Behind the Scenes of Disaster Response and Recovery

Sep 21, 2023

September is National Preparedness Month, and this is our third in a series around disaster response and recovery. Read our last post to learn how disaster management and the Points of Light Civic Circle® can help communities thrive in the face disaster.

Disaster, whether natural or human-made, has always been a part of our landscape. However, climate change is ramping up the frequency, intensity and cost of natural disasters around the world, which means an increased need to be adaptable and innovative. To ensure that communities can work together, one of our best tools to find solutions is solidifying our own collective understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of managing a disaster.


Find a local nonprofit that you want to support with your time and donations before a crisis hits your community. You’ve probably heard advice along the lines of, ‘Do your research.’ But what does valid research look like? Our experts suggest that community residents find a local nonprofit to support with your time and donations. Look to sources like Candid (formerly GuideStar) and Charity Navigator, which both offer ratings of nonprofits from across the U.S. You may also check WAGNO that has a database of NGOs around the world, along with this list from the United Nations. And if you’re looking for an impactful way to support the community at large, you can donate to a Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), a coalition of vetted and approved local nonprofit organizations that are active in disaster response and recovery. Each U.S. state has one that is best positioned to respond in real time to its community’s needs.

“You want to find the closest nonprofit to the affected area that is responding, because they are your most immediate boots on the ground,” said Chris Cameron, executive director of HandsOn New Orleans. “Find a local nonprofit that you trust. That’s who needs the money. Your donation will get there faster and have a bigger impact.”


Sometimes disaster can be human-made, as is the case with mass shootings or the ongoing war in Ukraine. Once a disaster takes place, it’s natural to feel compelled to jump in and help. However, do not self-deploy, meaning do not show up unannounced to volunteer without first confirming with the organization that your help is needed that day. If you do, you may unintentionally impede the organization’s ability to help those who need it most. The best way you can help is to be patient and wait.

If you want to have immediate impact, the best thing you can do is to donate your dollars to a local response organization. Financial donations support changing needs and rebuilding the local economy. Typically, your gift will go toward direct response, but you should confirm how the funds will be used. Distribution of funds may support immediate needs or long-term recovery. You may discover there’s an administrative fee tacked on to your donation, which typically enables an organization to grow its staffing capacity so they can fully serve the community.

“We knew that for those Ukrainians who stayed, we had to offer some long-term help, “said Agnieszka Lissowska-Lewkowicz, president of Centrum Wolontariatu, a Points of Light Global Network affiliate in Poland that has helped to field over 1 million incoming refugees. “And that this help had to be focused not on the basics needs but on social adaptation, work, education and psychological help. So, we needed specialists, cooperation between different organizations and funds.”

The organizations leading the response to disaster are assessing the situation so that they can most efficiently and effectively address the top three priorities: protecting life, property and the surrounding environment. They do this by thinking strategically about how to position their organization and its volunteers to provide for basic needs such as food, shelter and safety. Each disaster presents unique challenges, so response arms of government, nonprofit organizations and NGOs are looking closely at the nature of the disaster. This factor defines the landscape of response and recovery.

Hurry Up and Wait

While it may sound counterintuitive, when a disaster strikes, experts say that is not the time to begin your journey into volunteering. It’s understandable for people to feel compelled to help, but experienced social impact professionals are focused on coordinating with first responders and providing the right help at the right time and in the right ways — not just from any volunteer but from expert volunteers who can engage safely and effectively.

What Does Effective Support Look Like?

“Without proper training and mental health support, volunteers can ultimately become added challenges themselves within a disaster site,” said Elizabeth Schwan-Rosenwald, chief programs and network officer at Points of Light.

Myths Around Disaster Response and Recovery

  • Myth #1: Law enforcement not allowing people to return. The first priority for responders in a disaster is protecting life. They are considering the safety of the area as structural engineers check bridges, power companies address downed power lines, and the air is tested for hazardous materials. If they are turning people away, it’s because the area has not been deemed safe by the experts.
  • Myth #2: FEMA accepts monetary donations. FEMA is a federally funded disaster response agency. It does not accept donations from individuals. However, it does work to keep survivors safe by doing things like brokering deals with hotels to provide immediate shelter to survivors. It also coordinates with local nonprofits, so donating to those organizations is an excellent way to support the recovery of a community.
  • Myth #3: The government is downplaying the disaster or not telling the truth. Misinformation and rumors can spread quickly during a disaster. FEMA and law enforcement create FAQs, which are available to the public, that show how many shelters are open, how many bed spaces are available, where food distribution points are located and more.
  • Myth #4: Deaths are being underreported. When a life is lost in a disaster, there is a process that has to be followed. One of the most important steps is to inform the family, and that takes precedence over reporting to the public via the media. In addition, all agencies are required to report each death to the local health department. And finally, it can take time for search and rescue operations to be completed. All of these factors may slow the dissemination of information.

Disaster Management NGOs on the Role of Volunteers

Volunteering for a disaster response organization is an excellent way to support its work, but showing up for the first time just after a disaster can actually impede its ability to respond. Housing and feeding volunteers can be a challenge that shifts resources away from priority missions like saving lives and property. Plus, volunteers who work with these organizations are coming into contact with a vulnerable population, which often requires specialized training and background checks. One of the most critical priorities in a disaster is to protect the mental health and wellbeing of survivors which means, during a disaster, if you’re not already embedded in a response organization, you may be turned away.

Find out what the experts say about how to provide the right help at the right time in the right ways: The Role of Volunteers in Humanitarian Disasters: Insights From the IAVE Forum.

It’s also important to realize that different response organizations are doing different things in different places to support survivors. For example, the Red Cross may be housing people while a faith-based organization is setting up a donation center and the governor has identified the NGO that is in charge of the statewide multi-agency donation warehouse. If you want to donate clothing or hygiene items, make sure you’re going to the right place — a shelter may not be set up to accept donations. Keep in mind that warehouses are typically receiving large corporate donations by the truckload and points of distribution are focusing on providing needed supplies to survivors, so find out what is needed and where there’s a donation drop off center before making a donation. Finally, as disaster response evolves over time, community needs change. There is a big difference in needs between 24 to 48 hours after a disaster and one week and beyond.


It can be tricky to pinpoint the moment when a disaster is officially ‘over,’ but experts take into consideration:

  1. The mayor or governor has allowed all residents to return to the impacted area because professionals have deemed the area safe.
  2. Elected officials have declared that the state of emergency has ended, which means that shelters, mass feeding, volunteer placing services and donation distribution warehouse operations will cease operation on the announced timelines.

The reality is that the recovery phase is the longest of the disaster cycle phases and can take five years — even longer — to end. Goals during this phase include centering equity and building back better. You may see developments including:

  • States offering free social worker services to help survivors claim any additional federal and state financial resources and grant funding.
  • Coalitions of nonprofits and NGOs forming Long Term Recovery Groups to pool donor restricted funds to best support survivors. These groups can fund vetted contractors or home building NGOs to complete roofing and housing repairs, installation of HVAC and septic systems, or purchase furniture on behalf of the survivor. NGOs and nonprofits do not pay these vendors directly, which is why donations to a trusted organization are still critical.

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.

While nonprofits and NGOs may need food, hygiene kits, formula and diapers at the start of disaster response, the focus typically shifts to items like plywood and furniture later on. This is the phase when media coverage typically begins to wane, which can make it difficult to capture the attention of the public to spread the message of continued need. Nonprofits and NGOs benefit from a second cash infusion at this stage, after things are somewhat stabilized. Donating now means community support will go toward long-term recovery efforts, when support is still essential.

In addition to direct support for survivors, communities can begin to build back social connections by:

  • Facilitating community gatherings to help process the effects of the disaster.
  • Centers for survivors to get one-stop services and information from local government leaders, nonprofits and NGOs.
  • Creating spaces for youth to share their voice.
  • Involving the community as volunteers.
  • Prioritizing rebuilding and creating new community gathering places.

In the evolving landscape of disaster response and recovery, adaptability, innovation and strategic coordination are paramount. Nonprofits, NGOs and individuals all have pivotal roles to play. By debunking myths, understanding the nuances of disaster management, and aligning support with evolving community needs, we collectively pave the way for more resilient and thriving communities.

Learn how disaster management and the Points of Light Civic Circle can help communities thrive. Plus, don’t miss the next post in this series to find out how equity and access intertwine with disaster response and recovery.

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.