3 Ways Nonprofits and NGOs Can Build Resilience in the Face of Disaster

Oct 5, 2023

Climate change, along natural and human-made disaster, are revealing the pressing need for communities to become adaptable and innovative. Their growing frequency and intensity are going to demand that the role of nonprofits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) evolve so that a disaster recovery plan f becomes best practice for every organization. And that ideal holds true, even for organizations with missions that don’t center on disaster preparedness or response. These organizations are being increasingly confronted with the need to pivot and incorporate comprehensive disaster response and recovery considerations into their work, regardless of whether disaster management was initially meant to be a focus or not.

This blog, the final installment in our series around National Preparedness Month, explores the interconnectedness of climate change, natural and human-made disasters, and nonprofit and NGO disaster preparedness and response. It sheds light on the urgency of transformation and the far-reaching implications adaptability holds for our collective future, both for communities and the nonprofits and NGOs that serve them.

Climate Change: A Driving Force for Adaptation

Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of disasters worldwide. Between 2030 and 2050, the World Health Organization says climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, diarrhea, malaria and heat stress alone. Areas with weak health infrastructure will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.

Recently, wildfires have ravaged Canada and Hawaii, and a 6.8 magnitude earthquake has devastated Morrocco, taking the lives of thousands and leaving survivors and local NGOs to pick up the pieces. In the wake of this devastation, the beacon of hope remains responders whether volunteers or advocates who are focused on rebuilding communities.

Lori Shinton, president and CEO of HandsOn Nashville, remembers her first experience as a new leader with no disaster response experience and the lessons she learned along the way.

Nashville had spent 10 years relatively free of large-scale disaster. HandsOn Nashville recognized that it would be expected to respond if disaster struck, but planning around preparedness and response was on the back burner. And then on March 3, 2020, a tornado struck the city and left widespread damage.

“Our team responded, but we built the plane while we were flying it,” she said. “The result? Staff worked long hours, they were frustrated with the confusion of figuring out what we should be doing, and we were learning in real time about secondary trauma of responding to the disaster.”

A few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the U.S. followed many parts of the world that were already shut down. HandsOn Nashville continued to respond, along with other NGOs in the community. And while the world was learning to live with mitigation measures around COVID, HandsOn Nashville was still actively responding to the tornado. Then, in December, a bomb was set off in downtown Nashville, prompting the necessity of further yet differing responses needed. A few months later, a flash flood struck the city and impacted nearly the same number homes as the tornado. Finally, another tornado wrought localized damage.

“We learned that focusing on preparedness and developing a well-defined emergency response plan was the only way to care for our team and have them prepared for whatever may happen,” recalled Shinton. “We focus on training — quarterly at least — and we have been able to test it in exercises and feel as prepared as we can.”

Being prepared now ensures the community the best services possible while protecting responders from burnout.

Prepare Now: Download the Disaster Planning Guide

Building Sustainable Communities: A Guide to Disaster and the Civic Circle®, is a resource that offers insights and strategies to empower you to take action before, during and after a disaster. You’ll also learn how to be an advocate for those affected by disasters. Download the guide today made possible in partnership with The Allstate Foundation, and created by Points of Light.

Beyond Core Mission: Tailoring Services

Nonprofit and NGO leaders know that being adaptable is a key component of success. As natural and human-made disasters become more commonplace, it’s increasingly important to tailor services to address immediate community needs as disasters unfold.

For community leaders who want to find ways to tailor their organization’s response to community needs during disaster, start small by assessing your organization’s strengths. Develop a written plan leveraging those strengths, recognizing that it’s easier to change a plan than to create one in the midst of responding to disaster. Use existing data from trusted sources, like FEMA, the NAACP and the CDC, to understand the vulnerabilities in your local community.

Often, the most valuable input comes from the community itself. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Louisiana Children’s Museum was forced to shut its doors. Overnight, it went from a buzzing community gathering space to empty and whisper quiet.

Its mission had always centered on providing access to safe, innovative, learning and play experiences, but now that it couldn’t deliver on in-person experiences, the pivot had to be quick and decisive. By being willing to shift its mission and prioritize the community’s needs, leadership moved immediately to supporting children and families by providing engaging virtual play activities and mental health resources. They partnered with Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health to offer a series of webinars and web content that addressed the mental health of parents, caregivers and children through the lens of trauma caused by a pandemic.

“As a nonprofit that prioritizes working alongside the community, it is valuable for us to be nimble and be able to move quickly. We did this during the pandemic by having an overall objective to give parents and caregivers support during very uncertain times,” said Tifferney White, CEO of Louisiana Children’s Museum. “While many places were shuttered, we were able to provide no-cost, easily accessible resources, including early learning play opportunities, ideas that parents and caregivers could do at home, and nature walks to name a few.”

The museum also experimented with using its 8.5 acres of indoor and outdoor space in collaboration with a local public school, allowing the school to move its prekindergarten and kindergarten classes to their facility. The school was able to continue in-person learning while having the space it needed to socially distance students in a safe and engaging environment. The result was that the museum furthered its mission of having memorable and valuable learning experiences in safe spaces for children while serving its community in new and innovative ways.

Collaborative Partnerships for Effective Response

Disaster preparedness and response experts understand the power of collaboration. Capacity grows exponentially when foundations, faith-based organizations and nonprofits join forces.

That’s a big reason why, in the U.S., Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs) are such an integral part of disaster response. VOADs are a collective of faith-based, community-based and other non-profit organizations that band together to form a cooperative that centralizes communication, coordination and collaboration. By centralizing these efforts, VOADs foster more effective delivery of services to communities affected by disaster. Every state has its own.

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster was established in 1970 in response to Hurricane Camille, a category 5 storm that hit the Gulf Coast in August of 1969. At the time, private sector and nonprofit organizations served disaster survivors independently of one another. As a result, the way survivors received help was decentralized and inconsistent. Since then, the organization has facilitated 48,129,263 volunteer hours from 9,907,071 volunteers and fielded $1.3 billion in donated labor to response and recovery efforts across the United States in 2019 alone.

“Every community does indeed need to be prepared,” said Chris Cameron, executive director of HandsOn New Orleans. “It looks like preparedness at every single level, with elected government officials, corporate partners, it’s going to require faith-based institutions.”

All disasters begin and end locally, and disasters exacerbate preexisting conditions during a time when typical operating policies and procedures are overwhelmed and communities may be traumatized. Taking a whole-community approach underscores why partnering leads to better, safer and faster outcomes.

Building a Comprehensive Disaster Response Approach

When they Ukraine war broke out in February of 2022, many NGOs in surrounding countries had little to no experience in disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Agnieszka Lissowska-Lewkowicz, president of Polish NGO Centrum Wolontariatu, and Points of Light Global Network affiliate remembers a steep learning curve in figuring out how to best support the 1.5 million people displaced by the war, streaming across the border to safety.

“Refugee work is definitely long-term approach. It requires money, administration, specialists, space,” said Agnieszka. “We had to decide, ‘Are we able to make this effort. Are we able to start a new type of work, activities, help, projects to our organization and manage it [long term]?’ Our decision has to be wise, serving not only the refugees, but first of all our organization. And it has to be realistic. And we see the very deep sense of this.”

Centrum Wolontariatu recognized that, for Ukrainians who stayed in Poland, the organization would need to offer long-term, comprehensive support. Effective help would have to extend beyond basic needs, like food, shelter and clothing, to include assimilation into the new environment through work, education and psychological support. That comprehensive approach required cooperation between different organizations, and the most important resources were people and time.

“People to organize help, to do extra work. Time to get knowledge, to organize help, time to get additional funds,” she explained. “When the war began no one expected it, no one was prepared to host hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, and only few Polish organizations were working with migrants before. It was shock for all of us, but we all did our best.”

Calling Social Impact Leaders

The 2024 Global Summit on Social Impact is a premier event taking place in Warsaw, Poland, February 7, 2024. It brings together companies, nonprofits and NGO’s from around the world that are passionate about volunteerism, civic engagement and social change. Learn more and register to attend.

The interplay between climate change, natural and human-made disasters underscores the critical need for nonprofit and NGO organizations to embrace a holistic disaster response approach. Disasters can strike at any time, demanding adaptability and innovation from even those whose missions don’t initially revolve around disaster preparedness.

Whether responding to human-made disaster, like war, or natural events, like wildfires, flash floods and hurricanes, nonprofits and NGOs will need to remain flexible in how they respond. They’re being called upon to begin to prioritize disaster preparedness and community response strategies, from investing in training to forming partnerships to tailoring services to meet immediate needs. By shoring up preparedness and response planning, organizations will become more nimble and be best positioned to contribute to the resilience and rebuilding of the communities they serve.

Amy Marquis
Director of Communications, Points of Light

Seasoned storyteller Amy Marquis champions mission success at Points of Light, guiding content creation and messaging strategy.