This strategy was developed in partnership with Dr. Gregory R. Witkowski and his students in the ‘Disaster and Community: Philanthropic and Nonprofit Engagement’ graduate course at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. The research and writing were carried out by Elise Woulfe (lead), Terry-Ann Booth, Kelsey Espada, Heather Guerrero, Xavier Henderson, William La Verne, Scot Rademaker and Caroline Surman, with final editing by CDP staff.


Disaster recovery is a dynamic process that often overlaps with other phases in the traditional disaster cycle.

The recovery phase after a disaster can be minimal or extensive. If the disaster is severe or there is minimal response at the beginning, the recovery effort may last years. How communities rise up after facing catastrophe is instrumental to their economic and societal growth. It is important for philanthropy to understand that recovery may continue for years, and long-term support is often required.

Once immediate relief has been provided and a “leveling out” where individuals and groups are temporarily stabilized has at least somewhat occurred, recovery can begin. “The disaster recovery process focuses on restoring, redeveloping, and revitalizing communities impacted by a disaster,” according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Disaster and Response.

Recovery is commonly seen in two sub-phases: short-term and long-term. The U.S. Economic Development Administration and the International Economic Development Council outline the short-term phase as typically lasting six months to a year, and the subsequent long-term phase lasting up to several decades. Long-term recovery is sometimes referred to as reconstruction or rebuilding.

Individuals, families and communities have many needs during the recovery phase. Usually, insurance and government programs can best address the infrastructure challenges facing a community in recovery but are not always sufficient to meet the full needs.

Funders can focus on advocating for those changes or addressing individual, familial and community challenges, like mental health support and increased gender-based violence (GBV) that often occur after disasters. In this section, examples of organizations that aid in community-wide support for disasters and how they have partnered with federal and private sector partners is referenced to demonstrate the importance of collaboration among funders.

Innovative Practices

Funding is essential during early recovery. As the trauma of the disaster persists, emergency and federal support commonly recede. At this point, the nonprofit sector is called upon to aid the needs that are not immediately apparent to the visible eye and affect those who are already underserved by government (e.g., reimbursement programs).

Some of these groups include older adults; Black, Indigenous and other people of color; unhoused people; people with disabilities; non-English speakers; and undocumented individuals. Undocumented individuals should receive particular attention from funders, as they are often unable to receive any sort of federal funding.

One example of innovative practices in disaster recovery is the Thomas Fire. From December 2017 through March 2018, the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in California raged and solidified its position as one of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history.

Two individuals died due to the fire and 21 others were killed by ensuing flooding and debris flows. The fire burned 281,893 acres and damaged or destroyed more than 1,300 structures. The 805 UndocuFund was established in 2018 as a grassroots community response to the Thomas Fire and comprised three immigrant-serving organizations. With support from two local foundations, more than $2.5 million was allocated to more than 1,600 immigrant families.

One of the key takeaways from this wildfire is that more attention needs to be directed to areas that are not immediately visible, as well as groups like immigrants that may not be prioritized for assistance from the onset. As wildfires continue to ravage the western part of the U.S., especially in California, some of this damage continues to persist, especially as the weather remains dry and provides idyllic conditions for future wildfires to emerge.

After the initial wave of support has been provided in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, a lack of interest is often seen. Local funders that have already been contributing to relief efforts, or individual donors who were affected by the disaster themselves, may be unable to keep funding the disaster recovery phase. Funders should consider these needs and shortfalls in their funding decisions.

Many people, especially the most at-risk and marginalized, do not look to the government or large nonprofits for assistance; they turn to schools, community nonprofits and faith-based organizations. It is important for philanthropy to support those local organizations with recovery dollars.

Unique and creative philanthropic strategies are often required to assist the most marginalized and at-risk populations. Foundations often have the resources to sponsor a community needs assessment, a critical roadmap for local organizations that charts the next few months. At the local level, philanthropy can play a supporting role and provide technical assistance.

Organizations focused on immigrant rights bring local expertise and connections but may lack the needed understanding and familiarity with disaster response. To alleviate this discrepancy, philanthropy can host training and other capacity-building opportunities for local groups. On a larger scale, philanthropic organizations can utilize their social capital to advocate for reform to the government funding system and shine a light on inequalities.

Long-term recovery offers the opportunity for affected communities to begin to rebuild and work toward a level of self-sufficiency. It is imperative that collaborative efforts from every sector continue, to provide resources that may not be readily available at this point in time. One of the most needed services during this time period is mental health support. Anxiety, stress and depression continue to build and linger during the two sub-phases of recovery, especially in the latter. In addition, interim and long-term housing may be needed as infrastructure reconstruction may take months to years.

What Funders Are Doing

Collaboration across sectors

  • A simple deployment of funds will not suffice to address the mounting list of necessities that the affected communities require as they continue with their recovery. In the 2011 triple disaster in Fukushima, Japan, the area experienced a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the worst to ever hit Japan, a subsequent tsunami with waves surpassing 40 meters and a nuclear power plant accident. Estimates by Tokyo Electric Power Company predicted that cleanup could potentially last up to 40 years. However, the local community immediately responded alongside the Japanese Red Cross. In addition, several other international organizations responded with impactful funding, including the American Red Cross, Save the Children, Samaritan’s Purse, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps and World Vision. The coordinated collaborative efforts from the government with the public, in tandem with the financial support from many international organizations, greatly shortened the timeline of the recovery process.
  • The Kerala Floods of 2018 in southwestern India, whose destruction lasted into 2019, killed nearly 500 people, heavily affected small and medium-sized businesses and damaged more than 140,000 acres (57,000 hectares) of crops. Habitat for Humanity India played a crucial role in helping victims recover from the floods and supporting their recovery efforts. In partnership with a corporate donor, Amazon India, it activated a wishlist of products sold on the Amazon India portal. Relief materials bought and donated by individual donors on Amazon India were shipped directly to the Disaster Response Team base in Thrissur. 

Gender-based violence (GBV)

  • The recovery phase also provides an opportunity to address larger institutional issues. One prominent area that needs to be prioritized is GBV. As inequalities persist and grow after a disaster and housing stock is limited, it is imperative that GBV is combatted and resources are provided. High rates of GBV after a disaster have been documented particularly among displaced and refugee women. It is urgent for the nonprofit and philanthropic sector to include and support GBV services when addressing the needs of impacted groups and individuals. The Shadow Pandemic, a report from the U.K. on GBV during COVID-19, highlighted the impact of domestic abuse during the pandemic.

Key Takeaways

  1. Local nonprofits and philanthropic entities are critical to recovery, especially those with a disaster-facing mission.
  2. As emergency and government support recedes during the recovery phase, people may experience disillusionment and disappointment, and it is common for trauma to emerge as destruction still persists. Nonprofits and funders are called upon to address invisible needs and provide services for those who slip through the cracks.
  3. Disasters exacerbate inequality, especially among the most vulnerable and marginalized. When it is blue skies, nonprofits and funders should prepare and ensure their disaster allocations include these groups, as well as prioritize services that are not initially thought of (e.g., mental health, financial assistance).
  4. GBV is proven to increase, and services and resources are needed to address this.
  5. Funding from donors to organizations that support recovery efforts should look to different perspectives. For example, floods from a hurricane could have damaged and therefore depleted a local organization’s supply of feminine products. Funds could help support purchasing and replacing these products.

Further Reading