Disaster Philanthropy

Disaster philanthropy is the term used when a foundation responds to a natural disaster, man-made emergency or complex humanitarian crisis with grantmaking or fund raising. Ever since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leaders in the philanthropic community have become more aware of the importance of this approach to giving. What follows are the stories of three Minnesota organizations that’ve made the foray into disaster philanthropy. What have they learned from their experiences? And how can this approach help every foundation do a better job of delivering on its core mission?


On the evening of Tuesday, June 19, 2012, the first drops started to fall on the north side of Duluth, Minnesota. The flooding came shortly thereafter; fed by compounding waves of torrential rain, until by ten o’clock water was shooting out of manhole covers like geysers. Later that night entire sections of roads washed away, sinkholes swallowed cars and a seal from the Lake Superior Zoo was reported swimming down Grand Avenue. The record rains left a swath of destruction in their wake, shutting down the city, causing over $100 million in property damage, and inflicting untold distress on the city’s most vulnerable populations. In the middle of it all sat the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, whose president, Holly C. Sampson, and staff were getting a crash course in disaster philanthropy.

At the time of the 2012 flood, DSACF didn’t have a giving plan to use in the event of a disaster. Circumstances thrust them into the role. “When we realized the extent of the damage and the lack of public dollars coming, we knew we had to act,” Sampson says. For example, the Salvation Army in nearby Superior, Wisconsin, was flooded out of its offices. Families supported by the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) were forced out of their transitional housing facility. The Minnesota Ballet lost all of its costumes when its basement flooded. Everywhere Sampson and her staff turned there were calls for aid. And, as if often the case during an emergency, the very people called upon to help were themselves hobbled by the disaster.

“Half of our staff couldn’t make it into the office that first day,” Sampson says. “I couldn’t get into the office for 24 hours after the flood. We had to improvise in a hurry.”

In the immediate aftermath of the flood, Sampson discovered there was a lot to learn. Generally speaking there are two types of aid that result from either a federal “emergency” declaration or a “major disaster” declaration. The more commonly awarded funding is called public assistance or PA. Public assistance dollars flow to state and local government agencies to pay for overtime for first responders, to rebuild roads and bridges and to help remove debris. The other type of funding is for individual assistance or IA. Less frequently granted than PA, individual assistance goes to individual households with the average grant being $5,000. (There is also the Other Needs Assistance or ONA program that pays for personal expenses such as funeral costs, medical costs and some personal property losses.)

“We got the declaration for public infrastructure right away,” Sampson says. “But IA was denied. It’s tough for people to hear that a disaster has been declared, but they’re not getting any individual attention. We felt that was why we in the philanthropic sector needed to come forward.”

Fortunately for DSACF, their central role in the community allowed them to help coordinate a rapid response. Sampson and her counterparts at other foundations were already part of the Duluth Grantors Alliance, a professional network of giving organizations. Six days after the flood, Sampson helped convene a special session with the Grantors Alliance that included a broader base of interested parties. “We added the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and United Way’s 211 program, which we were using to help coordinate volunteers,” she says. “We also had elected officials, emergency management personnel and local service organizations in the room.”

In addition to providing leadership, the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation also made grants. Thanks to its giving structure, Sampson and her staff had more flexibility than other foundations might have. As a community foundation, DSACF holds a total of 375 charitable funds, and within that are differently managed pools of money. Some funds are donor-advised, while others are designated for specific issues such as poverty, the arts and the environment. But some of the funds are unrestricted, which means that Sampson and her team are free to establish spending priorities. “We decided to fund nonprofits that either suffered physical damage from the storm or that were experiencing increased demand as a result of the flood,” Sampson says. In the end DSACF gave approximately $900,000 in grants.

In 2012, DSACF was all but forced to engage in disaster philanthropy, but today Sampson is an advocate for this kind of work as a regular part of the foundation’s efforts. “Once we were through emergency-disaster mode, we started to reflect on all of the collaborations that came out of the flood,” she says. “We worked well together, but we realized that in the future we needed to be better prepared.”

Following this insight, Sampson reached out to other community foundations in search of best practices. She has convened with the Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, which has extensive experience responding to floods. Sampson has also led her organization to join the Philanthropic Preparedness, Resilience and Emergency Partnership (PPREP). Created in 2014 by the Miami-based Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, members of this group travel to the sites of previous disasters. “It’s a sharing and learning network,” Sampson says. “We go to other cities and see how they’ve responded. We look at how communities can become more resilient.”




On November 15, 2015, Jamar Clark was fatally shot by a Minneapolis police officer. Later that day, hundreds of activists marched from the site of the shooting on Plymouth Avenue North to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct Headquarters. A number of protesters began occupying the entrance to the building. Meanwhile other protestors hoisted a banner that read “Black Lives Matter.” The group said they weren’t going to leave until justice was done, beginning what would be a 19-day peaceful protest of police violence and structural racism.

For David Nicholson, executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, and Maria de la Cruz, the foundation’s associate executive director, Clark’s death came as a shock, but not as a surprise. “On some level this was predictable,” Nicholson says. “There were long-standing failed policies that led to this.”

De la Cruz says that ever since Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, she was expecting an incident like this to happen in Minnesota. “We knew it would eventually hit our home,” she says.

What Nicholson and de la Cruz didn’t expect was how their organization would be pulled into action. “The first thing we did after Jamar Clark was shot was to gather as a staff,” Nicholson says. “We grieved and talked amongst ourselves about the response by Black Lives Matter and the occupation of the Fourth Precinct. We realized that there were two questions that needed to be answered. First, what is needed by these groups right now? Second, what assets and abilities do we have to move money quickly?”

Headwaters felt compelled to act, but like DSACF it was not set up to be an emergency response organization. The organization’s funding structure wasn’t immediately conducive to disaster philanthropy. Although Headwaters is a community foundation, its process is unique. Instead of staff vetting applicants and dispersing funds, at Headwaters program officers train community volunteers who act as their own grantmakers. Under the guidance of Headwaters staff, these grantmakers are empowered to direct the foundation’s funds toward organizations led by members of the community. Headwaters was perfectly aligned to respond to an emergency that arose out of racial injustice, but its lack of discretionary funds put it at a disadvantage. Nevertheless Nicholson and de la Cruz pressed forward.

“We saw it as a call to action,” Nicholson says.

“We knew that we could use our role as a philanthropic institute to start some real conversations around racial equity,” de la Cruz says.

The next step was to convene members of the foundation’s board and executive committee to talk about the opportunities and the risks. Nicholson says that three or four days after Jamar Clark’s shooting, the situation at the Fourth Precinct was very fluid. The protests were peaceful, but tensions were high. “We didn’t know how long it was going to go on,” Nicholson says. “Our board members had concerns about the financial, political and social risks. What are the consequences if this turns into a riot? If we lend our support will there be liability?”

“We just sat in our conference room talking and talking and talking about the impact,” de la Cruz says. “We talked about the risk of backlash, even within the progressive community. We are always dealing with issues like racial justice, white supremacy and white privilege, so we knew we had to be careful and prepared for any action we might take.”

Then the conversation shifted from the risk of action to the risk of inaction. De la Cruz says they started talking about the importance of Headwaters living out its values and using the tools it had. Nicholson says the group started to embrace their ultimately responsibility as a community foundation and started asking a different set of questions. “What are we risking by not supporting these young people,” Nicholson says. “What happens if we choose not to support them in this moment. Ultimately we agreed it was important to support both their expression and their deliberate action.”

Once the board and the staff committed, they had to solve the problem of how to engage in an emergency. The first decision was to support trusted organizations, which in this case meant Black Lives Matter—Minneapolis and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “We knew we were going to assist organizations that our board had already vetted,” Nicholson says. “Now our organization was at an advantage because we had the relationships. Other foundations without those on-the-ground relationships would have been behind.”

The next decision was to fund these groups generally. Because the protestors’ needs were dynamic and changing, it was important for the foundation to not be overly prescriptive. Finally, Headwaters pledged to waive its usual administrative fees, thus absorbing the cost of processing donations. “Our contribution as Headwaters directly was to donate our work,” Nicholson says.

The next issue was the funding itself. Unlike Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, Headwaters didn’t have access to unrestricted funds. So they got on the phone and quietly started conversations directly with their donors. In the first 24 hours, Nicholson and de la Cruz had $10,000 committed. Twenty-four hours after they launched this special fund, they had raised $40,000. By the end of the third day, the total was up to $60,000. In the end, 102 people out of a donor base of 500 gave more than $100,000.

“That was just David and I talking on the phone,” de la Cruz says. “We had a very clear ask. We’re asking you to donate to an emergency fund to help Black Lives Matter protest the shooting of Jamar Clark.” The money went to food, water and other basic needs for the protestors on the ground. There was also income support for the volunteers who were away from their jobs during the occupation. On Thanksgiving, Neighborhoods Organization for Change threw a feast for the activists to boost morale.

When the protest was over, Headwaters leadership and staff started talking about what they learned from the experience. “When you’re doing movement work, you don’t typically see wins in a year or two,” Nicholson says. “It takes decades to see big-scale change. This was a time when long-term efforts met with an immediate moment where our support was critical. It was satisfying that we could respond.”

Maria de la Cruz sees disaster philanthropy as another strategy for movement building. “When we were fundraising, we talked to our volunteers about how race and class affect our state and our country. What does it mean to be an ally? What does it mean for white people to work with communities of color? The emergency was a real wake up call as to how I want to donate and how I want to manage my legacy.”

Nicholson says that the disaster philanthropy experience also got him thinking about how Headwaters can help their constituents be stronger and more resilient. “Disaster framing gets us at the big, real issues,” he says. “We have to support civic infrastructures for people to have voice and choice. We need to support these groups, led by people of color. Preparing for the next emergency will help ensure these communities have a strong network where people are connected and moving their ideas forward.”




On September 13, 2016, Early Recovery Fund program officer Nancy Beers was preparing for a trip to Wilmar, Minnesota. Four weeks before, the town had suffered from a “thousand-year” rain, which flooded some areas with over a foot of water. In addition to flooded homes, some people also experienced sewer pipe backups after the Wilmar wastewater treatment plant was pushed beyond its capacity. But because no public infrastructure was damaged—and because the area affected is rural and less densely populated—no federal disaster was declared. In fact, according to Beers, at the time of this writing, neither the city nor the county has done a formal assessment of individual homes. “We have a sense that probably eight hundred homes were damaged in some way,” says Beers. “But at this moment nobody really knows.”

The situation in Wilmar is a prime example of what is called a “low attention” disaster. A low-attention disaster makes the news but doesn’t stay in the headlines long enough to garner enough attention to mobilize the public. Organizations like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army respond, but not to the level needed. There are no federal aid dollars to help pay for the costs of recovery, nor is there emergency management expertise to help coordinate the response. As a result the brunt of the work falls to local nonprofits and community foundations that are understandably not always up to the task. “I’ve seen the demise of many a nonprofit,” says Beers, who’s been doing recovery work for over twenty years. “Between their regular work and doing disaster recovery, they get overwhelmed.”

Enter the Early Recovery Fund. The ERF is a program created by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps donors give in a disaster context, by making more thoughtful decisions and by maximizing the impact of their gifts. In 2014 the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation gave a $2.1 million grant to the CDP to create the Early Recovery Fund with the task of addressing low-attention disasters in a 10-state area in the Midwest and Central Plains states. In the past 18 months the ERF has spent $1.8 million responding to low-attention disasters. But what makes the ERF, the CDP and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation’s collective approach unique is they’re set up to provide disaster relief and resilience before tragedy strikes.

“We made a strategic choice,” says Mark Lindberg, director of relief, recovery and development at the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. “We wanted to work in this area, but our value is not in monitoring disasters. We wanted to figure out how to relieve suffering in a way that’s not going to cause us to stand on our heads from a systems point of view.”

One answer was to create a partnership with the CDP, not only to leverage its expertise in the immediate response to a disaster, but also to expand the organization’s understanding that the life cycle of a disaster is longer than it’s portrayed in the media. “There is a day of peak media attention, typically day four after the event,” says Regine Webster, vice president at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “But there are numerous vulnerabilities that predate any disaster.” Webster encourages foundations to think of the most vulnerable members of their constituency and realize that whatever problems those people face on a day-to-day basis will only be heightened in an emergency.

Webster also notes that the recovery is much longer than people imagine. “There are people who are still homeless from Super Storm Sandy,” she says. “And that happened in 2012. Imagine that. Even with all the wealth and media and financial power in the New York area, there are still people who can’t get back in their homes four years later.”

The Early Recovery Fund is set up to respond two to 18 weeks after a triggering event. Once in Wilmar, Nancy Beers will build the infrastructure needed for a healthy recovery. First she will engage with local leadership to do outreach and assessment to understand exactly how many homes have been affected by the flood. Then she will deploy a database developed by the CDP that helps centralize information, so all relief efforts are organized and coordinated. The database also helps prioritize those populations who are most in need, in this case children and the elderly and members of Wilmar’s non-English speaking communities. (Wilmar has large Somali and Latino communities.) Finally, Beers will use all of this information to help the relief efforts raise funds and gather volunteers. One of the biggest challenges of a low-attention disaster is that the media isn’t there to do the important work of telling the community’s story. “They have to do their own PR,” Beers says.

The fate of the families in Wilmar remains to be seen, but in Beers’ experience communities can come back from disaster, especially if they’ve taken the time beforehand to prepare. “Disaster response and preparedness is about the health of communities,” she says. “I’ve seen communities that treat disasters not as an if, but as a when. The communities that approach this idea with a fervor—those communities will be healthier.”

Holly Sampson of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation agrees. “The whole conversation is about being more resilient,” she says. “We have to accept the reality of extreme weather patterns and address them in our preparedness.”

“It’s really about relevancy,” says Headwaters Foundation for Justice’s David Nicolson. “We were relevant to our community because we could get resources to people on the frontlines. We were relevant to the donor community because we could be a conduit for funding during crisis. It was a litmus test about relevancy and we were there.”