Rethinking Disaster Relief

It's a precarious time for business as it relates to corporate giving. The economy is down, and companies are exploring ways to make their philanthropy more impactful so they can maintain their commitments and still demonstrate a business and social return. As we sit on the heels of major disasters in China and Myanmar, in the midst of severe, localized flooding in the United States and on the precipice of hurricane season, it is important to note that companies must begin thinking about disaster relief in a different way. 

In “ The Corporate Citizen” this month, the president of the Office Depot Foundation discusses the important distinction between disaster relief (short-term) and disaster recovery (long-term). To be most effective, companies must think about disaster response not as a reaction to a singular event, but as a strategic process addressing both immediate and lasting needs. Cone recommends the following guidelines for companies to most effectively support disaster relief efforts:

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. 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. 

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 out 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. 

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. 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. 


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