Disaster Philanthropy Playbook

Strengthening Local Humanitarian Leadership Philanthropic Toolkit


This toolkit is designed to provide information about the concept of “localization” and the way in which a group of 14 U.S.-based funders are addressing philanthropy’s role in strengthening local humanitarian leadership. This is a work-in-progress and will continue to be updated as new activities take place or relevant information becomes available.

What is Localization?
Traditional aid and development interventions in international contexts are often critiqued for being focused on the goals and practices of the funder rather than driven by the needs, desires and resources of the aid recipients and local service providers. In this model, the funder holds a great deal of power and influence, and shapes the activities, policies and programs of the communities receiving aid. Decisions are often made by the external players rather than the local officials, program managers and front-line staff who are on the ground delivering services.

In the localization model, the focus becomes centered on local decision-making; power is in the hands of those most affected by the issues. “Aid localization is a collective process involving different stakeholders that aims to return local actors, whether civil society organizations or local public institutions, to the center of the humanitarian system with a greater role in humanitarian response.” (Time to Let Go)

While external funding, support and technical assistance are still important and required, the power dynamics shift through the localization process. Those on-the-ground – the local actors – are charged with program planning and management, allowing them to use their local knowledge, history and connections to develop services that are compatible with the cultural, socio-political and economic climates of the communities that they serve.

Why is Localization Important?
Changing politics and climactic conditions are increasing the frequency and severity of global humanitarian crises.  External actors – including philanthropic organizations – cannot be knowledgeable about all of the various communities affected by disasters. In the face of this reality, philanthropies are investing in local organizations to:

  • Shift power and resources to actors on the ground.
  • Redefine the role for international governmental and nongovernmental actors.
  • Save more lives through comprehensive approaches.
  • Increase impact through effective and efficient responses with lower cost.

How Does the Localization Effort Work?
The intent of localization is to strengthen local humanitarian leadership to help achieve the goals listed. In order to do this, there must be increased institutional capacity of local response organizations. This can be done through educational outreach and technical assistance to enhance the internal practices and staffing of local organizations.  And through greater sensitivity to the conditions in which these leaders work, whether that be the current state of government, transportation/power/financial infrastructure or natural resources.

It is also important to implement fair compensation to local organizations for the staff-time required to take on more responsibility. Obviously, salaries vary depending upon location, agency, size of community and current stage of the event to which actors are responding. However, salaries can be determined by evaluating all these factors in context.

The question often arises, “How local is local?” In some protracted crises and major disasters, recovery efforts require coordination mechanisms and greater presence of national or regional actors alongside the local community leaders to ensure that aid moves through channels with access to the affected area. This does not mean that localization in not occurring — this occurs “in country” rather than as directed by an international organization from a distance.

Successful processes of returning power and decision-making to representatives of affected communities requires the humility, sensitivity and trust of funders in listening carefully to the expressed needs of the community and acknowledging the cultural contexts in which these decisions are being made. And, as noted previously, in some cases this may require support for increasing the administrative capacity of these local representatives.

Although there will be instances when it is necessary to rely on international nongovernmental organizations to serve as fiscal partners, direct funding may be the only method to distribute aid in some contexts. Direct funding can also stretch dollars on the ground, bypassing other intermediaries.

The scale and scope of the community crisis may suggest that peer organizations work in partnership to address local needs. As an example, feeding organizations might collaborate with logistical experts or feeding organizations might work together to multiply impact. Although this may seem self-evident, new or pop-up organizations may not have familiarity with other actors in the humanitarian sector.

Additionally, funders can support local actors by increasing their visibility in larger public and philanthropic circles. Sharing the roles, results and innovations of these leaders and organizations expands the audience for support.

A variety of issues that impact humanitarian response are negatively impacted by public policy and legislative action. One prime example is providing aid following a major natural disaster in a country the U.S. has identified as being associated with terrorism. National actors can positively influence policy that leaves vulnerable populations at risk for recovery.

What is Philanthropy’s Role in Localization?
Individual philanthropies and networks of philanthropic organizations can join in this effort by:

  • Altering internal grantmaking practices to simplify application and reporting processesGlobal Giving’s streamlined application process or CDP’s Midwest Early Recovery Fund’s clipboard grantmaking application are two examples of funders who altered their practices based on a deep understanding of the complexities and challenges of local service providers.
  • Participating in more pooled funds, less earmarking and increased multi-year funding have all been highlighted by signatories to The Grand Bargain (described later in the document) as promising practices with less restrictive approaches to providing humanitarian aid to local communities. Individual philanthropies and collaborative funding efforts are wrestling with this issue. Big problems require innovative funding solutions.
  • Paying greater attention to long-term recovery and mitigation through durable solutions for refugees, social protection systems and risk reduction are strategies with cost-benefit and sustainability impact. Research has demonstrated that every dollar spent on mitigation saves six dollars, and in some cases up to eighteen dollars in aid.
  • Encouraging collaboration between humanitarian and development actors magnifies the relief investments into long-term economic impact when local organizations are strengthened, supplies or commodities are locally sourced and employment opportunities are generated by good planning and implementation of recovery efforts.
  • Improving joint and impartial needs assessment aids funders in supporting organizations as they make decisions, evaluate opportunities, respond to changing priorities and gauge impact. NEAR, the Network for Empowered Aid Response, is a group of local and national organizations in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. They are currently working on developing a series of metrics that will allow organizations to track and report the progress local and national organizations are making in the humanitarian sector. Academic researchers such as Daniel Maxwell of Tufts University, have been working for many years with local community leaders are also building a body of evidence in support of the localization agenda.
  • Exercising a lighter bureaucratic footprint through joint leadership roles that take the primary funder out of the role of sole convener, leader and facilitator and transition into the role of partner and participant.

How Do We Know It Works?
Frankly, the work to evaluate the impact of localization efforts is fairly recent. There are links in the “How Do We Get Started?” section that contain some of the initial evaluation reports. What we do know is that the current system is unstainable to address the scale and scope of current and projected humanitarian need. Innovation is necessary, as is more research to provide additional evidence that the localization movement is effective.

Who is Involved?
Inspired by 2016’s World Humanitarian Summit’s emphasis on supporting local actors in providing humanitarian assistance (The Grand Bargain), ten U.S.-based foundations met for three days in 2018 to consider the role that private philanthropy might play in strengthening local humanitarian leadership. The three-day meeting in Seattle, hosted by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with Center for Disaster Philanthropy, resulted in an agreement to continue meeting and to compile resources to increase the knowledge and participation of other philanthropic organizations. This initiative is an effort to build the capacity of leaders on the ground as they assist their communities in recovering from natural disasters and other complex humanitarian crises. The original funder participants include:

In 2019, an additional four foundations will join in this collaborative effort.

There are also other major international nongovernmental organizations such as OXFAM and Catholic Relief Services that have made significant changes in their own internal processes and service delivery relationships as well as other funders who have made the localization effort a signature piece of their grantmaking.

How Do We Get Started?

The philanthropic organizations participating in this initiative have shared news items and other foundational documents that are gathered here, in what we are calling the Localization Philanthropic Toolkit.

The Localization Agenda Background Materials These are foundational documents that describe the process for designing The Grand Bargain, its intended outcomes and progress in realizing these goals. In addition, there are other documents that inform this work, particularly focusing on the role of private philanthropy alongside government contributions.

  • Restoring Humanity Global Voices Calling for Action: Synthesis of the Consultation Process for the World Humanitarian Summit – This report is available in several languages (English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic) and provides an overview of the consultation process that involved 23,000 people in the days leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016. Between May 2014 and July 2015, there were eight regional consultations, thematic and stakeholder conversations, online dialogues, and 400 written submissions. This consultation process resulted in five major areas for actions which formed the basis for the work of the Summit. They were:
    • “Dignity: Empower people to cope and recover with dignity through humanitarian action that puts people at its heart, delivers equally for women and girls, reaches everyone, invests in youth and children, and protects and enables people as the primary agents of their own response.
    • Safety: Keep people safe from harm by putting protection at the centre of humanitarian action, increasing political action to prevent and end conflict, preventing and putting an end to violations of international humanitarian law, and ensuring humanitarian action is not instrumentalized.
    • Resilience: Build hope and solutions for people in new or prolonged crises through collective action by humanitarian, development and other partners to strengthen people’s resilience to crises, by investing in preparedness, managing and mitigating risk, reducing vulnerability, finding durable solutions for protracted displacement, and adapting to new threats.
    • Partnerships: Build diverse and inclusive partnerships that reaffirm the core humanitarian principles, support effective and people-driven humanitarian action, enable first responders to take a leadership role, and leverage the power of innovation.
    • Finance: Ensure sufficient and more efficient use of resources to preserve life, dignity and resilience in crises through new and diverse funding sources and expanded support to local organizations.”
  • World Humanitarian Summit Summary – This document reports on the convening of the first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in May 2016. It was the largest-scale United Nations (UN) meeting since its founding in 1945, with over 9,000 participants. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had called the WHS to address the “highest levels of human suffering since the Second World War.”

The three main goals of the Summit were:

  1. “To re-inspire and reinvigorate a commitment to humanity and to the universality of human principles.
  2. To initiate a set of concrete actions and commitments aimed at enabling countries and communities to better prepare and respond to crises, and to be resilient to shock.
  3. To share best practices which can help save lives around the world, put affected people at the centre of humanitarian action, and alleviate suffering.”

The most important document resulting from the WHS is The Grand Bargain that inspired the funders who compiled the resources in this Toolkit to alter their own organizational practices and collaborate in support of local humanitarian leaders. The Grand Bargain is the next tool in this Toolkit.

  1. Greater transparency
  2. More support and funding tools to local and national responders
  3. Increase the use and coordination of cash-based programming
  4. Reduce duplication and management cost with periodic functional reviews
  5. Improve joint and impartial needs assessments
  6. A Participation Revolution: include people receiving aid in making the decisions which affect their lives
  7. Increase collaborative humanitarian multi-year planning and funding
  8. Reduce the earmarking of donor contributions
  9. Harmonize and simplify reporting requirements
  10. Cross cutting – Enhance engagement between humanitarian and development actors.”

This website summarizes The Grand Bargain and provides links to numerous reports that provide more detailed information.

  • Charter4Change – The Charter for Change is an action step stemming from the World Humanitarian Summit requesting international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) to make a series of commitments and encourages southern-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who partner with INGOs to commit to these goals and hold the INGOs accountable for adherence to the goals.
  • The World Humanitarian Summit: A Pivot Point in Philanthropy’s Contribution to Addressing Humanitarian Crises – This paper is a call-to-action for the philanthropic community to respond to the issues raised by the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and make critical changes in the way it carries out its work in response to humanitarian crises. “In Section 1, the paper looks at the challenges shared by all who contribute, including the philanthropy sector. Section 2 discusses philanthropy’s current contributions and potential, including some of its shortcomings. Section 3 examines how the Summit is setting the stage for change—change for which philanthropy can be a greater part. Section 4 concludes the paper with a set of actionable recommendations for how philanthropy’s contribution to humanitarian crises can be greatly improved.”
  • U.N. Sustainable Development Goals – This website outlines the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals that were adopted by all member states in 2015. Collectively, they make up The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and provide “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

“Strengthening Local Humanitarian Leadership” Convening Documents These documents provide information on the context, conversation and partners who attended the first convening hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

  • Definitional Brochure – This two-page brochure, published by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy for the initial convening of U.S.-based foundations, provides an overview of the goals and rationale for the localization initiative.
  • “Local Humanitarian Action: Background, Key Challenges and Ways Forward” Address by Daniel Maxwell, Tufts University – This is the keynote address given by Daniel Maxwell of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University at the initial convening of the funders for this project held in February 2018. The paper provides a solid overview of the issues of localization and is summarized as follows, “This paper will touch on six topics. First, briefly—it asks, what is locally led humanitarian action and how is it framed? Different parties discuss this topic in different ways. Second, it asks where does this discussion come from, and why it has gotten a lot of attention only of late? Third, the core of this brief overview addresses some of the major opportunities and challenges about local leadership of humanitarian action—and particularly how outside organizations can support this. Fourth, it briefly outlines some of the key issues and challenges that have been raised with regard to this whole agenda. Fifth, it addresses the critical question of major gaps in our evidence base on this topic. And finally, it suggests some responses to the obvious question of ‘where do we go from here?’”
  • Final Report – This document provides a summary of the initial convening held in February 2018.

News Items These documents and links share information on the progress to date toward meeting commitments of the signatories to The Grand Bargain and news of efforts to support local actors.

Additional Resources


  • Foundational articles on guidelines, principles and practice reviews in the humanitarian sector.


  • Reports on how major international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) describe their work to move toward practices that strengthen local decision-making and action.


  • Briefing papers, articles, blogs, webinars and podcasts on localization for your own reflection or for educating stakeholders.


  • Books and research studies on localization and effective partnership models.

For More Information


This collection of interviews includes stories about the challenges and promise of supporting local humanitarian leaders, from the perspectives of both funders and grantees. These profiles provide information and reflections that will be helpful to board members, staff, donors and humanitarian relief providers as they attempt to enhance the developing conversation and deepen commitment around strengthening local humanitarian leadership.

Each profile concludes with key takeaways that highlight each interviewee’s lessons learned in humanitarian response.


Key Takeaways

The collaborative conversations of a small group of U.S.-based foundations increased their organizations’ commitment to exploring new ways of defining relationships in the humanitarian sector. With this new approach service organizations will experience increased productivity and sustainability, resulting in a greater impact on communities affected by natural disasters and protracted crises.

As we imagine an altered humanitarian landscape of philanthropic relationships built on trust, transparency, power-sharing, flexibility and localized decision-making, we can also imagine collective philanthropic action. Here are a few ideas for consideration:

  • Pooled funds
  • Altered grant application and reporting processes
  • Pre-vetted partnerships
  • Joint site visits
  • Shared databases
  • Longitudinal impact research projects
  • Cross-sector partnerships
  • Flexible, multi-year funding
  • Organizational capacity building and decision-making
  • Local, state, regional and national networks
  • Advocacy for local leaders and organizations

Surely, there are more! We hope the materials in this tookit will aid you and others in your work to strengthen local humanitarian leadership.

Check out the Local Humanitarian Leadership Tip Sheet.