Earthquakes, floods, epidemics, mass dislocations: the scale of human suffering caused by disasters prompts many of us to ask, “How can I help?” When disasters strike, here’s how to help communities respond and build back better for long-term resilience.
What counts as a disaster?
According to the International Federation of the Red Cross, a disaster “is a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources. Though often caused by nature, disasters can have human origins.”
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy further categorizes disasters into three types: complex humanitarian emergencies (think Syrian refugee crisis), natural disasters (Hurricane Harvey in Houston or Nepal earthquake), and man-made (Flint water crisis). Disasters can also be categorized by severity: catastrophic, major, declarations of emergency, and elevated.
Disasters may involve human negligence or be a by-product of human actions, but in general are not the primary intended consequence of human actions. Although similar in some ways, disastrous events that result from intentional human action (e.g. terrorism and mass shootings) generally fall into a separate category from disasters.
Annual Guidance on Disaster Relief: general disaster giving guidance, plus specific suggestions for recent events
How Can I Help?: Blog guidance in chronological order, covering a range of disasters
Haiti: How can I Help? Funder investment guide, (2010). Note, several of the organizational profiles in this guide have been updated as part of other guidance since the publication of the original guide.
How does the Center decide what disasters to cover?
The Center covers disasters both in the U.S. and overseas. Most disasters we cover are classified as catastrophic.
In the U.S., we cover disasters where local capacity to handle the situation has clearly been overwhelmed, and where even the addition of federal and state resources is insufficient to address the problem effectively and in a timely fashion. Examples include the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, and Hurricane Harvey. We will also consider covering a disaster connected to a subject area we have done specific work in and which we know affects more than one community, such as lead poisoning.
With regard to disasters overseas, we consider both the magnitude of the disaster and the country’s ability to cope using its own resources (Italy’s capacity for recovery, for example, was much higher than Nepal’s with regard to earthquakes in 2016 and 2015, respectively). We are in a better position to cover a disaster in geographic regions where we have in-depth knowledge of organizations on the ground, and whose expertise we can help donors access more quickly.
Where else can I get guidance if the Center doesn't cover a particular disaster or area that I care about?
Media coverage of disasters often includes the names and contact information of organizations that are responding. For general guidance on disaster giving, see our annual high impact giving guide. Other places to check for information include:
- The Center for Disaster Philanthropy
- International Federation of the Red Cross
- The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System
- The US Department of Health and Human Services Disaster Information Management Research Center
- MSF/Doctors Without Borders: a well-regarded international nonprofit and often among the first on the scene of multiple international disasters
- United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: an international coordinating body promoting disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies among members.
- Disaster Accountability Project