Disaster grantmaking in a post-tsunami world

Posted on 23 May 2005

By Kathy Richardson

This article was published in 2005. It is in response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami disaster. Please note all disasters are different and any information in this article may not be applicable to any current disasters.

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami challenged the sympathy of the world to an almost unprecedented degree. Raw footage of the giant wave sweeping away people and destroying entire communities brought the reality of the disaster right into our lounge rooms, helping to unleash a record-breaking flow of personal, corporate and governmental giving. Three months on from the tsunami, KATHY RICHARDSON took a look at the unique long-term role the grantmaking community was likely to play in the disaster response.

It is an event that may well come to be seen as a watershed in the history of giving in Australia.

The Boxing Day tsunami, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions more homeless, hungry and traumatised, provoked an outpouring of generosity on an unprecedented scale.

Individuals, embracing new ways of giving including online and SMS-based donations, gave quickly and generously, while the Federal Government announced its largest single aid package ever.

Musicians, sportspeople and other entertainers clamoured to contribute their time for the cause, with the public flocking to the events that they staged.

Prominent corporate philanthropists Richard Pratt and Dick Smith led the corporate charge, each announcing early donations of $1 million. Other segments of corporate Australia were also quick to join in, largely eschewing the calls from GUD Holdings managing director Ian Campbell and the Australian Shareholders Association for public companies to resist the urge to start giving away company profits.

Even relatively small companies such as the Melbourne-based Lonely Planet managed to stump up significant contributions.

"It was just such a contradiction, with the best-ever company results and the worst-ever humanitarian disaster," said Lonely Planet chief executive Judy Slatyer explaining the company's $500,000 donation.

Local government too got in on the act, with many councils coordinating community giving campaigns and fundraisers, giving donations of their own, or offering staff expertise for the rebuilding effort.

Experts have pointed to the strength and immediacy of the pictures that were being beamed into Australia as one explanation for the huge domestic response to the tragedy.

The business and holiday connections many people have for the southern Asian region, the presence of many Australians in the region at the time of the tsunami and the timing and sheer human scale of the catastrophe are also linked, many believe.


"The best combination of answers I've come up with have been the timing - it was at Christmas when everyone's thinking about family and friends and giving - and the speed and the powerfulness of the images - people could see what was happening," says Philanthropy Australia operations manager Charles Brass.

"Put those things together with the fact that so many Australians had traveled to that part of the world for tourism etc. and somewhere in the midst of all that is the answer."

While it is relatively easy to theorise about exactly why this disaster prompted such an immediate and widespread response, what is harder to ascertain is where it will all end.

Three months on from the disaster, many donors are still only just beginning to formulate a response, says Goldman Sachs JBWere manager of philanthropic services Christopher Thorn.

Mr Thorn, whose unit provides advice to individuals on incorporating philanthropy into their overall wealth management strategy, says many high net worth philanthropists purposely held back at the height of the crisis.

"The group of what I will call informed givers, who give significant amounts of money each year, in fact probably held back through the tsunami crisis because they … identified that the appeals, the cricket matches and all the rest of it would raise a lot of money," he said.

"Rather than adding money to that pool, they saw there were other ways of contributing."

Philanthropy Australia's Charles Brass agrees that the philanthropic response may really only just be beginning.

He says that while at least $200,000 was given immediately by Philanthropy Australia members, others were hungry for information about how they could make a more long-term contribution.

In an indication of that interest, at least 25 donors attended a briefing hosted by Philanthropy Australia on February 17 that was designed to outline what sort of contribution Australian foundations and philanthropists could make to the tsunami relief and rebuilding effort.

A further 50-odd people attended a separate briefing organised by Goldman Sachs JBWere in Melbourne earlier this month, with a similar number expected at further meetings to be held in Brisbane and Sydney on April 5 and 8.

"One way we would distinguish charity from philanthropy is the difference between responding to an immediate need and then putting in place factors that might prevent the need occurring in the future," Mr Brass says.

"The overwhelming response from our members has been to find out what's not being done that needs doing."


Finding a role to play

It is this potential for making a unique, long-lasting and transformational contribution that makes the few months ahead a crucial time for Australian grantmakers still considering their tsunami response.

Indeed, grantmakers have a distinct role to play in disasters, according to Disaster Grantmaking: A Practical Guide for Foundations and Corporations - a report of a joint working group of the European Foundation Centre and the Council on Foundations.

The 2001 publication, which has emerged as the preeminent resource for disaster grantmaking, says corporate and foundation grantmakers have a unique role to play because of their ongoing relations with grantees, as well as their long-term perspective, their programmatic and administrative flexibility, and their strong convening capacity.

Grantmakers can also contribute the experience they have in supporting research and disseminating results of projects and programs, the guide says.

"Lacking the sizable emergency relief resources of governments and some well-known non-governmental organisations (NGOs), foundations and corporate grantmakers nevertheless can make a significant contribution, for instance, by filling critical gaps in under-funded areas like disaster rehabilitation, prevention, research and education activities," the guide says.

Doing good by doing nothing at all

So while corporate and individual donors have been pouring money into programs to fulfill the crucial short-term response needs, many more experienced donors are embracing their unique position and plotting a more thoughtful response.

Individual responses differ. Some are looking around to see what gaps have been left or might emerge as time goes on, others are thinking about what might be done to prevent such a calamity from occurring again.

And some grantmakers have reached the far less emotionally gratifying but no less valid decision to do nothing at all.

Many may have been prompted to such inaction by the urging of organisations such as the US international funders network Grantmakers Without Borders (Gw/oB) not to forget the "silent emergencies" caused by HIV/AIDS, economic injustices, human rights abuses and environmental degradation.

"Many of Gw/oB's members continue to fund social justice issues around the globe and choose not to respond to the tsunami disasters," the organisation says on its website.

Others believe that international or disaster grantmaking falls too far outside their normal sphere of operation.

Another pressing consideration that is occupying the minds of local grantmakers is the desire to ensure home-grown causes are not short-changed in the wake of the tsunami disaster.

Not surprisingly, this is also the number one topic of contemporary conversation among non-profit fundraisers. While some are contemplating a bleak outlook in 2005 brought about by stretched donation budgets and "compassion fatigue", others believe that the tsunami may, in fact, have created new donors and new ways of giving that can only be of benefit to local charities.

Many also point to the recently released report on foundation giving in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which found that only 16 per cent of grantmakers reduced their support for other programs as a result of giving to 9/11 causes.

"At one level (the effect of the tsunami) will become clear a year from now, when the complete cycle of annual giving behaviour has run its course from last Christmas to next Christmas," says Asia-Pacific Centre for Philanthropy and Social Investment director Michael Liffman.

"That's the short-term cycle from which you can make some sort of observation about whether people's giving to other causes increased or decreased or stayed the same.

"Then I guess there's a three or five-year cycle where one sees, particularly in the corporate sector, whether there is some sort of heightened commitment, heightened awareness or conversely, some sort of heightened cynicism or fatigue."

In the face of such uncertainty, many local charities and community groups are hoping that local grantmakers and donors will hold back a good part of their budgets for local recipients, and indeed that many will increase their spend this year to make up for possible shortfalls.

Even more optimistic organisations are hoping that grantmakers will go further to filling the gaps that may be left by absent or reduced public donations by considering grants for operational support.


Decisions and challenges

For those grantmakers who do make the decision to wade into the tsunami grantmaking - or indeed any disaster grantmaking - arena in coming months, there are a range of decisions to be made and challenges to overcome.

For thoughtful grantmakers, it is definitely not just a matter of deciding on an amount and handing it over.

They need to think about where the money will come from, whether their proposed contribution will fit with their existing program focuses and guidelines, or if they should make an exception and go outside those guidelines.

Then there is the question of who to give the money to - should it go to an Australian group or one local to the disaster? What are the legal or taxation implications of a decision to give to an overseas organisation? Will the money be provided for short, medium or long-term relief, or a combination of these? What will be required by way of reporting and evaluation?

Grantmakers will also have to overcome a range of challenges. Some may be deluged with requests for help and feel the urge to give immediately, when perhaps drawing breath and holding off is the best response. Others may feel moved to respond but feel the disaster is outside their usual area of operation and are unsure how - or if - to proceed.

As a US family foundation trustee noted in a Family Matters special edition on disaster grantmaking in 2003, many grantmakers may have the money but not the know-how to cope with such an emergency.

"On the morning of September 11, 2001, I found myself watching TV and surfing the internet, attempting to follow the horrific events of the day, with the foundation cheque book in front of me," the trustee said.

"The magnitude of the event was obvious but the question (was one) every philanthropist has at one time pondered - how to respond to this disaster?"

A question of timing

One of the most fundamental decisions a grantmaker will make about its disaster contribution relates to timing.

Speakers at the February 17 Philanthropy Australia tsunami briefing, who included Indonesian Ambassador Imron Cotan, Australia Council for International Development (ACFID) executive director Graham Tupper and other charity representatives, all pointed to three response phases that are underpinning the tsunami relief and rebuilding effort - immediate relief, stabilisation and rebuilding, and restoration.

As the Disaster Grantmaking report points out, this is in line with a general shift in thinking about disaster responses, from a focus on quick relief based on a charitable impulse to a broader concept of disaster "management".

"Instead of viewing disasters as single tragic events, they are seen by professionals in the field as part of a larger process or cycle, which requires a long-term perspective that addresses the root causes as well as immediate needs," the report says.

While it is still too early to assess which of these phases most Australian and international grantmakers are choosing to target, there is strong evidence that they are considering the question deeply.

Who's worthy?

No less difficult to decide upon than the "when" is the "who" of disaster grantmaking.

Grantmakers have a lot to consider in assessing a grant recipient at any time; with disaster grantmaking they can add to those considerations the often vexing question about Australian-based versus on-the-ground organisations.

Many consider the latter a more effective vehicle for their funds, given local organisations' potential for lower administration costs and their practical first-hand knowledge of the needs and likely solutions relevant to the affected region.

On the other hand, as others have pointed out, local organisations may be harder to monitor, and may not be equipped to deal with such a big and immediate emergency, nor a relatively large donation.

Add to this the enormous complexity of the tax system in this area and you have the potential for a huge headache.

It is in this area of helping to sort out tax status and recommending some likely good recipients for donor funds that grantmaking and NGO peak bodies have played a huge role in the post-tsunami period.

Philanthropy Australia's Charles Brass says many of the calls the membership body fielded after the tsunami were from people with questions about tax deductibility and whether or not they could give directly overseas.

Philanthropy Australia has also been researching which agencies have ITEC status for the benefit of members and has provided an online listing of other resources relevant to foundation and corporate donors.

The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) has also provided a large amount of information for donors, including a list of organisations who are signatories to the ACFID code of conduct, as well information about non-monetary donations and links to other relevant agencies.

Overseas, the US-based The Philanthropic Initiative has also responded to the need for information, putting together a list of criteria and questions that donors might want to consider in selecting recipient agencies (see breakout box for the full list).

Planning for the unexpected

In the long-term, grantmaking resource organisations are saying, one of the major lessons grantmakers can derive from the tsunami is the need to be prepared.

As Family Matters pointed out in its 2003 special edition on disaster grantmaking, while it is impossible to anticipate every possible disaster, grantmakers can identify scenarios and plan how they might handle them.

Questions an organisation can consider in advance include under what circumstances it will give to disasters, where the money for its disaster grantmaking will come from, what sort of organisations it will give to, how quickly it will respond and if it will make provision to ensure that other grantees are not short-changed if a disaster occurs elsewhere.

While perhaps few Australian grantmakers will go as far as taking up the suggestion that they put in place a formal "disaster giving plan", it does appear likely that the tsunami will bring about some degree of change in the thinking of the Australian donor community.

"Just possibly, the rewards of being part of such an exceptionally united and purposeful local and global community effort will remain with us, and personal, communal and corporate philanthropy may have reached a new level of seriousness and sophistication from which it will not entirely recede," says Michael Liffman.

"What is inevitable, however, is that head as well as heart - analysis and debate, as well as emotion and compassion - will be required.

"Ordinary people, volunteers, community workers, professionals, NGO managers and staff, celebrities, veterans of relief and rebuilding programs and newcomers to them have all become involved.

"Not all understand the complexities of what we are dealing with, and for those who role it is to decide on the distribution of funds, the skills of good grantmaking will be tested and extended."


The European Foundation Centre and Council on Foundations publication, Disaster Grantmaking: A Practical Guide for Foundations and Corporations, can be downloaded at http://www.cof.org/files/Documents/International_Programs/disasterguide.pdf.


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