Financial hardship during the pandemic sent millions of Americans to food banks, many for the first time (Photo by SDI Productions/iStock by Getty Images)

Despite prudent planning and preparation, there are some things no one sees coming. Like a pandemic, of course. Fortunately, as the crises of the last year multiplied, so did the relief funding, and disaster philanthropy experienced marked changes in 2020: dollar amounts ballooned, more funds were allocated toward marginalized communities, and philanthropic funders began thinking about disaster preparedness in new ways.

Holly Welch Stubbing, who runs E4E Relief, a 501(c)3 public charity that offers need-based grants to employed individuals, said the pandemic made her organization revisit the notion of readiness as central to their work. “We decided that we really want to focus on readiness as a concept. Readiness for disaster, readiness for the next disaster, readiness to work with different kinds of populations of grantees,” she said.

In a webinar hosted by From Day One titled “Disaster Readiness, Relief & Recovery,” Stubbing was joined by Regine Webster, vice president at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, an organization that helps philanthropic donors determine how to make the biggest impact with their dollars, to discuss new trends and opportunities in the field. The conversation was moderated by Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman.

The rapid evolution of grant-making in the last year was driven by the pandemic, Stubbing and Webster asserted, much of it for the better. “Over the course of 2020, we saw philanthropic donors going to Covid-19 relief activities in the billions,” said Webster. More than $20 billion dollars, actually, an amount Webster said she hasn't seen in her 20 years working in disaster philanthropy. For comparison, in 2017, in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the comparable number that CDP tracked was $504 million.

Calling 2020 a time of “unprecedented need and unprecedented generosity,” Webster shared statistics from her group’s report, “Philanthropy and Covid-19 in 2020: Measuring One Year of Giving.” Of the more than $20 billion awarded globally for Covid-19 relief that CDP identified, gifts by corporations and their foundations constituted 44% of that funding. The next-highest type of donor (27%) was wealthy individuals, a category that played an outsized role last year because of the donations of a single donor, billionaire MacKenzie Scott, who donated more than $4 billion for Covid-19 relief.

Speaking on disaster relief, clockwise from upper right: Holly Welch Stubbing of E4E Relief, moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, and Regine Webster of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (Image by From Day One)

Where did the money go? Of the funding CDP was able to track, the greatest share (28%) of identifiable dollars went to human-services organizations (like YMCAs, YWCAs, food banks and United Way), 26% went to health organizations, and 20% went to educational organizations. Yet an accepted feature of disaster relief is privacy for the recipients, so there’s a lack of granular detail about where the money goes. Anonymity of grantees is common, and in 2020, about $13.5 billion went to “unknown recipients.”

Many disaster-relief donors, however, specify where their money should go. “The racial-justice movement in the U.S. in 2020 had a profound impact on Covid-19 funding for BIPOC communities,” Webster said. “Of the U.S. Covid-19 philanthropy to specified recipients, 35% of dollars were designated for communities of color.”

The shift of philanthropic funding to Covid-related support and organizations is a good and necessary change, Stubbing and Webster agreed. Noting the shift away from disaster grant-making and into pandemic grant-making, however, Webster urged corporations and donors not to neglect other worthy destinations for their dollars. “I completely understand the focus, and yet I do very much worry for communities who were affected by hurricanes Sally, Laura, Eta and Iota and [by wildfires] in California and Colorado and Oregon.” Stubbing is hopeful, and thinks funding for such events will be renewed in the future, “but it seems like it’s going to be a while before that’s the case,” she said.

Not only has the size of funding and direction of funding changed, so has thinking around allocation, specifically as it fits into companies’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies. Today, more organizations have disaster philanthropy as part of their thinking, Stubbing said. “What used to be kind of a side project or a more reactive grant-making portfolio has moved out of that realm, in my opinion, into a more strategic objective for corporate community and family foundations,” she said.

“Readiness, as a concept, hits all areas of a solid ESG plan in terms of business assets and operations and sustainability, but also labor and employment management and governance practices,” Stubbing added. “And employee relief, which is our area, essentially creates a readiness plan with an equitable distribution of those assets, so this idea of lining up grants to individuals and caring about your people seems to be a natural progression of that ESG strategic objective.”

Webster said she encourages all philanthropists to think of themselves as disaster philanthropists, even those who give to organizations that serve the unhoused, early-childhood support, or the arts. “They too–in some way, shape or form–are disaster funders because they’re preserving life or community or culture, and that always has a place in disasters.”

The Journey Forward

Webster anticipates long-term changes to her field. “What we’ve seen is a dedication to funding more nimbly and funding more general operating support.” She noted that 800 other funding entities signed a pledge initiated by the Council on Foundations to divorce the old ways of grant-making and give recipients more flexibility in how those dollars are used.

Another change sparked by the pandemic is international grant-making. “Fifty percent of CDP's dollars have gone domestically and the other 50% have gone globally,” Webster said. “And, even though our work does need board approval, I feel quite sure that the remaining dollars that we have to grant out will be much more focused globally than domestically.”

“Covid exploded the idea of grants to individuals outside the U.S.,” Stubbing said. She attributes this, at least in part, to the fact that so many companies now have employees around the world and are thinking more globally than they have in the past.

A diagram of the overlapping values in disaster relief (Graphic by E4E Relief)

During the webinar, Stubbing presented recently released research on the effect of relief grants to individuals. Her organization works with corporations to help their employees financially survive natural disasters and hardships through employee relief funds.

In 2020, nearly 57,000 E4E Relief grantees received an Impact Survey to better understand the affect of the awards. Of those who responded to the survey, 68% were from women, 59% were from people under the age of 40, 57% identified as BIPOC individuals, and 64% have a household income under $50,000.

The Misfortune Averted

One area the survey focused on was the misfortune that was likely avoided as a result of grant relief. Stubbing said half of the population surveyed said they avoided having to pay a late fee on their debts and payments, nearly 40% avoided utility shut-off or disruption, nearly 40% avoided food-choice changes, and 20% avoided eviction or foreclosure.

As part of the survey, E4E Relief asked grant recipients on ways their emotional wellbeing was affected by the funding. Seventy-five percent said the money provided breathing room to figure out their next steps, 73% said they felt less stressed, 20% said they felt less alone, and 18% said they were able to direct more of their attention to work.

The organization also funneled relief dollars to the families of health-care workers by creating The Brave of Heart Fund, a program that provides grants to families who have lost a loved one who was caring for Covid patients. So far the fund has awarded $14.6 million in grants to 425 families in 39 states, and E4E Relief is still looking for applicants. Stubbing called the creation of this fund “one of the more important things I will ever do.”

She hopes that companies’ investment in employee relief funds becomes a normal part of corporate disaster readiness–and of business as a whole. “This idea of lining up grants to individuals and caring about your people seems to be a natural progression of that ESG strategic objective,” Stubbing said. “My hope, honestly, is that there is no more ESG, it’s just the way we do business.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, E4E Relief. You can watch a video of the conversation here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.