4 Questions about Disaster Philanthropy for Bob Ottenhoff

Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Bob Ottenhoff is the inaugural President and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), which provides tools, expert analysis and strategic guidance to maximize the effectiveness of donations to disaster relief and recovery. Recently, The Chronicle of Philanthropy recognized the launch of CDP as one of the “Five Nonprofit High Points of 2012.” Arabella AdvisorsMolly Lyons spoke to Ottenhoff about what donors really need to know to respond to and plan for a disaster.
What’s the biggest challenge for donors who are interested in disaster philanthropy?
When we see scenes of a disaster on television, we immediately want to do something and do it as soon as possible. However, as a donor, taking just a moment to reflect and be a little more intentional about your giving will help assure your funds have maximum impact and effectiveness. We try to remind donors about the full arc of disaster relief: people need help not only in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but they also need help with long-term recovery and long-term rebuilding. We also need to be better at planning and preparation, so that we can more quickly recover from disasters.
How can funders help plan and prepare for disasters?
We used to think disasters only happen somewhere else. We are beginning to understand now that disasters are happening with more frequency and they are happening with more intensity. Today, we all live in disaster-prone areas. And so if your mission as a donor is to support charitable organizations in your community and your community is being hit on a regular basis or is vulnerable to disasters, you need to recognize how this affects the ability of your grantees to provide services. For example, nonprofits may lose their offices, the employees may lose their homes, they may lose communication with each other. Service providers may find themselves overworked and their resources stretched. And then there are the aspects of long-term recovery. So all donors need to think about what they would do if a disaster hits their area. CDP is starting to help donors collaborate, to get all of the donors in a community to work together to plan and to discuss what the role of private philanthropists should be vis-a-vis government, versus corporations. What piece of disaster response can and should they handle?
What is resilience-orientated aid?
As I see it, it means how we can bounce back more quickly when we’re affected by a disaster. Because we know that the sooner you can get people back into the state of normalcy the quicker they’ll be able to have a productive life, get back to work, have fewer mental health issues and so forth. One way to build resilience is to help civic engagement. New Jersey is a great example of this. Governor Christie said that he was going to rebuild the shore just the way it used to be when he was a child. Others are saying, wait a minute—we can’t rebuild it exactly the way it was now that the oceans are five feet higher. If we rebuild it the same way, we’ll get the same results. In Biloxi, FEMA maps now determine what can be built and how it can be built. I was there recently and I went to look for an oyster shack for dinner, thinking I’d sit on a dock like I would at the Jersey shore. Instead, I had to climb two stories to get to the restaurant. It was 28 feet high because that’s the lowest they can now rebuild on the Biloxi coast.
It ties also into mitigation. Now we’re starting to hear governors in New York and New Jersey talk about buying up land and not allowing development. The Dutch have now said that resilience is assuming that certain parts of their land will be under water for part of the year. We can’t really solve the on-the-ground issues until we solve some of these more global policy issues.
What surprises donors you speak to most?
They are relieved to realize that they are not in it by themselves. A lot of the donors in New York and New Jersey told us that they’ve never dealt with disasters before, and so they had to learn what to do, step by step. We hope that donors will feel that CDP is a place to come to get support and to get knowledge. In the past, because we thought of disasters as so unusual, the philanthropy community would say, let’s just get through this disaster and then we’ll get back to normal. Now we’re starting to say that normal includes disasters, and so we need to factor them into how we live, plan and think about helping our communities.
This post originally appeared on Arabella Advisors’ Greater Good blog and is reprinted here with permission.
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