During the Council on Foundations’ Family Philanthropy Conference at the end of January in San Diego, we pulled together a concurrent session on disaster grantmaking in light of the earthquake in Haiti. There was a small but passionate group that attended. I walked away thinking about three things: our short attention span; our lack of planning; and the difference—if there is one— between grantmaking and disaster grantmaking.

After three years at the Council, I’ve learned how short our attention span is. The phrase “that is so 10 minutes ago” has become “that is so 10 seconds ago.”

When a disaster hits and it makes headline news, we respond immediately. But, when the real work of long-term recovery begins, there is a dearth of grants. There are always surprise needs after a disaster, sometimes even two or three years later.

At this session, I learned that The San Diego Foundation has a pool of money it is holding for unanticipated needs from the 2007 fires that affected San Diego. I admire the foundation for keeping some money back. It can’t be easy, especially as a community foundation, to manage your donor expectations that there is more to a disaster than the immediate needs. The foundation has done an admirable job in seeing the big picture and taking a long-term approach.

Every year, the Council responds to a disaster by sharing resources on our Web site, organizing conference calls, and tallying the results of philanthropies’ participation to the disaster. We have tried to prepare grantmakers with webinars, but if there isn’t a recent disaster, no one attends (that is so ten seconds ago).

But every foundation should consider whether they will respond to a local or international disaster. Think about whether you would respond to a disaster in your hometown: a flood wiping out homes, a fire ravaging the elementary school, a deadly virus running through the hospital? And then there are the global disasters that make headline news. Will you respond? Even taking 15 minutes at a trustee meeting to ask this question will mean you are more prepared than most. When the Foundation Center recently surveyed its Grantmaker Leadership Panel members about their response to the Haiti earthquake, less than one in five had a formal plan in place to respond to disasters.

During the concurrent session, I outlined our principles of good disaster grantmaking that we created with the European Foundation Centre. Some of our principles include:

  • stop, look, and listen before taking action
  • don’t act in isolation
  • bear in mind the expertise of local organizations
  • be accountable to those you are trying to help
  • communicate your work widely and use it as an educational tool

After the session, Anthony Colon from the Green Family Foundation came up to me and said, “There really isn’t any difference between good disaster grantmaking and good grantmaking.”

He was so right. Sounds like good grantmaking to me.

Matthew Nelson is assistant vice president for Constituency Services at the Council on Foundations. Nelson helped organize the session Disaster Response for Grantmakers: Resources, Tools, and Lessons Learned at the Family Philanthropy Conference. Here are additional resources on disaster grantmaking and global philanthropy:

Special Note: On March 22-24, join the Council on Foundations, the Association for Small Foundations (ASF), and other partners for Katrina @ Five: Partners in Philanthropy in New Orleans. Katrina @ 5: Partners in Philanthropy is a special convening of the philanthropic community, nearly five years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, to explore how the lessons of response, rebuilding, and transformation in the Gulf Coast apply to communities around the country.

Visit the Katrina @ Five: Partners in Philanthropy Web site to register and to learn more about this event.

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