-to-house visits to ensure access to health and clean water. IMC trained more than 130 local community members, including health staff, social service specialists and police officers, on Grand Bahama with topics spanning health and hygiene awareness, self-care, and positive coping strategies, or Psychological First Aid.


1 Stults, M. (2017). Integrating climate change into hazard mitigation planning. Climate Risk Management.

2 Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters. (2016). Poverty & Death: Disaster Mortality 1996-2015. UN Office for Disaster
Risk Reduction.

3 Oxfam. (2019). 5 natural disasters that beg for climate action.

4 Allen, G and Peñaloza, M. (2019). ‘I Don’t Feel Safe’: Puerto Rico Preps For Next Storm Without Enough Government Help. NPR.

5 Schwartz, J. (2019). As Floods Keep Coming, Cities Pay Residents to Move. New York Times.

More Guidance

Media coverage of disasters often includes the names and contact information of organizations that are responding.