When Disaster Strikes: 8 questions leaders should ask before, during and after

Kathleen Lowenthal

By Kathleen Lowenthal

When a disaster strikes, people want to respond. They expect governments to provide immediate assistance, and individually they look for ways to help. Corporations also want to respond and assist, but leaders are faced with a mixed set of decision-making circumstances.

During these complicated incidents, questions often arise about strategy, partners, opportunities and employees impacted. Business leaders need to take into account the concerns of employees, customers, and other stakeholders. They also need to consider the timing, implementation mechanism, volunteer opportunities, impact and potential reputational issues of any such endeavor. Time is of the essence.

Global Impact has learned through more than a decade of disaster relief fundraising that having a decision-making process in place before disasters occur is critical to mobilizing and allocating resources effectively, and maximizing their impact. Below are key questions companies should ask themselves when considering a disaster response strategy.

  1. How do I determine when and how to respond?

Having a response framework in place before a disaster strikes not only saves critical decision-making time, but leverages any resources already developed. Leaders need to carefully think through criteria to limit and define their response strategy, including:

  • Types of disasters to which the company will respond (natural vs. manmade)
  • Partners with which a company is willing to work
  • Geographic priorities

A well thought-out response framework will take into account internal and external factors. This will help you decide if a given disaster merits a response, and what level of response is most appropriate. Key considerations are:

  • FEMA/UN-OCHA disaster declaration level
  • Impact on areas of business operations
  • Impact on staff
  • Requests from staff to mobilize
  • Discernable needs and gaps in resources that your company could fill

It is important to also think about varied levels of response, depending on the answers to the above criteria and whether or not you want to include employee response, employee assistance, corporate matches and/or a roll out to any other stakeholders. These components—when to respond, and how to respond—are the key pieces of the response framework. It need not be elaborate, but having something in place to guide decision-making can help make disaster-time decisions less stressful and more streamlined.

  1. What mechanisms do I need in place prior to responding?

The response framework will help facilitate prompt decision-making in times of disaster, but there are also a few key mechanisms that go along with that framework to help drive a quick and robust corporate disaster response.

Response Partners: Identifying NGO partners who operate in key regions of the world where you have a business presence, and whose missions, visions and values align with yours will make your decision about whether or not to activate a disaster response much easier. It is important to identify a small number of partners (perhaps three to five) who are well-respected in the U.S. and around the world, and who operate programs that align with your corporate purpose. We recommend looking at both humanitarian organizations and development agencies as partners, keeping in mind that some organizations may launch an immediate, short-term response while others will remain on the ground for years following a disaster, helping to support the rebuilding efforts. Humanitarian organizations such as International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee, World Vision, Salvation Army, Save the Children and MercyCorps are often in the first wave of response to natural disasters, and operate all over the world, making them valuable disaster response partners. Identifying partners and signing engagement letters ahead of time will ensure you have time to do necessary vetting and due diligence.

Giving Platforms: As important as knowing who you will partner with, is knowing how you will activate. If your company decides to offer your employees a way to contribute funds to support disaster response efforts, then having a technology platform to facilitate those donations is necessary. It is important that a giving platform can be launched within 24-48 hours of a disaster, so that you are able to capture individual donations when the disaster is top of mind and funds are most needed. For global companies, priority should be given to giving platforms that can be translated into other languages and that can distribute funds globally.

  1. Who are my team members to support any response effort?

Thinking through a disaster response strategy and framework is the perfect time to also think about engaging team members from across your organization—finance, marketing and communications, human resources, CR, regional business leads, etc. Depending on the size of your company, it may make sense to form a committee that can convene (perhaps virtually) when a disaster strikes and make a determination about whether a response is warranted, and what that response should look like. Members of this committee may represent differing points of view, different geographies and cultures, and different staff priorities—all key viewpoints to keep in mind when making a response decision.

  1. Who else is mobilizing to support the effort?

In the early hours after receiving word of a major disaster, it’s important to gather as much information as possible to help inform the decision-making process. Conducting a quick geographic scan of the region experiencing the disaster should be a first step to determining which areas require support. Government agencies such as FEMA, military personnel, international organizations, and local and potentially global NGOs, many of whom may be mobilizing, focus on immediate needs and long-term rehabilitation services to rebuild communities. Other corporations will also start announcing how they are responding and potentially engaging stakeholders. Assessing what others are doing can help inform the decision about whether you should activate, and to what degree.

  1. How can we engage and support our employees?

When disaster strikes, staff often want to step up to help and know that their employer will do the same. Setting up a campaign to support local response efforts demonstrates your commitment to the world. If possible and appropriate, a match can incentivize the process. Additionally, giving employees a chance to support specific issues such as education, health, children and families, or housing allows non-impacted employees to feel more connected to the cause and see the impact of their dollars.

Sometimes, emergencies hit close to home and directly impact your company’s facilities and employees living in that community. If you are a business with multiple locations, employees from other locations may want to help their colleagues who have been impacted—employees can suffer severe property damage, lose their homes or need medical treatment during times of crisis. There are easy, cost effective ways to launch employee assistance programming using technology platforms to support impacted people. These platforms have the controls and logic in place to raise and distribute resources while protecting the organization.

  1. What current charity partners do I have on the ground?

Reaching out to your already-identified disaster response partners to learn what they are seeing on the ground and how they are responding to the disaster can be a valuable way of receiving firsthand accounts of community needs, and can help determine what kind of assistance to provide. Partners can be a source of continued information to use in engagement of your stakeholders and to share the impact funding is making on the ground. There may be some instances in which you want to respond, but do not have a partner. Use this as a time to develop new relationships or broaden connections with organizations in specific geographies.

  1. How do I use the crisis as a positive force for change?

This is a time to engage various stakeholders in your response, if warranted. By thinking through and connecting to the constituencies you want to influence, responding to a crisis can be a time for transformation. Groups to consider may include employees, customers, partners, stakeholders and the media. Use your framework and committee to identify company ambassadors that can support your cause. Then, develop a specific call to action and messaging that aligns with your corporate purpose to reach various groups. Announcing a corporate match can create goodwill across your stakeholders. A communications effort announcing the company’s response activities is a final way of shedding a brighter light on the affected community and encouraging wide-spread participation in the response effort.

  1. What impact did our response have and what should we do differently next time?

Regardless of the type of response launched, always collect both internal and external feedback. Review the business process for improvements and collect impact statements from partners. Impact statements can be used in annual reports, case studies and other communications to demonstrate your commitment to the communities where you live and work. They are also important to share internally with employees and other leaders. With a continuous improvement mindset, be assured that your efforts will be strategic and meaningful to the lives ultimately being impacted.

Kathleen Lowenthal is senior director of Partner Solutions at Global Impact.



Posted June 8, 2017 in Vol. 8 No. 3 - May/June 2017