From a global pandemic to the recent invasion of Ukraine, globally impactful disasters are an increasingly frequent part of our reality, and thus an important factor as funders consider grantmaking priorities and the funding landscape in which they operate. In light of these events and global trends that will make disasters of this scale and complexity imminent, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) reflects in this series on why grantmakers must consider disaster funding, how to approach this work with an equity and community-based mindset, and what individual donors can do to help.


A simple yet essential question regularly asked by philanthropy in developing their disaster giving strategy. It is a query that guides the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), which I lead, in determining where, when, and how to fund efforts that help communities prepare for and recover from a disaster.

We know that the disaster-giving demands on philanthropy will continue to increase. In their giving, some philanthropists may see the need to further their current focus on funding disasters originating from natural hazards, especially those that hit closer to home.

However, when the ripples of a complex crisis halfway around the world devastate and create life-threatening realities for people closer to home, this proximity becomes harder to define. And thus, I ask that you consider a “yes and” approach to your disaster-giving strategy, and I offer a few why’s of my own.

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: Where Crisis, Conflict, and Vulnerabilities Meet

How we define and speak of disasters is critical to helping to guide philanthropy. In simple terms, a disaster is when a hazard meets a vulnerability. Vulnerabilities can stem from root causes such as systemic inequities or power inequalities. Dynamic pressures, such as rapid urbanization or a lack of press freedom, and unsafe conditions, such as poor building codes or disease prevalence, are also sources of vulnerabilities.

Hazards, traditionally thought of as naturally occurring events, are the earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes that overwhelm communities. However, a list of disaster threats also includes war and conflict. The more vulnerabilities that exist, often exacerbated by governance breakdowns, the more significant the impact of the hazard. These contexts of spiraling needs are called complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs).

It takes only the most cursory glance at the news today to understand that disasters are increasing in scale and frequency. Last year, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reacted to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report by calling it a “code red for humanity.” Recently, the UN World Food Program warned of a “looming hunger catastrophe,” a crisis worsened by the pandemic and the Ukraine invasion and likely to create political, economic and social turmoil around the globe. This global hunger crisis will certainly exacerbate the already tenuous livelihoods of the peoples of AfghanistanEthiopia, and Venezuela.

And yet, in CDP’s experience, CHEs are often severely underfunded. Our research has shown that donations happen for three reasons: personal nearness to the disaster, the scale of needs, and media coverage. For CHEs such as that created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an additional answer to “why” arises: the humanitarian imperative, the principle to address human suffering wherever it is found.

Read the full article about addressing international disasters by Patricia McIlreavy at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.