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Why We've Stopped Saying 'Natural Disaster': Taking Action

Thursday, August 29, 2019

By Alan Kwok, Disaster Resilience Director, Northern California Grantmakers

Natural hazards like wildfires, heatwaves, and earthquakes in our region test our community’s resilience. Often times, they worsen the already dramatic disparities of wealth and power along racial and economic lines. 

A low-income family already struggling to pay rent will struggle even more and after a disaster and risks having no where to live. For low-income households and households of color, the racial wealth gap increases with each disaster: our wealthy neighbors become more wealthy and those of us with the smallest bank accounts get poorer

There’s nothing natural about the suffering that follows disasters because it doesn’t have to be that way. Philanthropy can proactively invest in hazard mitigation and preparedness efforts to lessen the impacts of disasters.

The Philanthropic Landscape

According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, philanthropy invests most of its dollars immediately following a disaster, when media attention is at its peak. However, less than 15% of our philanthropic dollars go toward reducing hazard risk and preparing our communities. Studies show pre-disaster funding goes further. Every $1 spent on mitigation saves $6

When the media’s attention goes away, so does philanthropic support to devastated communities. In fact, only 20% of philanthropy dollars support recovery efforts, which could take up to 10 years or more. The uneven allocation of philanthropic dollars is also a stark reminder that we have more to do in realigning our priorities when it comes to reducing hazard risks, preparing our communities, enhancing effective disaster relief efforts, and supporting the rebuilding of livelihoods.   

A Holistic Approach for Philanthropy 

Whether your organization is new to disaster resilience funding or you have been funding for years, the opportunity for philanthropy to learn and partner is more present than ever in California. 

Statewide Efforts

1. California For All--Emergency Preparedness Campaign. Governor Newsom recently launched the state’s new $50 million emergency preparedness campaign, known as Listos (Ready) California, to build resiliency in communities at risk of natural hazards. Listo California will connect over a million vulnerable Californians to culturally and linguistically competent programs and support. 

2. Philanthropy California. Recently, Philanthropy California – an alliance of Northern California, Southern California, and San Diego Grantmakers – became the first partner to implement one of six strategies recommended by California Volunteers at the Governor’s Office to advance community-wide resiliency. 

Philanthropy California is bringing funders together to plan for community disaster preparedness, response, and recovery through education, alignment, and coordination. Philanthropy California and CalVolunteers will host a disaster funders summit to clarify the funder roles and develop equitable disaster response and recovery strategies.

Immediate Steps for Our Sector

1. Relentlessly and intentionally focus on equity. You can start where you are by focusing on equity in the areas you’re already funding - environment and ecosystems, health access and services, government institutions, and economic well-being. Are your grantees set up to support the people who are organizing to assist each other when a hazard strikes?

2. Tackle equity through process. Philanthropy can play a role in supporting inclusive decision-making when it comes to disaster and climate change. Recently, NCG hosted “Democratizing Resilience Planning and Disaster Recovery”, which emphasized multi-sector collaboration. Join further discussions focused on ensuring people at the center of the crisis have a voice in their own recovery and the decision-making process.

3. Join your fellow funders. Together we can explore how to integrate a resilience lens to your work by sharing best practices and preparing for hazard events. NCG and SCG host quarterly conversations for funders seeking to understand disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery grantmaking strategies as part of their overall grantmaking portfolio (see below for the next NCG disaster funders conversation). 

Moreover, Philanthropy California is building a statewide infrastructure to support and coordinate funders across California to elevate best practices, connect funders who are developing similar strategies, and boost resiliency efforts with our government partners. 

Take it from the Netherlands, where it seldom floods despite its status as one of the most flood-prone countries in the world: disasters can be avoided with the right investments in physical and social infrastructures. By being more strategic in how philanthropy is investing in disaster resilience, we can have structures that withstand rising seas, schools that remain open, hospitals and clinics that meet the needs of their patients, families that have their basic needs met, and lifelines that are not disrupted. 

Let’s strive to make our unnatural disasters a thing of the past.

P.S. Since we won't use the term 'natural disasters', here are other terminologies:

  • Natural hazards
  • Extreme natural events
  • Disasters resulting from natural hazards
  • Climate events (storms, floods, hurricanes, droughts, heatwaves)
  • Seismic events (earthquakes)

Join us for the next Quarterly Conversation on Disaster Philanthropy on October 1, 2019 from 10:30 am - 12:00 noon at Northern California Grantmakers. Please stay tuned for the next Southern California Grantmakers conversation.