After a disaster, a range of nonprofits, private individuals, and government agencies often work together to address relief and recovery needs – but there are many moving parts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is working to improve collaboration between players to best serve communities in crisis. If you’re a donor looking to build an effective disaster relief giving strategy, it’s crucial to understand the roles of different organizations – whether you want to coordinate your efforts directly or simply avoid duplication.

On Feb. 17, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) hosted FEMA and Philanthropy: How to Best Utilize Your Dollars and Avoid Duplication, a webinar designed to inform donors how to best engage in disaster philanthropy in concert with federal relief efforts. CDP Director of Learning and Partnerships Tanya Gulliver-Garcia moderated the conversation between Gerilee W. Bennett, director of the Recovery Interagency Coordination Division at FEMA, and Myra Shird, federal coordinating officer at FEMA. 

Here are a few of the key takeaways from the webinar:

Federal Response Isn’t the First Response

When disasters strike, there are many players that step up to address the immediate and long-term needs of the affected communities. The image below, provided in the webinar resources, shows the response cycle that can surround disasters: 

FEMA is Only One Piece of the Federal Response

Federal disaster response is coordinated under the National Disaster Recovery Framework. FEMA is central to the framework, but other agencies have their own roles:

FEMA Has Limits

According to Shird, “the average grants are
often well below $8,000.” This means that individuals and families, who may have suffered many thousands of dollars in damage, will need help far beyond what FEMA can provide. Shird stated that “What FEMA does is not meant to make an individual whole.” By working in concert with FEMA, donors can be part of a holistic recovery process that addresses the many needs of communities and families. Shird also pointed out that “If it hasn't been declared, we can't touch it,” highlighting the need for donors to act when disasters are not declared at the federal level, but when communities may still have great need. 

Despite its limits, FEMA will not ignore undeclared disasters. Bennett explained: 

“Philanthropic and voluntary organizations are especially important in those situations where we don't meet the requirements for a federal major disaster declaration, but there's still a lot of other federal resources available, and a lot of states know that they can still work with FEMA.” 

According to Bennett, FEMA provides a voluntary
 agency liaison and a coordinator that focuses on community planning, building recovery, and support in the affected region.

Knowing when and how FEMA can and can’t respond can help donors decide how to best direct their funds to fill gaps and address pressing needs. 

Planning Starts Under a Blue Sky

Bennett advocates for getting involved “when things are a little quiet.” As she put it, “We should be working as partnerships and building relationships in the predecessor environment
so that we're more ready to work together in the post-disaster environment, both on the governmental side, the voluntary organization side, [and] the philanthropic funder side.”

Starting a relationship with organizations and government agencies before disaster strikes, and maintaining that relationship between disasters is the best way to make an impact: “Keep up with the monthly or quarterly calls, and convene the partners together, so that as people and leaders turn over in the organizations, you get to know who the new leader,” Bennett said.

Donors can be an essential component of coordinated disaster mitigation, relief, and recovery efforts. Watch the full webinar at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to learn more.