How GlobalGiving’s Australia Wildfires Response Is Different

As donors open their wallets to help Australia recover from devastating wildfires, Donna Callejon gives you an inside look at how GlobalGiving will fulfill its commitment to support community-led recovery and build long-term resilience.


I believe that most people are good, despite what is often emphasized by today’s media. They want to help each other, especially in times of crisis. Similarly, social media is not inherently bad, as some would have you think these days. Just look at how much awareness and generosity was unleashed in response to Hurricane Katrina (nearly 15 years ago!), the devastating earthquake in Haiti (10 years ago!) and the Ice Bucket Challenge (five years ago!). In the last few weeks, we’ve seen that instinct play out in response to the relentless and catastrophic wildfires in Australia.

But a recent New York Times article, “Donations Are Pouring Into Australia. Now What?” reminded me of a critical point: Those of us raising funds for disaster response must commit to the highest levels of transparency and continue to educate donors about the common pitfalls of disaster philanthropy. Millions in charitable donations have been raised in response to the Australia fires—one Facebook fundraiser for a single state’s fire service amassed more than 1,700 times her goal. Now, as the Times reported, she—or the fire service—must decide how to honor her donors’ intent and whether to distribute the funds to other organizations in need.

Meanwhile, media interest in the wildfire crisis in Australia is already waning, and donations are typically tied to coverage.

A startling 70-80% of disaster response funding is aimed at short-term relief, and most of it is given within the first two months of a disaster. While funding dries up or stops altogether, needs persist for years following a disaster as communities strive to rebuild. As the director of GlobalGiving’s Disaster Recovery Team, I’ve seen the same issues surface again and again.

Addressing persistent gaps in disaster response

To address persistent gaps in response, GlobalGiving has been working with our community of global nonprofits to respond to natural and humanitarian crises since 2004. In that time our community has mobilized for more than 400 disasters. We aspire to be the best option for individual and institutional donors who want to give to a partner they can trust to take a thoughtful and strategic approach to disbursing their money. Our team evaluates and supports vetted organizations that are best positioned to address the most critical needs during each phase of relief and recovery. We work—around the year, not just in times of crisis—to broaden and deepen our already-unique network of vetted nonprofits in every corner of the globe.

Between funds raised through our own Australia Wildfires Relief Fund and a matching grant from Facebook, GlobalGiving now has the job of responsibly allocating nearly $3 million of donor-directed contributions.

We feel privileged to be asked to assist the people of Australia at such a challenging time, and we want to be as transparent as possible about what makes our disaster response different.

There are various contextual considerations we must take into account to best calibrate our response, cadence, and approach to fund distribution. Through years of experience, we’ve identified several factors that can make this task more complex. This happens when:

  • The disaster has a high impact on people, environment, ecosystems, and infrastructure combined with low government capacity and little international response.
  • There is weak civil society and charitable networks in the affected areas.
  • There is layering of additional natural or geo-political crises in the same geographic area during the estimated disbursement period.

Fortunately, in Australia it is relatively easy to reach local, community-led organizations with capacity to absorb funds quickly, as the country has a robust and high-functioning nonprofit sector. In other recent disaster situations, such as in The Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, this has been more difficult, given a comparatively less-developed nonprofit sector. Still, effective distribution of funds is a nuanced business. As the Times article points out, jumping on the bandwagon to direct our funds to the most high-profile organizations would not be living up to GlobalGiving’s aspiration. The success of nonprofits with name recognition “may have crowded out other organizations in need,” the Times reported. Alarmingly, this happens after most disasters. A 2016 report showed that 76% of humanitarian funding went to major international NGOs—of which almost half was received by a mere 10 organizations.

Our growing partnerships in Australia

Here is how we plan to responsibly distribute the funds we have raised for wildfire relief and recovery in Australia. Of course, it is subject to change as the recovery unfolds, and we learn more from the impacted communities:

  • Within one week of launching the GlobalGiving Australia Wildfires Relief Fund, we made initial donations to six local Australian organizations. We will continue to disburse funds throughout the coming weeks and beyond. With millions of dollars pouring in for immediate relief, our goal in this first phase of funding is to strengthen relationships with local organizations, listen and learn as the situation develops, and begin distributing funds. And always to communicate to donors what we are doing with consistent report-outs.
  • In the coming months we will continue to monitor the evolution of needs faced by communities impacted by the fires—both human and wildlife—and maintain close contact with our existing nonprofit partners in Australia, learning from them about how the recovery process is proceeding and creating a space for them to articulate their most pressing needs across different affected areas. Based on their input, we will make larger, more targeted, grants in the second quarter of 2020. These grants will be especially focused on key long-term recovery needs, such as home rebuilding, wildlife habitat revitalization, and ongoing support for marginalized communities. Importantly, we will remain in listening and learning mode to determine the ultimate focus. As we continue to work with our partners, we will assist them in accessing the full benefits of participation in the GlobalGiving community, thereby investing in their longer-term sustainability.
  • In the second half of 2020, a GlobalGiving team member will travel to Australia to meet with grantees and get a first-hand understanding of the ongoing challenges and opportunities for support. This trip will be followed by another round of grantmaking, once again informed by community-led input regarding ongoing needs. By year-end, we will have disbursed at least 50% of the funds raised for this disaster. We will continue to report out to donors on a quarterly basis, just as we did after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and are continuing to do with the Hurricane Maria response.

We see in every natural disaster the reality that many responding organizations are only temporarily focused on the “crisis at hand.” This is for two main reasons. First, national or international responders typically don’t have the capacity or resources to stay deployed for longer than 6-12 months. (There are exceptions, of course.) Second, local nonprofits with ongoing missions must return to their core activities, which are often even more necessary in the weeks, months, and years following a major disaster. But the needs for “rebuilding” remain. That’s why GlobalGiving will continue to support local organizations serving communities impacted by these wildfires beyond 2020 and shift our grantmaking to increasingly focus on efforts that will contribute to long-term sustainability and resilience of the affected landscapes, animals, and communities.

Funding for resilience

Research shows that every dollar invested in disaster preparedness saves ~$6 in relief needs in future crises. Recognizing that GlobalGiving must take a responsible approach as our funds are spent down, the final phase of our contributions in 2021-2022 will largely be focused on programs intended to invest in social, economic, and environmental resilience in the areas impacted by the wildfires. During this last phase of grantmaking, we will look to fund programs recommended by our local nonprofit partners and grantees focusing on these important areas of recovery.

This later phase of recovery, which happens long after the news camera have left, takes many forms.

In response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, GlobalGiving is supporting the creation of a membership network to ensure the sustainable use of 52 community aqueducts. Over the long term, this work will contribute to safe and reliable access to drinking water outside of major cities. In response to the Southern California wildfires, GlobalGiving gave one local organization a grant to purchase transportation and electronic equipment. This increased its capacity to deliver an additional 900,000 pounds of food per month in an area highly vulnerable to disasters.

At the core of GlobalGiving’s approach to disaster response is our enduring commitment to be trustworthy stewards of our donors’ funds, as well as adherence to our belief that local communities must be the predominant voices developing and owning longer-term solutions to benefit themselves and their environments. We will continue to learn, to test our hypotheses, and to improve our communication and transparency to donors throughout the life cycle of our response. Those impacted by these tragedies deserve nothing less.

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Featured Photo: Australian Bushfire Relief by Foodbank Australia Limited

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