5 Things I Learned About Sustainable Disaster Recovery

Learn from GlobalGiving’s recent Disaster Feedback Fellowship cohort as they share five key lessons for using feedback to work for sustainable disaster recovery.


GlobalGiving’s 2019-2020 Disaster Feedback Fellowship created the space for five local nonprofit leaders to connect, share, and hone in on feedback practices and the benefits and challenges of community-led disaster response. Between the conversations about the cultural differences in preparing for a disaster and the lively brainstorms on ways to find sustainable funding for recovery after a disaster, this year’s fellows have grappled with questions that many other nonprofits now face as they adapt their programs and find new ways to serve their community in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

These five fellows are now participating in the second year of a program designed to convene local nonprofit leaders from across the globe, each sharing one thing in common: when their communities were affected by humanitarian crises, their organizations stepped up to respond.

Little did we know when the fellowship began in September 2019, just how different the world would look a few months later. With the quick onset of COVID-19, it soon became clear that this local, community-based approach to disaster response would be put to the test like never before. In other words, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted this grassroots model of crisis response to be applied on a global scale.

As the Disaster Recovery Team Fellow at GlobalGiving, it has been a humbling experience to play a role in organizing a program that offers peer-to-peer learning and collaborative training on best practices in communications, data usage, and feedback related to humanitarian crises. After listening to and learning from the Disaster Feedback Fellows, these are my five takeaways from convening five unique leaders whose methods now hold true for relief efforts across the world:

1. No two disasters are alike, but the human impact is the same.

In the fellow-led session, “Strengthening Community Resilience in Disaster Response,” Muhammad Sooliman of Gift of the Givers Foundation asked the group, “What does a disaster look like in your community?” Among this diverse group of fellows from Afghanistan, Indonesia, the United States, South Africa, and Yemen, the responses ranged from chronic homelessness after Hurricane Michael battered Bay County, Florida, to the blockage of humanitarian aid in war-torn Yemen. Despite the differences in the context of a disaster (be it natural or man-made, protracted or sudden onset), the impact on survivors is the same. Daily lives are disrupted, and the challenges communities already faced before a disaster become amplified.

2. Flexible grantmaking is key to funding both immediate relief as well as sustainable, long-term disaster recovery.

In philanthropy, nonprofits often feel tethered to donor’s wishes through traditional proposal and reporting requirements—not to mention heavy paperwork. Because conditions change so rapidly in a crisis situation, local organizations benefit from a model of funding that matches the pace of the response. Jawad Zawaulstani from Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization pointed to the importance of this flexibility in the Afghan context, where restrictions on aid often negatively impact the sustainability of a program.

3. Engage locals, not contractors.

While different phases of disaster response require different areas of expertise, at the end of the day, the community itself belongs in the driver’s seat of recovery. In recent years, humanitarians have been advocating for the grassroots empowerment of disaster-affected residents through localization efforts. The impact of COVID-19 has inadvertently steered us in this direction, and communities are standing together to help address the needs of their neighbors. In Yemen, Farah Al-Wazeer of SMEPS shares how her organization was prepared to pivot, “SMEPS has adapted all its projects to COVID-19 response. We have already trained more than 5,000 health workers from 100 hospitals in Sana’a, Aden, and Hadhramout! We still work every day to do more.”

Long-term, sustainable disaster recovery that takes into consideration a community’s cultural context, builds upon indigenous knowledge, and is inclusive of marginalized people does more than rebuild a community—it builds resilience to future disasters.

4. Build trust to build effective emergency response networks.

In the weeks after a disaster strikes, civil society organizations are incredibly busy addressing various needs within its community. By reaching out first to nonprofits in the affected area to see what organizations are responding or have plans to respond, and then funding based on direct conversations, GlobalGiving relies on the strong relationships with our partners to make trust-based grants. Piter Panjitan from Bali Life Indonesia remarked on how this approach broadened recovery efforts after the 2018 Sulawesi Tsunami and Earthquake, “We were able to quickly learn about available funding, strategize with our team on how to use this effectively, and then execute a project.”

5. Resilience takes many forms.

Though the five Disaster Feedback Fellows lead nonprofits with very different areas of focus, each organization’s general activities play a huge role in reducing vulnerabilities within its community. Yvonne Petrasovits from Doorways of Northwest Florida has fought to lower rates of homelessness throughout her state for years. She shared how, after Hurricane Michael, local decision-makers’ eyes were opened to the ways in which a pre-existing housing crisis can drastically slow the recovery process. Whether delivering aid in a humanitarian crisis is at the core of operations, or the mission of the organization is to help small farmers grow their business and better food security, all of these efforts are crucial in enabling communities to bounce back more quickly from a disaster.

The fellows’ energy and commitment to the communities most affected by crises is reflected through their creative and thoughtful leadership. As the weeks go by, hundreds of GlobalGiving’s nonprofit partners are sharing unique and innovative methods of identifying and responding to the various pressing needs during a pandemic. I look forward to seeing how we will build upon these lessons in the future, as needs continue to evolve throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and we continue doing the crucial work of deepening the ties between our communities and the nonprofit sector as a whole.

Learn more about the ways in which the Disaster Feedback Fellowship engages and amplifies community-led disaster response.


Featured Photo by GlobalGiving

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