Disaster Philanthropy Playbook

Advocacy, Legal Aid & Public Policy


All disaster victims and organizations that have been impacted are in need of legal assistance and advice. Not only do philanthropic leaders possess a deep and comprehensive understanding of the issues they support, but they are in a unique and important position to successfully advocate for the communities they serve.

  • Insurance claims, FEMAFederal Emergency Management Agency applications, relocation services, and mold remediation are just some of the daunting legal issues disaster victims must manage;
  • When grantmakers use their knowledge and experience to facilitate a region’s recovery, their own critical issue areas, along with their nonprofit grantees and the individuals they serve, are protected and supported;
  • Local philanthropies have a powerful voice and platform from which to engage public bodies and lawmakers in discussions and decisions that ensure a fair, equitable and just recovery for all citizens.

Innovative Practices

Advocacy and Legal Services

Support a cohort of volunteer lawyers and paralegals who can help individuals to:

  • understand rights and obtain information on available programs and services (including financial assistance, behavioral and mental health services, long-term recovery groups services, and more);
  • understand the FEMAFederal Emergency Management Agency application process, and if available, state financial assistance programs;
  • complete extensive financial aid applications and apply for assistance from the local, state and/or federal government agencies;
  • complete and file insurance claims and understand their rights to appeal should their claim be denied.


Protect the Voting Process

When disasters strike in the days or weeks prior to an election:

  • Support efforts to ensure registered voters understand where and how they can vote when faced with:
    • polling stations that are damaged or closed;
    • electricity outages;
    • displacement from their place of residence and inability to get to their polling station;
    • conflicting or inaccurate information.
  • Support efforts to assist voters and communities during elections, such as:
    • mobile voting buses;
    • curb-side voting booths;
    • constructing temporary polling stations; and
    • organizing paper ballot voting.

Public Policy

Creating equitable, functional communities is a responsibility of philanthropy working in cooperation with government bodies. Philanthropies can stay informed and ensure their voice is heard by embedding a Philanthropic Liaison or Coordinator in the offices of elected officials, emergency management or state-level recovery offices.

  • Public policy can be influenced through supporting research, information-sharing and education, and advocacy.
  • Public policy issues include:
    • advancing the understanding of coastal, deltaic, river and water resource systems;
    • surveying, tracking a region’s disaster impact, recovery efforts, progress and gaps;
    • identifying toxic exposure and standards for mold remediation;
    • changing zoning and planning laws; and
    • developing and adopting a region-wide preparedness and mitigation plan.

What Funders Are Doing

The following are examples of innovative practices and grants that philanthropic organizations have supported, developed and/or implemented regarding advocacy, legal aid and public policy.

Many creative grants and innovative ideas emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic to advance advocacy, legal aid and public policy work in several parts of the world during 2020.

  • As part of CDP’s COVID-19 Response Fund, Color of Change received $300,000 to support their grassroots advocacy work to ensure the needs of communities of color are met, highlighted and addressed throughout COVID-19.
  • The Omidyar Network Fund provided an $800,000 grant to the National Domestic Workers Alliance to support advocacy for the rights of domestic workers and people working in precarious employment and the collection of stories of domestic workers affected by COVID-19 (2020).
  • The Women’s Lunch Place, a community-based organization in downtown Boston that works with women who are experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, received a $25,000 grant from The Boston Foundation to provide additional support for them to continue operating during COVID-19. This grant helped allow the Women’s Lunch Place to continue its advocacy and public policy work throughout COVID-19.
  • A $2.9 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the American Cancer Society to help build support among the public and policymakers for Medicaid policies that improve access to care, financial stability and equity, with a special focus on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CDP’s Midwest Early Recovery Fund (ERF) has been able to support many grants in the areas of advocacy, legal aid and public policy.

  • Whole Kids Outreach received a grant from ERF to hire a social worker to advocate and provide support to children and teenagers who had been affected by the 2017 floods in Van Buren, Missouri.
  • After storms in the spring and summer of 2018 damaged homes in and around Red Lake, Minnesota, ERF provided a grant to Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota that allowed them to hire a case manager to advocate for victims and manage recovery cases to make sure clients received the support they needed.

A $25 grant to the First Folio Shakespeare Festival in 2018 from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation was made to support a workshop entitled “Arts Advocacy and Disaster Management in a Changing World.”

In 2018, CDP, in cooperation with the Ford Foundation and Filantopίa Puerto Rico (formerly La Red) provided a $150,000 grant to Fundacion Fondo de Accesso a la Justicia, Inc. to support equitable land use along with housing policy and practice in post-Hurricane Maria recovery. These funds came from CDP’s 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Recovery Fund and supported the Puerto Rico Land Title Initiative to help homeowners in Puerto Rico gain legal title to their homes and the land they resided in.

Global Greengrants Fund gave $35,000 to the Georgia Strait Alliance in 2017 to advocate for public policy changes to protect the ecological and economic health of coastal communities from fossil fuel expansion and the increased risk of oil spills in the Salish Sea in the Province of British Columbia.

In 2016, the GE Foundation provided a $1 million grant to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to support the response to refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos. A significant part of IRC’s work was devoted to providing legal aid and support to refugees as they worked through the immigration system.

Key Takeaways

  1. Advocate for the issues your organization traditionally supports—you know what’s important, you know what success looks like, and you have the leverage to draw attention to equitable and sustainable solutions.
  2. Use your powerful platform to advance the dialogue around the most critical issues facing your community in the aftermath of a disaster.
  3. Be vocal with members of the media; keep the spotlight on recovery.
  4. Keep open lines of communication with your nonprofit grantees who are working on the ground and continue to amplify their voice and maintain strong, ongoing advocacy efforts.
  5. Remember that the availability of free and/or discounted legal aid is tantamount to ensuring a community is informed and has the vital support as it begins the long road to recovery.

Further Reading