According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), resilience is about “anticipating, planning and reducing disaster risk to effectively protect persons, communities and countries, their livelihoods, health, cultural heritage, socio-economic assets and ecosystems.” UNDRR also says that since risk and systems are dynamic, resilience should be considered a process rather than simply an outcome.

The term resilience is used by various disciplines such as psychology, engineering and ecology, and has been used in disaster studies since the 1970s. Resilience as a concept grew in prominence after 2000, when a series of major disasters raised awareness of the frequency and intensity of disasters.

Adding to earlier understandings of resilience that emphasized “bouncing back” or absorbing changes, disaster literature of the 2000s embraced adaptation and transformation. Resilience is now largely seen as critical for protecting development gains and improving well-being amid many risks and shocks.

There is no consensus on a definition of resilience among people concerned about disaster and climate threats. However, the following are some commonly cited definitions.

  • Stockholm Resilience Centre – “Resilience is the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about how humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking.”
  • The United Kingdom (U.K.) Government Resilience Framework – “In this context, the framework uses ‘resilience’ to refer to an ability to withstand or quickly recover from a difficult situation, but also to get ahead of those risks and tackle challenges before they manifest.”
  • UNDRR – “The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management.”
  • U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – “Resilience is the ability of people, households, communities, countries and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.”

From these definitions, it is possible to identify common ideas that are critical to resilience.

  • There are many examples of disaster recovery taking years, depending on the scale of devastation and existing capacities. However, strengthening resilience before a disaster event makes it possible to shorten this timeline and support an efficient recovery when a disaster or crisis occurs.
  • Of the resilience capacities commonly referenced, adaptive capacity is perhaps the most essential because resilience is not only about the ability to survive or “absorb” a shock but adapt to deal with it. Adaptive capacity can be understood as “the ability of social systems to adapt to multiple, long-term and future climate change risks, and also to learn and adjust after a disaster.” Applying learnings from disasters can help affected people and communities recover in ways that reduce vulnerabilities. Improving adaptive capacity includes diversifying and strengthening livelihoods to enhance well-being.
  • As seen across these definitions, resilience is needed at all levels, from individuals to systems. For example, ridding society of racism, strengthening social protection mechanisms, and making healthcare accessible and affordable are vital to resilience. When systems such as these are weakened and do not respond to the needs of the most marginalized, people suffer in the face of disasters and shocks. Fundamental changes to these systems may be required to address root causes of vulnerability.

Resilience policies have been exposed to critiques from a range of disciplines but are largely seen as valuable for connecting a range of global challenges and bridging between issues related to disasters, climate change, peace and development.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 may be the most significant international document outlining resilience ideas to disasters and states, “Public and private investment in disaster risk prevention and reduction through structural and non-structural measures are essential to enhance the economic, social, health and cultural resilience of persons, communities, countries and their assets, as well as the environment.”

Key Facts

  • Climate change impacts require resilience. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, “Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability.” Strengthening resilience is an important strategy for minimizing the impact of climate change on people and the natural environment.
  • Resilience must address vulnerability. A common critique of resilience is that it shifts attention away from the underlying causes of vulnerability. Disasters particularly affect the poorest and most marginalized people and exacerbate vulnerabilities. Programs to increase resilience must recognize the inequalities within communities and societies that may produce vulnerabilities and ensure these are addressed.
  • Resilience is needed in complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs). Humanitarian emergencies have become more complicated and layered with crisis, climate change and conflict. CHEs often involve a breakdown of authority or inadequate capacity, and although these contexts can be challenging operationally for humanitarians and funders, strengthening resilience remains critical and is also cost-effective. A study commissioned by USAID evaluating the economic case for early response and resilience building in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia found that investing in early response and resilience is significantly more cost-effective than providing ongoing humanitarian aid.
  • Resilience is underfunded. Despite knowing that resilience helps mitigate the impact of disasters and is cost-effective, resilience investments are limited. According to UNDRR, “The cost benefits of investing in prevention and resilience are clear, yet for every US$100 of disaster-related ODA [overseas development assistance], only 50 cents are invested in protecting development from the impact of disasters.” According to the 2021 Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy report, a joint effort between CDP and Candid, just 4% of philanthropic funding for disasters in 2019 went towards resilience, risk reduction and mitigation.”

How to Help

  • Support disaster risk reduction. According to UNDRR, “On one hand, measures to reduce disaster risk strengthen resilience. On the other hand, many actions taken to improve resilience also reduce disaster risks.” Funders can support efforts that inform people and communities about the risks they face and address them. For example, advocating for better land use and building codes, strengthening flood defenses, and reducing exposure for people and assets.
  • Invest in livelihoods. Securing the necessities of life, or livelihoods, matters for resilience because, as this ODI paper states, “Ensuring the economic foundations of social systems remain stable requires community-level livelihood pathways that are secure and that do not erode as a result of climate extremes and disasters.” Helping people strengthen and diversify their livelihoods can help increase resilience by ensuring people have the resources and capacities to adapt to various disaster risks and shocks.
  • Strengthen resilience at all levels. A holistic resilience approach is recommended that looks at individuals and households, and also considers the systems that influence people’s ability to cope, recover quickly and adapt. This approach may include providing access to financing, making market linkages, reducing flood risk through planning and nature-based solutions, increasing inclusion in decision-making among marginalized people, advocating for policy changes, or facilitating connections across groups or sectors to increase social capital.
  • Understand the context and address vulnerabilities. Rushton and colleagues found after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal that it was clear “from what structures had and had not survived the earthquake that vulnerability was closely related to social and economic inequalities.” The U.K. Government’s Resilience Framework says, “If we are to improve resilience across the whole of society and make targeted interventions during crises, we must ensure we understand which groups are acutely vulnerable to local and national risks.”
  • Provide flexible funding that supports nonprofit resilience. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the fragility of many nonprofits due to negative impacts on revenue and ways of working that were incompatible with a global crisis. The pandemic also highlighted the need for funders to help organizations adapt to the challenges they face and strengthen their financial and operational resilience. Flexible funding that supports nonprofits’ investment in their infrastructure will help them weather future crises and adapt.

What Funders Are Doing

Since its founding, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) has focused on minimizing the impact of disasters by supporting equitable long-term recovery. By ensuring resilience building is embedded in its grantmaking, CDP’s efforts contribute toward effective and timely disaster recovery. The following are examples of CDP’s resilience investments.

  • CDP awarded $202,488 through its Global Recovery Fund to the Near East Foundation in 2021 to provide life-saving support and build resilience to future shocks for vulnerable people in South Sudan and Sudan through improved agricultural production, inclusive value chain development and access to finance. The project provided vouchers, seed capital and capacity strengthening for cooperatives. It also measured these strategies’ impact on the resilience of communities facing shocks. In South Sudan, for example, people experiencing three shocks at the endline were able to generate greater levels of household revenue than baseline respondents experiencing only one shock.
  • CDP awarded $61,065 through its Disaster Recovery Fund to Seeding Sovereignty (through its fiscal sponsor Earth Island Institute) in 2022 to address the layered traumatic effects of the wildfires in New Mexico. Seeding Sovereignty’s trauma-informed wellness services address food insecurity and psychosocial needs among Indigenous people and Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous People of Color. The grant will also support and grow mutual aid networks which build connections and encourage resource sharing.
  • CDP awarded $200,000 through its California Wildfires Recovery Fund to Latino Community Foundation in 2021 to strengthen their community’s resilience and disaster preparedness. Activities included making grants to Latino-led nonprofits to improve their ability to reach, educate and rapidly mobilize for the next wildfire and Spanish-language workshops to local families on topics such as planning for evacuations, emergency financial planning and the benefits of renters insurance. Additionally, the project supported the expansion of the Just Recovery Promotora Network.

Resilience-related investments and initiatives from other philanthropic groups include the following.

  • The Wildfire Resilience Funders Network is an emergent learning and action network of philanthropic professionals working to promote wildfire-adapted landscapes and wildfire-resilient communities.
  • Northern California Grantmakers facilitates a Climate and Disaster Resilience community that envisions “California communities that are protected from the impacts of natural hazards; have equitable access to financial, relational, and political resources so they can mitigate, adapt to, prepare for, respond to, and recover from hazard events; and benefit socioeconomically from a just transition.”
  • Ford Foundation awarded $940,000 to Guangdong Harmony Foundation in 2021 to help grassroots nongovernment organizations and community foundations overcome the impact of COVID-19 through capacity building and exchanges, and foster a resilient regional philanthropy ecosystem in China’s Pear River Delta Region.
  • Charities Aid Foundation’s Resilience Programme pilot tested what resilience could mean for small charities, how resilience funding can be structured and the impact it can have. Their report on this program includes “recommendations to businesses, trusts and individuals who want to help develop a stronger charity sector.”
  • The Global Resilience Fund was created in May 2020 against the backdrop of COVID-19 by those across the funding ecosystem committed to resourcing girls’ and young feminists’ activism. One of the groups funded was FKM BKA YWU a women’s group organization in Aceh Province, Indonesia that is engaged in advocating for the rights of marginalized women. Poverty in this area has been caused by 30 years of civil war conflict and is exacerbated by frequent disasters, causing women to be the biggest and most vulnerable affected group.