Disrupting the Space of Disaster Philanthropy: A View from the Front Lines

Recovering from a disaster is not a quick process. Here’s how philanthropy must help local communities rebuild.

Disrupting the Space of Disaster Philanthropy: A View from the Front Lines
14 mins read

What one nonprofit learned from asking “What do you need and how can we help?”

I am the CEO of After the Fire USA (ATF), a leading nonprofit in the space of megafire, climate change, and disaster recovery. We help communities navigate the complexities and stages of recovery post-megafire disaster.

Prior to 2015, megafires were fairly uncommon and were treated as occurrences, not patterns and harbingers for alarm. However, the past five to seven years have witnessed an intensely accelerated unfolding of climate change in combination with historical wildland mismanagement, resulting in massive destruction that is not only frequent but indeed predictable.

We created ATF to respond to this crisis and hopefully mitigate the need to reinvent recovery as we also push hard for innovation and prevention. Since our inception in October of 2017, we have worked in 18 megafires.

Our services are free to every community because we know systemic inequities are built into the system of disaster recovery. Those who can afford large consulting firms recover faster than those communities already struggling economically. We believe every community deserves an equal opportunity to recover, rebuild, and reimagine.

Although all megafires create chaos, trauma, and tremendous loss, not all megafires are the same. For example, the 2021 Dixie Fire in California burned for three months, covered an area roughly the size of Rhode Island, cost $1.15B, and leveled the tiny frontier town of Greenville. In contrast, the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado flared suddenly in the last days of 2021 but was quickly extinguished by firefighters and a snow cyclone bomb—it still burned nearly 1,100 homes at a cost of over $500M within its 24-hour megafire period. Yet in both cases, talented and dedicated groups of local leaders emerged out of the ashes.

Our job is to provide those leaders with survivor-to-survivor support, to find funding opportunities, to advocate for federal relief, and to learn alongside them. At the same time, we tailor our services according to the different needs, challenges, and opportunities present in each community.

But disaster recovery is not a quick process: we are a long-term program with a minimum commitment of three years. Our program is an iterative process that demands flexibility and resists comfort zones—much like parenting: just when you think you’ve got it down, wait a month.

Our superpower? Listening first and asking the same question over and over again, “What do you need and how can we help?”

Here’s what we’ve learned when asking this question:

Philanthropy needs to value outcomes over inputs.

We are on a mission to serve the actual communities in front of us by supporting local leadership to design and lead their own recoveries. This requires that local leaders have the coaching, tools, resources, support, and respect from those with the levers of funding and power. What is often missing is the paradigm of creating long-standing and accessible support systems for that local effort.

In other words, philanthropy should ask two questions: What outcome are we committed to supporting in this disaster? Does this outcome match with the needs of the affected community?

We often hear about services from large nonprofits that exclude swaths of the disaster-affected community. When philanthropy supports local leadership and also provides guardrails, such as the type of navigational support ATF offers, the needs of the community are better served. Outcomes are more important than inputs, and yet inputs are often what drive decisions in philanthropy.

Traditional funding frequently demands inputs, specifically via grant applications that require demographic data. These inputs are used to identify a segment of the population for service and leave out many of those who are affected by the disaster. Equity is a critical part of disaster recovery and rebuilding, but what we’ve witnessed is huge sums of money donated to organizations who then reallocate it without considering who is marginalized by the disaster (especially those facing housing, employment, and mental health crises).

Specifically, it is common for disaster assistance to leave out the missing middle—that is, the group of survivors who neither fall into the low-income category nor have enough resources (wealth) to overcome disaster without assistance. There is virtually no help for this group mostly because of a compassion deficit; the idea that this group is not theoretically the worst off translates into a funding deficit. Again, equity is crucial, however we must also fund futures for entire communities affected by disaster.

Similarly, philanthropy tends to avoid what isn’t proven and traditional, discouraging creativity in disaster recovery because nonprofits sometimes fear donor reaction. Philanthropy often follows trends even when disaster doesn’t. Instead, philanthropy should say: expend this percentage of funds per year, allowing for innovation and creativity in how a community accomplishes the stated outcome. Accountability from both grantor and grantee is crucial, and the climate crisis demands the need for innovation and outcomes-based funding.

Philanthropy needs to fund capacity.

Nonprofits require their staff be highly compassionate and extremely qualified. Solving the most difficult problems in the world comes at a cost. Funding capacity means shifting the conversation from the present to the future, which again refocuses on outcomes instead of costs.

Instead of asking…Ask…
What is the bare minimum of FTEs (full-time equivalents) for this program?How many people—and with what skill set—are needed to get the desired outcome?
How minimal are their administrative costs?What are the qualifications of the staff assigned to this problem?
What is the lowest salary other nonprofits offer for similar positions?What is the average salary of your organization? What is the lowest salary? Do you provide benefits? At what percentage?

The current climate asks under-compensated employees to effectively underwrite the cost of the mission while also addressing profound systemic issues. This is not sustainable and undermines equity within the very organizations tasked with mitigating inequities.

Essentially, crises—whether climate disasters or the pandemic—will affect every American at some point. If nonprofit capacity is underfunded and nonprofits are rewarded for underpaying their workforce, we are asking that same workforce to underwrite the cost of tackling crises. This will eventually—and usually fairly quickly—lead to burnout. It is not sustainable. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, the burden of vital frontline work in times of crisis also often falls on the most marginalized communities, which should lead us to question how equitable current approaches can truly be.

Philanthropy needs to help communities recover resiliently as a whole.

It might sound simple, but disasters affect different groups differently. One of the things we have to consider is who actually lives in that specific space at that specific time. Serve the people in front of you according to need and not political and social bias—whether religion, race, and/or voter preference.

When disaster recovery serves the population in front of us, we improve their ability to recover together and strengthen their connection to each other as they navigate community trauma. In doing so, we build resiliency that becomes part of the ecosystem of the community. In supporting locally led and designed recoveries, we encourage those affected to not only stay to rebuild but also to increase institutional knowledge about how to respond, recover, and rebuild after a disaster.

But holistic community recovery does not mean treating every community the same. What the Plumas County communities needed to recover from the Dixie Fire was not the same as what the Boulder County communities needed to recover from the Marshall Fire. Helping communities recover and rebuild resiliently requires a deep dive into what that means for each community as well as an ongoing conversation that encourages innovation, flexibility, and learning. This is the true north of disaster assistance and where humanity meets hope.

Philanthropy should insist on strange bedfellows.

You’ll notice that this piece of advice must be linked to the previous holistic approach to community recovery. We are absolutely entreating you to sit at the table with your proverbial enemies until they are friends and foremost, human beings. No one said leadership is or should be easy.

While not our enemies by any means, we have worked with dramatically different populations at ATF: from those who live off-the-grid to mobile home communities to self-reliant yet under-insured indigenous communities to undocumented communities, even high-income communities. All needed our assistance yet very few fit neatly into philanthropic boxes, for one reason or another. The point is that even by creating the boxes in the first place, philanthropy often misses opportunities to serve relevant need.

We have become a country that values so-called winning over service, and, quite frankly, it is not working except for those with power. Instead, we need to redefine winning as actually solving the problems and supporting communities. We should look to find common ground and disable inhumanity with humanity, chasing the mission and not the power.

Put another way: solutions to complex issues, such as climate disasters, must include diverse knowledges, experiences, and skillsets. This is an absolute. Insisting on strange bedfellows signals a willingness to collaborate, listen, and learn; it means shedding ego and agenda until the focus is the mission, not how we look in the process of accomplishing it.

Philanthropy needs to get real.

Climate change does not care if you believe or not. Nature is not personal. Nature cares not about your pocketbook or politics. The Earth shall survive with or without us. She may be bruised and a bit broken, but I firmly believe we will cease to exist long before her.

We need to look ahead and consult with people in the field to figure out what is needed today and how to invest in the future of resiliency. We must invest in innovation and a future that is not proven by past performance but is predictable based upon data.

For example, the current era of megafires can be mitigated if we invest in wildland management, fire resiliency, and capacity for response and recovery. We can restore balance to our land as we innovate on drought issues and protect affordable housing through some relatively simple measures. This is solvable, but we have to be brave, take a comprehensive approach, and collaborate. Philanthropy has an opportunity to provide resources to vulnerable communities and empower new economies, but we must understand that these aspects are interlinked.

Philanthropy needs to support local leadership.

Insist on leadership that places community at the center, and supports local leaders.

At ATF, we support locally led and designed recoveries with hands-on experience, training, and relevant coaching and support. This is our business model for two reasons.

First, we love efficiencies, and we’ve witnessed the local community stand up systems of care, support, and service delivery based upon the needs of their community. For us, recovery and rebuilding are about relationships.

Second, longevity of both service and commitment is paramount. We want to support local leaders who will put their kids in the schools in a decade after the disaster, who will be there for the next disaster with their institutional knowledge. We want to make sure that the people we support are going to stick around because eventually disaster will strike again.

At the end of the day, collaboration is key.

Nonprofits are, for better or worse, dependent upon the goodwill of others, especially funders. Philanthropy is a very strange business model, one not necessarily based in competence but rather on perception and current cultural winds. Nonprofits are often beholden to funders. As such, it is imperative that philanthropy lead the way in encouraging nonprofits to innovate, experiment, and collaborate.

From the nonprofit side, we all need to be vocal about how it is going and where we are failing—yes, that’s right, failing. When we fail—and we will fail—we should not view these failures as moral dilemmas. Similarly, when we succeed, we cannot be stuck in the mire that prevents deviating from so-called success. Nothing—neither success nor failure—is permanent, and we must work together to come up with realistic ideas of how to implement new and collaborative solutions.

We can act today to save tomorrow in an admirable manner, putting our era into the history books as one that reflects courage and moral triumph in the face of fear and loss. We can set aside our love of inputs and collaborate creatively on outcomes.

Together, we must.

About the Author

Jennifer Gray Thompson is a lifelong resident of Sonoma Valley in Northern California. She attended Santa Rosa Junior College and graduated from Dominican University in 2001 with degrees in English and History. After teaching high school for 10 years, Jennifer went on to earn a master’s degree in Public Administration from University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. Post-graduate school, Jennifer worked for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. After the devastating fires of October 2017, she accepted a position as Executive Director of Rebuild NorthBay Foundation (RNBF), an organization dedicated to helping the region rebuild better, greener, safer, and faster.

In 2020, RNBF created After the Fire: Recover. Rebuild. Reimagine. (ATF3R), and Jennifer became CEO. Jennifer also serves on the board of La Luz Center, a nonprofit that primarily aids the Latino community in Sonoma Valley. She is cofounder of CANVAS, an association of professional leaders in disaster working together to “listen locally, act regionally, reform nationally.”

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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