Lessons Learned

Our nation’s philanthropic and nonprofit leaders, in cooperation with first-responders and government personnel, have amassed a wealth of knowledge on disaster response and recovery. Below are some of the key lessons learned by the contributors to The Playbook. If your own experience is not documented below, please share your lessons and best practices with us so we can include your insight.

Immediate Relief

At the onset of disaster, immediate relief is a critical stage for all affected persons and communities. Immediate relief is carried out by FEMA, the National Guard, local and statewide government agencies (i.e. state police), and a host of NGO’s including national and local faith-based disaster response organizations.

Key Points to Remember

  • Support for individuals in the aftermath of a disaster is vitally important. First responders will act immediately, followed by nonprofits and churches who will step in with secondary aid.
  • Federal funding may take a long time to reach the affected individuals and communities.
  • Hundreds of millions of dollars are raised by the nation’s largest disaster response nonprofits that supports immediate relief, and yet, direct financial assistance to individuals remains a critical need.
  • Confusion and fears surrounding access to immediate relief and financial support will ensue especially among:
    • Individuals with physical and behavioral disabilities;
    • Individuals who aren’t fluent in English and/or may be undocumented;
    • Seniors and those without access to or proficiency with computers;
  • Access to low or no cost legal services is essential.
  • Mental Health issues and Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome are real effects of major disasters and funding for these issues will be needed long-term (after the first year of the disaster and beyond).


 Actions Philanthropy Can Take

  • Support the deployment of case managers and pro-bono legal assistance; every individual, organization, and small business that has been affected, will need advice on filing FEMA and insurance claims, along with other applications recovery and rebuilding support.
  • Support and/or lead workshops tailored to educate your community on:
    • FEMA’s process;
    • Legal rights of disaster victims;
    • Completing all types of applications.
  • Support or create public community spaces with access to computers and the internet.
  • Support an immediate independent assessment of the damage and critical needs; early reports can inform early response priorities and long-term strategies.
  • Participate in the immediate and long-term planning conversations in order to ensure your grantmaking is flexible, patient and timely. Exhausting all available philanthropic dollars in the first 3 to 12 months post-disaster will leave huge gaps in services, especially around mental health, housing and rebuilding codes, public policy advocacy, communications, education, community engagement, and environmental resiliency and mitigation.


Recovery and Rebuilding

Once a community has become stabilized, the recovery shifts from immediate relief to long-term rebuilding and recovery. Philanthropy has a vital role in the long-term rebuilding process.

Key Points to Remember

  • Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.   Resources can step in too early and exhaust funding.
  • Major disasters mean a years-long recovery and rebuilding process, and can take between 5 and 10 years before a community has returned to a state of normalcy.
  • Funding will be needed for up to 10 years.
  • Dollars raised for immediate relief efforts often dwarfs the amount of money donated for long-term recovery.
  • Long-term operational funding for community recovery requires attentive grant making, and both large and small grants can have a huge impact.
  • Grantmaking that is patient and flexible is essential.
  • There are many moving parts to recovery; new information continues to become available; timelines shift; priorities can change because some efforts move quickly while others lag behind.
  • It takes time to assess the damage and discern the long-term needs. In time, gaps in services and assistance will be apparent as federal funding is exhausted.
  • Sustained media attention is vital to the ongoing recovery efforts.
  • Dedicated philanthropic recovery funds are vital to the recovery effort.
  • Mental Health issues and PTSD present in individuals 18 to 24 months post-disaster, after most folks are back in their homes and dealing (or struggling to cope) with the “new normal.”
  • The nonprofit community is likely to experience a severe drain of resources.
  • Unemployment issues, legal aid issues, financial issues, substance abuse and homelessness will surface for years to come.


 Actions Philanthropy Can Take

  • In the wake of a disaster, there is a great need for continuous, high-level coordinated leadership for project prioritization and resource allocation. Create a task force consisting of representatives from government (federal, state and local), philanthropy, and the nonprofit sectors with experts in urban and coastal land management, climate science, health and human services, housing, environmental protection, among other areas.
  • Work to ensure that federal disaster funding is allocated in a fair, just, equitable and transparent manner.
  • Establish dedicated disaster recovery funds and advocate for local, national and international giving to support these long-term recovery funds.
  • Work with colleagues and nonprofits to identify the long-term demands and develop a methodical plan for meeting them, in partnership with local officials who know their communities and can spearhead sustainable efforts to rebuild.
  • Stay in constant communication with media representatives and remain active in making sure your media is kept informed of the ongoing challenges and needs regarding your region’s recovery.
  • Avoid duplication of efforts and act in a timely fashion (which doesn’t always mean immediately), by providing flexible grants with open lines of communication with your grantees. This helps to ensure the greatest needs are being met.
  • Identify and support a philanthropic liaison to work cooperatively with your state’s recovery leaders (both government officials and nonprofit leaders).
  • Educate citizens on financial resources available for rebuilding.
  • Fill financial gaps not met by FEMA. FEMA has limits for assistance. In Alabama, after the 2011 tornadoes, the limit for reimbursement for loss was 25K; after Hurricane Sandy in NJ and NY, the limit was $31,000. In both instances, this is not enough funding for individuals to recover.



Preparedness brings together all layers of a community – individuals, families, schools, nonprofits, businesses, civic groups, and government agencies – to plan for and mitigate against a disaster.

Key Points to Remember

  • Planning and preparedness lay the groundwork for effective response.
  • It is important to have systems in place for responders to collaborate and communicate.
  • Planning should include clearly defined and understood roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders (philanthropic leaders, nonprofits, first-responders, local and state government).
  • Preparedness plans should be thorough, and reviewed and rehearsed regularly;
  • A central, non-governmental, website (this could be your VOAD site) is essential to communicate vital information to a broad audience before, during and following a disaster;
  • Nonprofits and local communities need capacity, training, and comprehensive planning to handle the large sums of money which may be needed in the wake of a disaster.
  • When disaster strikes a region, individuals worldwide are prompted to make a donation in support of the impacted families. Sometimes, these donations are directed to established disaster relief organizations, other times there are new funds established. The oversight and management of these funds have raised questions regarding conflicts of interest, timeline of disbursements, amount of support given to each affected individual, and the overall decision-making process. This challenge could be addressed in a preparedness plan developed by the community with philanthropy taking the lead in ensuring transparency and fairness and offering their expertise in how to structure such funds in advance of disaster.


 Actions Philanthropy Can Take

  • Develop relationships with state government leaders, county executives, state and/or regional urban planners, and other key personnel. These relationships are critical to effectively working with state and local government on short and long-term recovery efforts. The State Commissioners play a vital role in any state’s recovery. Having a prior relationship with these commissioners and their staff may make it easier to work cooperatively when a disaster strikes. It is especially important to develop a relationship with the Department of Community Affairs because federal aid for disaster funding comes through HUD to the state’s Department of Community Affairs via the Community Development Block Grant program. Understanding how federal aid is dispersed will assist the philanthropic leaders in developing their disaster grant making strategy.
  • Emphasize the importance of disaster preparedness and provide appropriate assistance in that effort.
  • Invest in human capital in advance of a disaster. Nurture organizations in advance so they have the capacity and human capital to effectively respond when needed.
  • Adopt a disaster response funding strategy prior to a disaster occurring, including a plan for streamlining the funding approval process in order to react quickly if necessary.
  • Develop Memos of Understanding (which define parameters of emergency grants) with key grantees who will be called upon to act when a disaster strikes.
  • Serve as a convener: anticipate and communicate with your community’s stakeholders (foundations, government, and grantees) in advance of the disaster.
  • Educate donors about the cycle of response and recovery and the importance of funding long-term recovery efforts.
  • Identify whether or not your state/region has an active VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and/or LTRG (Long Term Recovery Group). Develop relationships with that VOAD.
  • Understand and educate your community on Disaster Response Protocols: who does what and when?