Cash is king
Effective giving after a disaster raises many questions, offers varied opportunities
Countless organizations vie for funding after a disaster. Individuals often face a dilemma over whether to donate to a large national or international umbrella organization such as the Red Cross, the American Joint Distribution Committee, or the Jewish federation or donate to a smaller, grassroots organization. There is no straightforward answer to this question.
In recent years, it seems as if an endless stream of natural and human-made disasters dominates news cycles. Pernicious hate crimes, mass shootings, the pandemic and war in Ukraine – not to mention devastating floods, earthquakes and wildfires – are all humanitarian disasters that ravage communities. In the aftermath of these tragedies, human nature and compassion kick in. We feel the urge to take immediate action and help. We want to offer support to communities in need. But, all too often, we don’t know where to start.
Many of us ask questions such as: How can I ensure my dollars are used appropriately? When is the best time to give after a disaster? How can I identify reputable organizations responding to a disaster? How can I mobilize my community to help?
Research conducted by Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy indicates that almost 100% of giving happens within two months after a disaster. Giving by its own donors evaluated by the Center for Designed Philanthropy at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation) follows this pattern. By the time a community begins to rebuild and repair their physical and social infrastructure, donations have declined significantly.
Consequently, in order to respond rapidly yet effectively, before giving to an organization, consider the following:
Immediate vs. Long-Term Recovery
As Jews, our particular responsibility toward mending our broken world (tikkun olam) compels us to respond urgently to crises in communities near and far. Consider immediately donating following a disaster and revisiting the situation six months to a year later to see what critical needs remain after the first wave of relief support.
In addition to the need to rebuild physical infrastructure, natural and human-made disasters often leave communities with ongoing mental health challenges. Frequently, the organizations best equipped to address that challenge might only emerge months later.
Large Organization vs. Small and Local Organization
Countless organizations vie for funding after a disaster. Individuals often face a dilemma over whether to donate to a large national or international umbrella organization such as the Red Cross, the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), or the Jewish federation or donate to a smaller, grassroots organization. There is no straightforward answer to this question.
Major aid organizations play a crucial role in response efforts. Their relationships with donors may provide matching funds, and they often have key partnerships and programs already in place, not to mention the scale that allows them to pivot quickly to address local needs. When donating to large, international humanitarian organizations, make clear that those contributed funds are earmarked specifically to support emergency relief efforts in the affected community.
By contrast, donating directly to local organizations that are well-respected and trusted in the community, such as food banks, synagogues or human-service organizations, can also be highly effective. Investing in existing local resources offers the additional benefit of building the organization’s capacity, thus ensuring long-term recovery for the community.
Remember to take the necessary steps to vet an organization and research it (or its fiscal sponsor) on Charity Navigator.
Flexible Funding vs. Targeted Funding
Following catastrophic events, the needs of the community continuously evolve. Rather than targeting your funds to a specific purpose (e.g., financial assistance for families), trust that already-vetted organizations will use your dollars effectively and deploy where they are needed most.
Dollars vs. Goods
Many individuals want to donate goods such as food, clothing and medicine, to a community following a disaster. Donated goods are appreciated and afford a great way to engage your own community, particularly children and teens, through school campaigns. But the best and most effective way to help is to donate cash.
Donating cash allows the organization working on the ground to respond quickly to the community’s changing needs and provide culturally appropriate supplies and food. Organizing a “drive” to mobilize family and friends to contribute in the aftermath of a disaster is both gratifying and empowering – affording a measure of control over events that are uncontrollable.
Consider establishing a Tribute Fund which is offered by The Foundation. Likely, other community foundations and public charities offer similar charitable products that can unite like-minded givers to donate online for a particular cause. Remember that collaborative giving can have a considerable impact, and your social circle benefits greatly from your due diligence, which it may not have the time or resources to conduct.
Identifying the Issues that Matter Most
Personal values, life experiences and other factors inform our philanthropy. The same applies to giving in a crisis. That’s why effective giving should begin with an assessment of what causes resonate most personally with individuals and their families: Is supporting the Jewish community a priority? Are mental health support and recovery meaningful to you? Are you passionate about addressing inequity and poverty?
Private dollars, in addition to being essential, provide significant flexibility after a disaster. The challenge for most individuals and families is knowing where to direct those monies, and who can best assist them in bringing efficacy to their giving. The Center for Designed Philanthropy’s function is, in part, to assist donors in identifying their charitable passions and the fields of interest they want to support. Similar resources exist at community foundations and public charities specifically to assist philanthropists on meaningful giving – both with their ongoing charitable giving as well as in times of disaster.
It is not an overstatement to say that the human condition hardwired most of us to help others, which is why the motivation to respond to a disaster is so strong. But giving effectively – with immediacy and impact – is an equally important component, and by equipping donors with the “tools” to do that well, we are helping our communities when disaster does strike.
Charlotte Friedman is a program officer in the Center for Designed Philanthropy of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which manages $1.3 billion in charitable assets and, over the past 10 years, has awarded approximately $1 billion in grants, including $160 million in 2022.