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When the Sirens Sounded: A Call to Act

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

You can join us May 31st at Flipping the Script on Disaster: A Tale of Three Resilient Cities to learn how Leaders in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco are taking bold action to survive, adapt, and grow stronger in the face of racial inequity, climate change, earthquakes, healthcare disparities, wildfires, and lack of affordable housing. Learn More and Register >

The sirens sounded in the quiet of the early morning today in San Francisco, marking the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated much of the city and caused damage along our coast from Eureka to Salinas. In the years that followed, the region recovered from that disaster and became a thriving metropolis.

Northern California has been no stranger to disasters since that long ago quake and fire. Just in recent years, we have faced extreme drought, a major earthquake, devastating fires, a tsunami and severe flooding. From those events and others around the world, we know that the most vulnerable people and communities with the fewest resources face the greatest hurdles in every aspect of recovery, from health to housing.

We’ve learned, prepared and strengthened our safeguards since 1906. But, there’s more to do. Andrea Zussman, NCG’s Manager for Regional Vibrancy and Sustainability, spoke with Bob Ottenhoff, President and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, about why and how philanthropy can ready itself to recover and respond with the integrity our communities deserve.

Andrea: Given the pressing challenges facing us today, why should we find the space, time, and resources for future disasters and other crises?

Bob: The simple answer is we can’t avoid them. We tend to think about natural disasters – and manmade ones too – as something that only happens to someone else in faraway distant places. 

The fact is, they are a regular part of everyday life. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the first three months of 2017, the United States has experienced five weather and climate disasters costing over $1 billion each, and hundreds of smaller disasters—the highest total in decades. But dollars only tell part of the story.

The human dimensions are staggering with the loss of loved ones, destruction of homes and personal property, and weakened economic viability for communities. Disasters include earthquakes, fires, floods, and drought, but also community crises such as violence and civil unrest, and infrastructure failures, such as water crises. The point is not to constantly live in fear of disasters, but to recognize that disasters happen with regularity and that by taking a little bit of effort to plan and prepare for one, we can lessen the negative impacts.

Andrea: What specifically can philanthropic organizations do?

Bob:  There are several things philanthropy can do:

  1. Do a disaster inventory. Take a few minutes to reflect on what kind of disasters might strike your community.  Over the last year, you’ve experienced both droughts and floods to go along with the ever-present concerns about earthquakes. Are there other ones? Once you’ve identified them, take a few extra minutes to think about what you can do to prepare your personal life and your organization – and what you would do if a disaster struck.  What are the unique capabilities and capacities of your organization that you could apply to help your community after a disaster?
  2. Consider your grantees. Next, consider the impact of a disaster on your grantmaking programs and your grantees. Are some of your grantees first responders?  Is the support you provide flexible for them to respond to disaster or crisis? Are other grantees serving vulnerable populations?  We know that children, seniors, and people and communities with fewer resources are hit hardest by disaster because they are least likely to bounce back without extra help.  Do we have a plan to help them in case of a disaster?
  3. Think about your community. Think about the communities you serve.  Are they disaster-ready?  Would you consider them resilient?  The Rockefeller Foundation says “building resilience is about making people, communities, and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events—both natural and manmade—and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.”
  4. Set up 'My Playbook.’ Finally take a look at CDP’s Disaster Philanthropy Playbook. It’s chock full of strategies, suggestions, and best practices from other foundations who have dealt with disasters in their communities. It was designed to provide you the ability to choose from the broad scope of contents, compile relevant resources into your own Playbook, curate them to suit your objectives, and share them with your network or community.

In the end, we’re all disaster philanthropists.  Whether we plan for it or not, our grantees and our communities will be affected by a disaster. By being strategic and intentional about our disaster-related grantmaking, we can increase our impact and reduce suffering in communities.

In 2016 Northern California Grantmakers began direct involvement in Disaster Resilience, Relief and Recovery as a part of our Regional Vibrancy and Sustainability work. To support the strategies and planning of our members, we will be:

  • sharing perspectives from the field;
  • hosting events for learning and sharing promising practices such as our May 31 event (add link); and
  • linking to resource materials and tools such as (link to the three resources below which will be posted on our resources page).


When the Jessie Ball duPont Fund went beyond its traditional disaster relief support after two devastating tornadoes struck Alabama in 2011, staff realized that they did not know enough about how public and private systems work, about where, when and how they intersect, or about organized philanthropy’s proper role. Through this document, they share their lessons and reflections.
Disasters bring out the best in people. Donations to charities surge as television coverage increases. Yet we know from experience that both coordination and effective spending of donor dollars is a particular challenge, not just while the disaster is underway, but also in the long-term, as rebuilding begins. As families and communities begin to clean up and consider how long their power will be out, private philanthropists turn their attention to the question, “How can I help?” This practical tip sheet from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy offers guidance for disaster grantmaking.
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. These are some of the key lessons learned by the contributors to The Disaster Playbook.