Deconstructing Disaster Relief: A Guide to Strategic Corporate Response

Katie Jahangiri June 26, 2018 Employee Engagement, Nonprofits

Prior to joining YourCause, I worked for the American Red Cross on the National Fundraising Training and Development team. I’ll preface the remainder of this blog post with the fact that my experience working with companies during disaster has come from my time with that organization; however, the suggestions I make in this piece are applicable to any of the incredible organizations you choose to partner with during grey-skies.

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If you’ve ever worked for a nonprofit before, you know that the role you were hired to do probably isn’t the only role you’ll have. Often times, you’re called upon (or, you raise your hand) to step outside of your normal day-job and into one that supports the mission in a more hands-on capacity. For me, that call came during Hurricane Harvey, where I volunteered on four separate occasions for Red Cross disaster response.


During that time, I witnessed the incredible generosity of companies and their employees, stepping up to donate their time, money, and goods to help those who were affected. On the other hand, I also saw opportunities where companies could have improved upon their partnerships.  Here are six suggestions for how companies can support NPOs by making response efforts more streamlined, efficient, and mutually beneficial.


Communicate Often & Early with Your Nonprofit Partners

Nonprofits who specialize in disaster relief and recovery work year-round to plan their response, why shouldn’t the companies who support them do the same? It’s crucial to identify who your nonprofit partners are, what they need, and which employees can support them before a disaster strikes. Having proactive monthly check-ins with your nonprofit partner about their monetary, in-kind, and volunteer needs allows for a much more streamlined process of mobilization.  A critical element of any disaster relief operation is to put the right people and supplies in place before the disaster happens. From a logistics standpoint, Hurricane Harvey presented unique obstacles to mobilize volunteers, staff, and supplies into affected areas due to extreme flooding. Ideally, with disasters that are forecasted days out, the majority of supplies should be in place prior to the disaster hitting, and your partnership with the NPO is vital to ensure a prompt response.


Texas National Guard loading cases of water onto a helicopter to deliver to Hurricane Harvey Refugees.


Engage Employees in Skills-Based Volunteering

During my first deployment, I volunteered to organize two day-long telethons in Houston. What I didn’t realize at the time was that telethons require volunteers willing to work phone shifts, tally donations, and provide comfort and information to those who have been affected. It was challenging to find volunteers who wanted to participate in a support role as opposed to providing direct care. Not every volunteer role during disaster will be in sheltering and feeding, but every single role will be an important one to do, some of which require highly skilled individuals to take part in. Do you have a sales staff that you can mobilize to help create a strategy for corporate fundraising outreach? Marketing and Social Media team members you can engage as public relations volunteers? Logistics staff that can lend their expertise to ensure shelters have a way to track and maintain the goods they need? Think of the people on your team and the roles they do within your company and start establishing how those skills are transferable to the nonprofits you work with.


Identify Your Bilingual Speaking Employees & Engage Them Early

Engaging volunteers is crucial but finding volunteers who also speak the languages of those affected is critical. As we saw with Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Harvey, there was a need for Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, and French-speaking volunteers as well as individuals who are fluent in sign-language. It’s difficult enough for someone who has lost everything to figure out where to begin the clean-up process, so making it easier for them by being able to speak their language is essential. Utilize your CSR platform to survey employees and identify these types of fluencies early so that you can work with your nonprofit partner to engage them in a way that will best utilize their language skills when the time comes.


Volunteers sorting through boxes of donations received after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast.


Prevent a Secondary Disaster

This suggestion isn’t new but certainly bears repeating. Do you remember seeing pictures of the mountainous piles of clothes that were dropped off at shelters in Houston last year? Sometimes the best intentions can actually be harmful to the people who need help the most. When volunteer power is reallocated to sorting through piles of clothes instead of providing care, it creates unintended consequences for those in need. Beyond that, it’s extremely important to ensure that what you’re providing is equitable and appropriate for the people you’re serving. As a corporation, do your best to ensure that your in-kind donation quantity gives equal access to those in need. A great way to avoid this is to simply ask your nonprofit partner what they need and then trust the answer they give you.


Exercise Patience

Understand that NPOs are doing all that they can to serve the populations who have experienced a disaster. Often times, that requires their attention even more than corporate partnerships. If it takes them a day or two to get back to you, rest assured that they do care about your partnership and gift, there are just pressing needs on all sides. Work with your nonprofit partner to determine a realistic frequency with which they are comfortable providing your team with accurate and up-to-date information, and then support them by honoring the schedule you agreed upon.


Just Because the Sun is Out, Doesn’t Mean the Work is Done

When the sun comes out, people begin to believe that the hardest part of disaster relief is over. This makes it challenging to continue to find volunteers, donations, in-kind gifts, and general support. Even as we transition into an entirely new hurricane season, long-term recovery operations for Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma are still occurring. While we patiently hold our breaths and move on to focusing our attention on the next major crisis, Puerto Rico still needs power, clean water, and affordable housing options for those without homes. Work with your nonprofit partners to establish plans, not just for immediate relief, but for long-term recovery assistance by providing grants and skilled staff to create volunteer teams.


Police Departments throughout Texas and neighboring states assisting with search and rescue of South Texans.


Strategic Response Means More Lives are Saved

Above all, it’s important to remember that we’re in this together. When a disaster strikes, communities rally to support their friends, neighbors, and everyday citizens. As leaders in corporate citizenship, it’s important to help set the tone for how we can better support each other during times of devastation. We hope that you’ll use this blog to assess your own disaster relief strategies and perhaps initiate some of these NPO support efforts in your own programs this coming season.

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Join us on July 25th at 1:00 PM CST to continue the conversation during our Twitter Chat about Strategic Disaster Relief.