In the Months After a Disaster

What happens next?

Organizations need a quick infusion of capital to get people and supplies on the ground immediately after a natural disaster, but the heaviest lifting begins when the media attention wanes and donors move on.

In many cases, the places where natural events strike most disastrously are already riddled with tough social problems that we know require ongoing work. Although all and any on-the-ground organizations need cash in a disaster’s immediate aftermath, grassroots organizations and those that work in the country more permanently need continued support to revitalize damaged areas and maintain fragile social services infrastructures.

What can donors do to ensure their donations are being maximized for those who need it most? To start, donors should understand the stages of recovery after a disaster and the need for ongoing support. Knowing this, donors can distribute their gifts accordingly throughout the process. From an organization’s perspective, it’ll be useful to build a communication strategy around the stages to keep donors updated on the progress of on-the-ground work.

Using the Nepal earthquakes and the aftermath as an example, these are the ways some organizations responded, adapted, and have continued to rebuild and what you can do to make the most of your donation dollars next time you support relief efforts.

Relief — all qualified boots on the ground

Although organizations that operate in a region year-round have the connections and know-how to deal with an emergency there, some specialize in immediate relief around the globe. It’s critical these organizations have the support they need to employ their services at any given moment.

For example, Team Rubicon, an organization that deploys groups of veterans to assist in the wake of natural disasters, runs a recurring revenue program to ensure their teams always have everything they need when disaster strikes.

Alternatively, an organization might look for partner organizations on the ground to provide their products or services to a population they don’t normally serve. In the case of the Nepal earthquake relief efforts, Watts of Love, a nonprofit that builds solar lamps for communities in need, hadn’t worked in the region prior to the earthquakes. However, they knew lamps would be desperately needed. They identified a local partner in Nepal that could distribute the lamps and then ran a fundraising campaign to get them there.

Another organization that has a long track record of responding to crises abroad is Operation USA. Like Watts of Love, they don’t have development programs in Nepal, but their experience with disaster relief allowed them to spur donors and partners into action quickly.

Rebuilding — build back better

Even three months after the earthquakes, the people of Nepal still face a scarcity of goods and services and a lack of infrastructure and homes. According to Oxfam International, thousands remain in temporary shelters.

“Three months since the first earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, thousands of people still live outside in temporary shelters made of tarpaulins, bamboo, and metal sheets.” — Oxfam International

The rebuilding phase is critical to secure normalcy in affected communities. Likely, organizations with more permanent programs or facilities in the region, like Samahope, IDEX, and Heifer International, work with grassroots partners and local community leaders to resume services. However, organizations focus on stabilization and plan for the future even before the relief phase is complete.

In the months after the Nepal earthquakes, there was a tremendous push by thought leaders and experts to “build back better.” Possible, an organization that works in partnership with the Nepalese government to deliver high-quality healthcare to the country’s poorest citizens, has put a tremendous emphasis on this. In fact, they’ve made it part of their mission to rebuild Nepal’s health care system.

Duncan Maru, cofounder of Possible and an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, wrote in the Washington Post in May, “The idea is to use an acute crisis to address chronic problems and injustices. As tragic as the catastrophe in Nepal has been, we must not forget the preventable death and disability, housing instability and food insecurity that are rampant in the country.”

Oxfam echoed this sentiment when donor states met at the International Conference on Nepal’s reconstruction, calling it a “golden opportunity.”

Many relief organizations remain on the ground to tackle rebuilding. All Hands Volunteers has been in Nepal since day one, and their Rebuild Team still maintains a presence in the hardest hit areas through partnerships with both international and local NGOs.

Although Nepal is still in the relief phase, leaders, organizations, and communities are preparing to take on the challenge to not only restore daily life, but improve it too.

Development — prepare for the future

The work is never completely finished, even after the rebuilding phase. Organizations that operate in an affected country need to ensure their permanent programs continue operating. If infrastructure and vital services remain delicate, progress in an organization’s focus areas is easily eroded and people’s lives or livelihoods could be at risk. Organizations like Heifer and Oxfam need consistent support to ensure no one will be put in jeopardy.

If you’ve donated to a cause that assisted, or is assisting, in Nepal relief or rebuilding efforts, check back on the organization’s progress or look out for updates. Have they indicated they need continued support? (For example, Oxfam ran a recent matching campaign and Possible has a dedicated Rebuilding Nepal webpage.)

During current and future efforts ask yourself: Can you become a sustaining member of an organization with a long-running program region? Look for an organization that articulates a purpose and need well, so you can assess how to maximize your impact in the days, months, and years after a disaster.

All Hands Volunteers

*Stages of disaster relief adapted from Fidelity Charitable’s Four Phases of Disaster Relief

Originally published on

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