DYO | Lessons for philanthropy from bushfire & COVID-19 disasters

Dr Alexandra Williamson (@DrAKWilliamson)

For Australian nonprofit organisations and philanthropic foundations scrambling to respond to the damage caused by 2019-20 bushfires, the subsequent advent of coronavirus has landed as a second and terrifying blow.  While it is too soon for comprehensive national data on giving by individuals, corporates and philanthropic foundations, key differences between these two ongoing disasters present both challenges and potential sources of learning for Australia’s nonprofit and philanthropic response.

Duration differences:  Bushfires are in some ways a known quantity – we have responded before and broadly know the timeline of effects and consequences.  COVID-19 is unknown in its national and international scale and seemingly endless in its duration and ramifications.

Donor differences:  The response to the bushfires was dominated by public appeals and individual giving, yet in Australia, COVID-19 has not yet seen an outpouring of public donations.  The focus instead has been on volunteering and rebuilding civil society. It will be interesting to see if this changes and if compassion fatigue and perhaps disillusion set in.

Demographic and geographic differences:  COVID-19’s immediate impacts are so far greatest on older people and those with underlying health conditions. But COVID-19’s impact has quickly extended to those at risk through the effects of lockdowns and isolation on financial security, mental health and domestic violence. COVID-19 is concentrated in urban areas, with regional areas to date far less affected.  Compare this to the bushfires which were broadly in regional and rural areas, and whose impact was felt across demographics/health conditions.

Environmental differences:  The bushfires were viewed as a natural, environmental disaster (although human-amplified through links to climate heating) that impacted iconic Australian species.  COVID-19 is being viewed as a human-generated (and human-amplified) disaster, and ironically may bring possible environmental benefits from decreased human activity globally.

Economic differences:  The bushfires were contained in their impact, meaning that those unaffected could give to those affected.  During COVID-19 we are all affected by the sharp economic downturn (although to varying degrees) via unemployment, business and charities collapse, and funding cuts.  COVID-19 flow-on effects are exposing deep economic inequalities.  The bushfires require a state and national economic recovery, COVID-19 will require a global economic recovery.

Government support difference:  During the bushfires, the focus was on growing government support for direct service provision in the form of firefighters, equipment, evacuation transport and shelters. In Australia, government support during COVID-19 has been interventionist and unpredictable, with differences between states, confusion between state and federal governments, and uncertainty about what will follow.  Yet COVID-19 funding support schemes have been more widely and clearly publicised and targeted.

For charity and nonprofit leaders, relationships with governments and communities in response to disasters remain poorly understood, even as such responses and challenges are becoming more complex.  In times of disaster, there is greater demand, anxiety, stress, time pressure and potential for fraud, which all heighten the need for collaboration and scrutiny.  Reflecting on and comparing key elements of responses to disasters provides accumulated learning.

An extended version of this piece, co-authored with Dr Diana Leat, is featured on the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly blog

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