Best Practices in Humanitarian Aid

In the wake of the any tragedy, there is a strong need and desire to help and provide support or resources. It is increasingly important for donors to understand how to make their giving more effective. Often those with the best of intentions can contribute to unintentional harm. We encourage you to do your homework on what can be most effective and supportive for those impacted by tragedy. 

Watch this video: Disaster relief donations that don't bring relief by CBS Sunday Morning 


We want to encourage your support but we recommend you to keep these strategies in mind as you plan your giving. Unfortunately with disaster and the desire to help also comes scams and/or organizations who may be misleading in how they distribute funds or resources to those in need. 

Consult websites like Charity Navigator and GiveWell to determine charities' legitimacy and avoid scams. The Federal Trade Commission also offers these tips for doing your research

See below for best practices from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Help Now

When disaster strikes, give cash, not goods. Unless people at the site of the disaster report that specific items are needed, sending cash is best. The early days of responding to a disaster are often chaotic. There isn’t time to sort through donations, which then take up space or likely go to waste. Needs also change fast, and cash donations allow organizations responding to the disaster to shift purchases and programming as the situation evolves. If you want to give something more tangible, consult NeedsList, which matches the specific needs of NGOs and disaster victims to donors and local suppliers of needed goods. Purchasing needed goods from local suppliers avoids shipping costs and supports the local economy in addition to helping victims.

For immediate relief, give locally as well as to national and international groups. When a disaster hits, local organizations in disaster-affected areas are often able to determine what their communities need most to recover. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, RAPIDO, a coalition of six organizations in Texas worked to accelerate disaster recovery in the area through a bottom-up community-based approach, considering architectural issues such as inadequate building codes as well as the social, economic, political and policy environment.

Large national and multinational organizations can provide important support post-disaster, too. Because these organizations often have presences and networks in place in areas before disasters hit, they are often able to mobilize and provide emergency response very quickly. For example, CARE, an international humanitarian agency, has a presence in 95 countries around the world and emergency response experts in all continents, meaning the organization is able to provide emergency relief supplies to survivors shortly after a disaster hits.


Help Later

Plan on recovery taking a long time. For example, it took a full year for almost all communities in Puerto Rico to regain electricity after Hurricane Maria took out the island’s power grid in September of 2017, and even in 2019 houses and major infrastructure, like bridges and roads, are still being rebuilt.[4] In contrast, media and donor attention to a disaster is quite short. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy estimates that one-third of all giving is complete within one to four weeks of a disaster occurring; two-thirds of giving is complete one to two months after the disaster; six months post-disaster, giving has stopped.

Full recovery efforts are typically on the scale of years, and philanthropy is still needed well after the event. Strategies donors can use to combat this mismatch of short-term giving and long-term needs include giving to a pooled fund that gathers donations when attention is greatest but disburses grants to individual nonprofits over a longer time period. Examples include several funds run by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Donors can also consider setting aside funds to make multi-year gifts to organizations which are engaged in longer term recovery efforts, and monitor the progress over time.


Help Better

Donors can have a significant long-term impact by taking the opportunity to dedicate part of their donations to preventing and preparing for future disasters. Although just 11% of disaster assistance giving in North America in 2016 went towards resilience, risk reduction, mitigation, and preparedness, research shows that every dollar spent on disaster preparedness results in at least six dollars of savings.[3] Consider supporting efforts promoting innovation, coordination, accountability, and prevention.

What follows are examples of initiatives working to address both immediate disaster relief and long-term preparation and mitigation with a focus on innovation, coordination, accountability, and prevention.

Fund innovative approaches. After a disaster hits, one of the most effective ways of improving the lives of survivors is direct cash transfers. For example, in 2017, the World Food Programme assisted 19.2 million people at risk of starvation with cash transfers, amounting to 30% of WFP’s food assistance portfolio. Dispensing cash instead of food where possible is a relatively new approach, and has reduced the cost of assistance, maximizing the number of people that can be reached, and allowing for more flexible and responsive help. Studies have shown that every $1 given to a refugee or vulnerable citizen results in another $2 in the local economy.

Other innovative approaches address climate change. More than 150 million people live on land that will be below sea level or regular flood levels by the end of the century.[5] Mitigating the damage of rising sea levels requires considerable innovation and creativity. The Rockefeller Foundation established 100 Resilient Cities in 2013 in order to help cities build resilience to 21st century challenges, like increasing natural disasters. 100 cities were selected to join the 100RC network, representing more than one-fifth of the world’s urban population, and were provided with the resources to develop a plan to become more economically and physically resilient. Although the existing 100 Resilient Cities organization concluded on July 31, 2019, The Rockefeller Foundation announced that same month that it would dedicate $8 million to continue supporting member cities within the network.

Coordinate for more efficient distribution of aid. When a disaster strikes, the sheer volume of organizations on the ground trying to help can make providing effective and efficient aid to those who need it most difficult. Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid nonprofit, coordinates with local, national, and international responders to avoid duplications of efforts, logistical bottlenecks, and to ensure resources are used efficiently.

Coordination and information sharing between disaster relief organizations can lead to more effective organizations and targeted aid. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) is an association of organizations involved in the mitigation and alleviation of disasters that works to improve the delivery of services to disaster affected communities by providing a forum promoting cooperation, communication, coordination, and collaboration. National members include the American Red CrossAmericaresDirect ReliefFeeding America,  among others.

Improve accountability. Keeping track of organizations and their effectiveness is challenging, especially since the chaos of disasters can invite corruption or misuse of donor funds. The Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) has various reports investigating the effectiveness of agencies operating in a range of locations, including Haiti, Nepal, and New York after Superstorm Sandy. DAP also offers resources such as the Disaster Policy Wiki, which has more than 1,000 post-disaster relief policy recommendations to improve management systems. In 2017, DAP launched, a platform designed to help donors make more informed decisions about their disaster relief aid while simultaneously increasing organization transparency by requiring organizations to share data in order to be included on the “how to help” lists SmartResponse provides donors.

Immediately following disasters, it can be difficult for those affected to directly engage with the government and other aid organizations attempting to help them. To address this problem, Accountability Lab partners with local NGOs around the world to promote greater accountability and responsiveness of government and other institutions. After the Nepal earthquake, for example, Accountability Lab partners set up citizen “help desks” to coordinate relief efforts and serve as a conduit for on the-ground information about what was and was not working.

Include prevention efforts and long-term support. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, some areas of Puerto Rico went without power for months. In order to prepare for next hurricane season, The Solar Foundation is installing solar and battery storage at health clinics, community centers, and other critical locations in Puerto Rico through their Solar Saves Lives initiative, funded in part by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the Clinton Foundation. Because solar energy can be stored in batteries, solar energy and battery storage will ensure that these critical locations don’t lose power next time a storm hits.

Organizations with pre-existing networks on the ground before a disaster strikes are uniquely positioned to prepare for and provide aid immediately after disasters. Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs in the United States, positions emergency food supplies throughout the country to distribute in the event of a disaster. After most disaster organizations have moved on, Feeding America remains in communities providing aid to the low-income and at-risk populations who are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters.

For those living in constant conflict and recurring cycles of natural disasters, linkages to comprehensive, quality healthcare services are needed to ensure health and build community resilience. As part of a community-based approach to prevention, International Medical Corps(IMC) provided immediate medical services following the devastation of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, through mobile medical teams and house-to-house visits to ensure access to health and clean water. IMC trained more than 130 local community members, including health staff, social service specialists and police officers, on Grand Bahama with topics spanning health and hygiene awareness, self-care, and positive coping strategies, or Psychological First Aid.

Taken from The Center for High Impact Philanthropy. (n.d.). Disaster Relief: Help Now, Help Later, Help Better. University of Pennsylvania.