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Following the Crowd or Making a Difference

Publication date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Robert G. Ottenhoff President & CEO, Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP)

During  our session called  “We are All Disaster Funders” — schedule for 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 11 at the 2014 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations National Conference — Debra Jacobs from The Patterson Foundation, Molly de Aguiar from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation  and I will be exploring the role that private philanthropy played in the response to Superstorm Sandy and lessons learned for funders of future disasters.

The philanthropic response to Hurricane Sandy followed a pattern that frequently occurs with other big disasters.  Sandy was a particularly well-suited subject for television news coverage — a slowly developing story, with plenty of spectacular pictures. It started with reports of a tropical depression in the Caribbean.  As the storm slowly moved up the Atlantic coast, it received more broadcast time, replete with animated maps predicting the course of the storm based on different computer models.

When the storm made landfall in the United States, we witnessed the breathless weather reporter bravely standing in the wind and rain to report on the crashing waves. This exhilaration slowly evolved into the sad realities of death and destruction. It also brought a flood of contributions from compassionate donors wanting to help in some way.

It’s generally estimated that 90 percent of all donations flow in within the first 90 days after a disaster. No one knows exactly how much was donated for Sandy relief, but it easily topped many hundreds of millions.  The American Red Cross alone reported that it had raised $300 million.  The Robin Hood Relief Fund received nearly $75 million, mostly from a relief concert it promoted.

This outpouring of public support is gratifying in many ways.  It meant that within a short period of time, most of the relief organizations raised much of the money they would need to cover emergency relief.  The New York Attorney General reported that more than 80 Sandy-related funds were created.

While this kind of windfall created excitement, it also caused an unanticipated dilemma: can a disaster generate too much money for relief or perhaps too much money too soon?  The American Red Cross reported that as late as the summer of 2013, it had more than $100 million of the Sandy money raised still in reserve.

Prodded by the New York Attorney General and the public for not spending all of the money raised, the organization shifted its giving approach, and it now has become one of the largest re-granters of funds to mid-term rebuilding efforts. 

A nonprofit executive in Moore, Oklahoma told me of a similar experience after the May tornadoes. 

“We weren’t fund raising,” she said, “we were fund catching.”

Meanwhile, the federal government was being urged to provide more mid- and long-term funding support. After a brief but intense political battle, Congress approved a grant of nearly $60 billion. According to the website NJ Spotlight, this included $9.7 billion in borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program to pay out federal flood insurance claims and $48 billion that Congress allocated to the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. The largest chunk of federal Sandy aid — some $15.2 billion — went to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as Community Development Block Grants.

Given these huge sums of money — for both immediate and long-term relief — what is the unique role of private philanthropy?  With all this money flowing, what can we do with our important — albeit limited — dollars?

Here at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, we pooled resources from 25 donors to focus on five best practices and unmet needs in our granting process for our CDP Hurricane Sandy Fund:
• Supporting media’s role in promoting awareness and engagement in recovery.
• Providing opportunities to support vulnerable immigrant populations.
• Supporting organizations providing mental health services.
• Promoting civic engagement of coastal communities in public policy issues.
• Supporting original research that uses Sandy as a model to forward thinking about effective disaster response.

At the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Molly de Aguiar and her colleagues, as well as their partners  at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, also took a long-term view, collaborating on projects that would affect media, government policies, community planning and civic engagement for years to come.

In our session, we’ll share what we learned and explore why we took these approaches, the results we achieved, and what we might try next time. 

If you are attending the conference, we’ll look forward to seeing you, and we hope you’ll come ready with questions about how your organization can impact recovery from disasters.  Even if disaster philanthropy seems off mission to you at the moment, we promise you’ll emerge with a new perspective that could well prepare your organization for the time when disaster strikes close to home.

Robert G. Ottenhoff is the inaugural president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP). CDP seeks to transform how donors think about, respond and give to natural disasters.

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