Japan is facing the aftermath of one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent history – a 9.0-magnitude earthquake followed by tsunami, which caused a nuclear crisis. The series of events is almost unimaginable, and though the damage is high the outpouring of financial support from consumers and companies is notably lower than other recent natural disasters, including the Haiti earthquake last year, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Why the discrepancy? It may have less to do with human compassion than with simple pragmatism. Here are several factors at play:
- Factor 1: Japan is a developed nation with the third largest economy in the world. Its infrastructure and resources far outweigh that of developing nations where crises also occur, such as Haiti.
- Factor 2: The Japanese government has not issued a call for support from other nations, and in fact, turned down offers for assistance.
- Factor 3: Nonprofit organizations in Japan, such as the Red Cross, have demonstrated a similar reticence to accept outside assistance from global affiliates.
- Factor 4: Where do you start? As the nuclear crisis continues to escalate, there is not a clear understanding of where Japan’s biggest short or long-terms needs are.
With such reserve from the government and aid organizations, it is hardly surprising that consumers and companies alike may not be responding with the same fervor as we have seen in the past. Despite our tendency to make comparisons, disasters are not all created equal.
Companies looking to support Japan as it assesses damage must realize this disaster may call for a different approach than for those that came before. Japan has resisted some of the immediate support offered, yet that is not to say aid is not desperately needed. The domino effect of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis paints a picture of a disaster that will demand more than immediate assistance. The best strategy a company can employ is not to have a short attention span.
Instead of sending volunteers, financial assistance or other assets in the short-term, which may not be used effectively or may actually create challenges for distribution on the ground, companies should instead create a thoughtful plan that will help the nation in the long-term, once mass media attention has died down and the nation looks to rebuild. Having patience to assess the needs will prove difficult for companies and American citizens alike, because, traditionally, our country’s largest outpouring of donations and compassion occur as we see the faces of the devastation in real time.
It’s in all of our interests to see Japan recover quickly. With a plan already in place, companies will be prepared to leverage their unique assets when the call for aid finally comes. For now, sit back, assess what the need is, listen to what the ask is, then give what and where it is needed most.
Cone offers the following five evergreen tips for corporate disaster response planning:
1. Cash first, but think longer-term: Immediate cash donations allow relief organizations to buy items that meet their most urgent needs (The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists organizations with expertise in disaster relief). Companies may also want to reserve some support until long-term reconstruction goals become clear.
2. Align longer-term giving with current social commitments: Many companies already support a specific issue, such as health, education or the environment, and likely have existing nonprofit partners. These programs and relationships may be leveraged to support reconstruction activities. For example, a company that supports education could provide transitional education programs for displaced students. This maximizes in-house expertise and builds on a company’s reputation for supporting a specific cause. Also determine what relief efforts, if any, your existing nonprofit partners have underway that you may be able to support.
3. Don’t give products just because you have them: By sending in-kind products that are not immediately needed by relief organizations, companies can actually slow down the relief process by creating unnecessary administrative burdens. Companies should instead proactively seek in-kind requests from government agencies or relief organizations.
4. Involve your employees: Employees want to help. Companies should provide a way for their employees to donate and should also consider offering a matching grant program to inspire them to give. Companies may also deploy employees as volunteers to assist with reconstruction activities if they have the needed skills and as requested by the relief organizations.
5. Communicate efforts internally and externally: No company wants to appear exploitative or inappropriate during times of humanitarian disaster. At the same time, companies that fail to communicate may be criticized by employees and customers for failing to contribute. To ensure transparency, companies should provide internal communication to employees; issue brief and modest, facts-only news releases over the wires to communicate with the media; and communicate with external stakeholders by providing updates on company participation via the company’s Web site and new media channels. To expedite their disaster relief plans, companies should create a cross-functional team to develop a charitable response strategy. This team should include senior management from corporate giving, human resources, operations and communications to determine the level, type and timing of support, as well as a transparent communications strategy. Companies must also conduct due diligence on immediate and longer-term grant recipients to ensure their money is being used effectively.