As Payton & Moody (2008) observed, “Philanthropy exists because of two truths about the human condition: things often go wrong, and things could always be better” (p. 63). The orientation of philanthropic institutions could be divided into those that respond to disasters when things go terribly wrong, and those focused on long-term development, aiming to make things better over time.

The traditional approach to climate-related disaster philanthropy has been simple and predictable: disaster strikes, followed by media attention and an outpouring of generosity with a touch of coordination; then, attention shifts, perhaps to another disaster — and generosity is directed back to business as usual (New Venture Fund, n.d.). Within this tradition, philanthropic actors have had well-defined roles: some engage in humanitarian emergency disaster relief, and others see themselves as having a distinct role in promoting longer-term community improvement.

Now, the game and the playbook are changing. However, the former is changing with shocking speed and the latter is evolving slowly. Globally, disasters are occurring with greater frequency and ferocity. Since 1980, the U.S. alone has had 332 weather and climate disasters where total damages for each event reached or exceeded $1 billion (in 2022 inflation-adjusted dollars), for a total cost of $2.275 trillion (NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information [NCEI]). Each decade, the average number of events occurring annually has increased at truly shocking rates.

There are three key takeaways from this research:

  1. Philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs) and funding collaboratives are taking on an increasingly important role in philanthropy’s response to disasters, especially before they strike. CDP, TFN, CCA, and the PDRR play a vital role in mobilizing resources, disseminating knowledge, and facilitating peer learning. PSOs provide the vital, connective tissue between community-focused responses and national and international actors.
  2. Community foundations, in their capacity as place-based, long-term philanthropic actors, are evolving into on-the-ground leaders in preparedness, response coordination, and laying the groundwork for resilience and rebuilding. In the case of Mexico, where the capacity of municipal governments is often woefully underdeveloped, community foundations were the key leaders and conveners from the initial humanitarian response through rebuilding and developing resiliency.
  3. The need for strengthening and increasing support for both PSOs and community foundations in their focus on equity in disaster preparedness and recovery will only increase in the years to come, as the consequences of climate change become more daunting and their impact upon the most socially vulnerable becomes more acute.

Read the full article about disaster philanthropy by Michael Layton, Kevin Peterson, and Katie Dietz at Johnson Center.