3 Grantmaking Principles That Will Boost Disaster Recovery

On the island of St. Thomas and in other disaster-affected communities, there is an urgent need for innovative and flexible grantmaking models.


Imani Daniel is part of the herculean effort to help the most vulnerable people on St. Thomas restore normalcy after hurricanes Irma and Maria. In the chaotic days after the hurricanes, she helped launch the St. Thomas Recovery Team to address the urgent needs she saw on the island she calls home—a life-threatening lack of access to medicine, dangerously slow distribution of food and water, and rampant denial of federal aid.

These days, Imani is also grappling with an unexpected challenge: the whims of funders who live thousands of miles away.

“Our organization is kind of shifting our mission to fit their wants and their needs, which is not fair to our constituents. People are telling us ‘we need our roofs fixed,’ ‘we need homes,’ but we may not be able to prioritize as we’d like because we’re beholden to the wishes of funders,” said Imani, who lives on the island of St. Thomas.

Imani’s challenge is one shared by many organizations in the throes of climate-related disasters, which are growing in frequency and severity around the world. In disaster-affected regions, the need for flexible funding models is acute and largely unmet, according to Britt Lake, then Chief Program Officer of the Disaster Recovery Team at GlobalGiving.

The monopoly of humanitarian aid is one part of the problem, she said. Local organizations like the St. Thomas Recovery Team received less than 3% of overall humanitarian funding in 2017—a figure that in the past has dipped even lower.

“By directing nearly all funding to large, external groups, recovery programs are likely to be rigidly determined by people who don’t know the communities well and won’t stay in the communities to see recovery efforts through in the long run,” Britt explained.

Groups rooted in the affected communities, on the other hand, are deeply invested in outcomes. “They know what works and doesn’t work in their communities, and they’re committed to getting things done for their neighbors,” Britt said.

Over a year has passed since Irma and Maria devastated the US Virgin Islands, and the needs of survivors are still evolving, which can sometimes make it difficult for the St. Thomas Recovery Team to determine how to request and allocate resources in advance, Imani said.

“You may not think of simple things like feeding your volunteers or buying gas for local truckers hauling supplies when asking for funds,” Imani said.

Funders’ pet causes can also get in the way of effective disaster recovery, she said. For example, the St. Thomas Recovery Team may win a grant to install solar panels in homes, but needs funds first to repair roofs.

“We’re torn between not turning away any resources because we desperately need them and putting them to good use, but then also telling our constituents it might be a bit longer before we get your priority settled just because of how the funding game works,” Imani said.

Britt, of the Disaster Response Team, recommends funders consider three grantmaking principles to help, rather than hinder, recovery:

    1. Trust your grantees.

    Trust is one of the founding values at the Disaster Response Team, which has distributed nearly $70 million to countries facing disasters and humanitarian emergencies since 2004.

    “We trust local organizations to deliver the solutions that make the most sense for their communities, and we tailor our grantmaking and capacity-strengthening services to their needs,” Britt explained.

    Trust is paramount also from the perspective of a grantee: “Find groups that you trust, and do your due diligence on the front end so you don’t feel as compelled to micromanage,” Imani recommends.

    Imani’s success hinges on a trust-based and collaborative model, too. The St. Thomas Recovery Team works hand-in-hand with a variety of public and private organizations to achieve its mission and depends on the capacity of locals to accomplish construction and other projects.

    2. Provide unrestricted funding.

    In the aftermath of a crisis, needs will shift and shift often, Britt said. The Disaster Response Team asks its grantees to broadly describe how they’d like to spend funds—but skips asking grantees to earmark every penny of a grant upfront. This gives organizations on the frontlines the flexibility to shift spending as priorities change on the ground.

    Other innovative funders add contingency funding to grants to cover unforeseen circumstances, or simply make unrestricted grants to shift decision-making power to their grantees.

    “It makes sense that grantors have an idea of what they want accomplish,” Imani said, “but I don’t think they do a good enough job of collaborating with the other pieces in a holistic puzzle, and they’re definitely not collaborating with the people on the ground.”

    3. Be flexible

    Britt recommends grantors find out what aspects of their grantmaking processes frustrate their grantees, and be willing to try different ways of operating. For example, English is a second—or third or fourth—language for many of Britt’s grantees. She had to adapt.

    “That means phone calls, with a translator available if possible, are often much more efficient than back-and-forth paper trails,” she said.

    In the immediate throes of a crisis, the Disaster Recovery Team amends its grant application requirements to ease the administrative burden on already over-taxed staff, substantially reducing the length of its application and encouraging grant applicants to define their own success metrics, rather than asking them to adhere to metrics it sets from afar. GlobalGiving named Imani a Disaster Feedback Fellow.

With flexible, trust-based funding from the Disaster Response Team, the St. Thomas Recovery Team is rebuilding 100 homes, mainly owned by senior citizens who were denied FEMA funding.

On the island, the funding meant Imani and her team were able to remove storm debris from a woman’s yard, to install windows and doors for a man who is blind, to help a 69-year-old widow rebuild the home she lost to the storm. It means Imani can say ‘yes, we can help’ to neighbors who’ve heard ‘no’ far too many times.

The Disaster Response Team at GlobalGiving is changing the way disaster recovery is done.


Note: This article was originally published in the Giving Compass Disaster Relief and Recovery Magazine.

Featured Photo: Rebuilding St. Thomas by St. Thomas Recovery Team

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