Massive destruction on Fort Myers Beach aftermath Hurricane Ian

Disaster Philanthropy: Hear from Leaders in the Field

Sarah NavranCorporate Charitable Giving, Individual & Family Giving

When disaster strikes, many philanthropists ask: How can I help?

Senior Philanthropic Advisor Whitney Hosty was joined by Patty McIlreavy, the President and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and Suzanne Ehlers, the Executive Director and CEO of USA for UNCHR, the UN Refugee Agency, to discuss disaster relief giving. Together, they explored philanthropy’s role in supporting communities facing humanitarian crises and disasters from natural hazards.

Tune in to the conversation below:


Our team of philanthropic advisors is here to assist Greater Kansas City Community Foundation donors with their grantmaking strategy and connect with disaster relief organizations and others in the field. If you’d like to discuss your disaster relief grantmaking from your charitable fund with a philanthropic advisor, email us at

Video Transcript

Edited for length and clarity

Whitney Hosty:

Hello everyone. Thank you so much for joining our webinar today. My name is Whitney Hosty, and I am a senior philanthropic advisor with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and Greater Horizons. For folks who may not know about the Community Foundation and Greater Horizons, we help individuals, families, and businesses to streamline their giving through accounts called donor-advised funds. And those funds allow donors to support nonprofit organizations they care about on a timeline that works for them.

We know that our donors grant to organizations nationwide, sometimes internationally, and in all corners of philanthropy. So when disasters strike, we often hear from donors asking how can they support relief efforts? We know that philanthropy has played an important role in supporting communities experiencing humanitarian crises or disasters from natural hazards. We also know that as participants joining us today, you all have interests in many different areas and types of organizations in the philanthropic sector. All of these types of organizations can be impacted when a disaster strikes a community. We are incredibly fortunate today to learn from two experts working every day in this space to help us better understand the many factors involved in short-term and long-term recovery efforts and how philanthropists like you can assist in these efforts.

So, joining me in conversation today are two dynamic leaders from well-known organizations in disaster relief, Suzanne Ehlers from USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and Patty McIlreavy from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. I’m so glad to have you both here today.

Suzanne serves as the executive director and CEO of USA for UNHCR, an organization dedicated to refugee protection and empowerment. Previously, Suzanne served as the CEO of the Malala Fund, and the President and CEO of PAI, allowing her to bring a global perspective to policy issues. Suzanne holds a bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell University, has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic, and has held various board and advisory positions.

Patty is the President and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, an organization that strengthens communities’ ability to withstand disasters and recover when they occur. She has more than 25 years of experience in international humanitarian policy and practice and brings a unique experience of expertise to disaster philanthropy. Patty holds a master’s degree in international affairs from the American University School of International Service. She was also a 2014-2015 MIT seminar XXI fellow and has served on multiple interagency committees.

To kick us off and add to the information I’ve already shared, can you, Patty and Suzanne, start by sharing a bit about your role and the organizations that you represent? Patty, we’ll start with you.

Patty McIlreavy:

Great, thank you so much, Whitney. As you said, I’m Patty McIlreavy, President and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP). Our remit is really to guide philanthropy and serve philanthropy, but the word we like to use is mobilize philanthropy. We’re really seeking to get philanthropy to commit itself more deeply into communities and their ability to recover equitably from disasters after they occur, both domestically and internationally. And we know through our research, that very little goes into… Out of the 499 billion that philanthropy gave last year, approximately 5 billion of that was given to disasters or humanitarian crises, and only a small percentage of that, single digits percentage was given to recovery. So, trying to get philanthropy to recognize that there’s a bigger space for us to look at related to the needs of communities. And we know what’s coming, right? We know that climate change is bringing more disasters. The hazards are increasing in scale. They’re increasing in just the number of them. We’re having floods in places that have never flooded before. All of this for us is about getting philanthropy to recognize those connections between their current work and their commitments to communities and how they could work within a community’s recovery from disasters.

We do this in three main ways. So, the first is just educational resources. I call it our free to air. We’ve got a lot of information on our website. We’ve got things like this where we can speak with you and talk with you and answer your questions and help you understand why this is so critically important to your work. Regardless of what you may be working on with communities, how disasters and the recovery from them is just really critical to an understanding of an equitable development of communities. The second is our advisory services, and that’s where if you really want to get deeper into understanding where you could go, what are some pre-vetted organizations you could work with.

For example, we have arrangements with a couple of donor-advised funds, such as the Community Foundation has for you, in giving them client lists. Who may be organizations responding in places that they’re working or that they care about, and those organizations being vetted by us and seen as trustworthy to give directly to? And then the last is our grantmaking. And so that’s to say, okay, we have all this interest, we’re really committed to this, but we don’t have the time, the wherewithal, the staff, whatever it may be, or we want our dollars to match up with other people’s dollars to go further. You can give it to CDP, and we’ll take that money through one of our recovery funds into the recovery funding within that disaster. So, for example, California wildfires, or Atlantic Hurricanes, or Israel and Gaza right now, or even Ukraine, Sahel Hunger. Whatever it may be, we have different funds that are available that philanthropy can invest in and can have their funding go further and allow CDP to take it that last mile into communities in need by going to… We go as local as possible within organizations we’re looking to support. And I’m going to hand it over to Suzanne so she can introduce you to USA for UNHCR.

Suzanne Ehlers:

Excellent. Thanks, Patty. And thanks everyone for joining today. What a delight to spend Tuesday afternoon, or wherever you are in the world, talking about these critical issues. So, I’ve joined USA for UNHCR, which is the UN Refugee Agency, just in January of this year. So, I’m not even at a full year yet of leadership, but I will say, and I have said it’s probably the favorite new job I’ve ever had in my life. Incredible team, an incredible mission, and an incredible UN partner in UNHCR with whom we work. The slides that Sarah is going to take us through are some beautiful photos, but also a couple of quotes from our leadership, from our high commissioner, from our deputy high commissioner, and from the head of protection. So, while I’m telling you a little bit about who we are, you’ll see some powerful words and some beautiful imagery.

USA for UNHCR is the national partner in the United States for the UN Refugee Agency. There are nine of us around the world, national partners, and we exist essentially to be a megaphone for the UN in our countries, in our markets as they call them, and also to be a fundraiser for UNHCR. So the UN Agency manages the government relationship with the US government or the Japanese government or the Australian government, but then a national association like myself is managing all of the non-governmental funding partnerships and relationships, so foundations to individuals and to other civil society partners. We raise about 50% of the private income, so not government money. About 50% of private income comes from groups like mine, USA for UNHCR. And you might know of other networks like us. UNICEF and World Food Program both also have these sort of global networks of national partners that do this work.

I’ll give you a little bit of the nuts and bolts. So, USA for UNHCR based here in the US. This is our market. We’re in Washington, DC and New York in terms of brick-and-mortar offices. We had a staff of about 70 plus and a budget of about 40 million. And that 40 million raises, last year, about 180 million for the UN Refugee Agency. That was in 2022. So, a pretty generous outpouring given what was going on in Ukraine at the time but gives you some sense of the scale and the investment we’re making in order to realize more partnerships in revenue for the UN. Now at the global level, the UN Refugee Agency, they have about 19,000 staff. 91%+ of those are in the field, so your headquarters of Geneva and Copenhagen are modestly staffed in comparison. Really, the boots on the ground is sort of what we do in the services that we provide.

The blue vest with UNHCR emblazoned across the back is what we’re known for, operating in about 137 countries. I’ll talk more about some of the active emergencies that we’re responding to, but our overall global reach is at 137 countries currently, and a budget anywhere between 10 and $12 billion. Unfortunately, crises and emergencies are on the rise, so the budget goes up as a response to that. And about 75% of that budget is from governments and from the European Union. So a big percentage of it is still from the private sector, broadly speaking, but of course, member states are some of the UN refugee agencies, sort of the biggest and strongest partners from a government perspective. And I hope in this hour, or however much time we have together today, we’ll explore the different ways in which all of these various stakeholders and actors can really make for a comprehensive response to the disasters and crises that we’re talking about. So I’ll pause there and turn it back to our moderator.

Whitney Hosty:

Great. Thank you both. Before we go much further, I think it might be helpful to give a little more clarity around the definition. So, Patty, can you share with the group how organizations like yours define disaster?

Patty McIlreavy:

Yeah, so we recognize that disasters are personal, and so the ways that people can explore and look and talk about disasters within their community can vary greatly. But this is just a frame we use as an organization to try and look at how we would assist and where we would have a value add in this. And for me, it’s really an equation. And the reason why it’s important to look at it as an equation is because it helps you think deeper. If you look at the hazard, what is a disaster, it’s when a hazard meets a vulnerability. That’s it. That becomes the disaster. Why is it important to have that distinction is because if we only look at the hazard, if we think of the disaster as the event, this earthquake or this flood, or even the war, we’re only looking at small-term responsiveness to that event.

It’s a flood. You need boots, you need shovels, you need buckets. But actually, if you’re looking at the vulnerability, if you’re looking at that disaster, you start to think deeper. Why were people vulnerable to this? What can we do that can actually assist them in that longer term? Suddenly, mold remediation comes into play. The road was washed out, people have lost their car, their only supermarket in their area has been damaged. What are the actual vulnerabilities that that event hit, that hazard hit that actually created this bigger need in the community? And thus, you’re looking now at a recovery mindset because you’re suddenly looking at why did this happen? What can I do to stop this from happening again? What can I do to remediate and to mitigate this? And that’s where vulnerabilities are often manmade, almost entirely systemic inequities, poor infrastructure.

If it’s just an event, if you’re looking at the hazard alone, it could be a hurricane, and it’s often in the Atlantic doing what hurricanes do, and nobody even learns its name. It’s only when it comes onto land, and it meets those vulnerabilities, meets people, meets economics, meets physical structures, that it becomes a disaster. And that’s why at CDP, we really focus on trying to get people to think that larger frame. Because once you start looking at root causes, dynamic pressures, and unsafe conditions, your programming goes beyond hazard and more into, how do I address root causes, dynamic pressures and unsafe conditions? And sometimes, if you go deep enough within your programming, you can help people not only recover from this disaster, but you can address why they were vulnerable to begin with and give them better preparation for the next disaster through your programming.

Whitney Hosty:

Thank you, Patty. Well, and while we’re providing these definitions, you had mentioned earlier a couple of times, equitable recovery. Can you explain what you mean by the phrase equitable recovery?

Patty McIlreavy:

So equitable recovery is really looking at the… There’s just some pure and simple facts that are there. We know, for example, that if a white community is hit by a hazard, they often come out wealthier than before that hazard happened. That does not mean they have not had impact. It doesn’t mean there’s not psychological loss, emotional loss, or trauma. It just means that on a wealth statistic, they come out wealthier. Marginalized communities, especially black communities and people of color, they come out poor. And a lot of that has to do with underlying root causes, the systemic inequities that were existing beforehand, home ownership, generational wealth, insurance, all those factors which lead to that inequitable recovery occurring. But what we try and do at CDP is say, we need to look at that.

We need to look at that within our programming and do what we can to make sure that we are exploring how to enable a recovery that sees everyone looking at a better solution across all demographics, not just those who, by preexisting conditions, are actually going to be better off as a result of this, or will come out of this in a better way than as a result of this. Again, in no way diminishing that everyone has an impact. The challenge is how do we actually use this as an opportunity to address some of those systemic inequities that existed, that created those vulnerabilities that made these people more impacted by the hazard to begin with. So, it’s really just about an investment into the root causes components when you’re looking at the assistance as a result of the disaster that’s occurred.

Whitney Hosty:

Thank you for the clarification. I know each of your organizations is providing support for both ongoing and current crises. Can you share with us what areas of the globe your organizations are focused on? Suzanne, do you have any current data, from USA for UNHCR, thinking about refugee and resettlement as well?

Suzanne Ehlers:

Yeah, I sure do. Thank you. And just to say, hearing that equitable recovery piece, how interesting that we now all have such an experience of that through COVID, and really looking at the ways communities emerged, and sectors emerged, and neighborhoods emerged from COVID. So, for anybody who thought, wow, that phrase feels so abstract for me, the fact is that we’ve all lived and have sort of borne witness to what inequitable recovery has looked like within our own country.

I always say UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, we go where the refugees are. We are a people-centered, and sort of people-focused organization. We’re focused on their needs. We’re focused on their circumstances, their safety, and their protection, both short-term and long-term. Unfortunately, given the state of the world, that means we’re everywhere and working all over the place in those 137 countries that I mentioned. And right now, anywhere between 35 and 40 active emergencies that the UNHCR is engaged in.

The numbers quickly, and I know it’s sort of hard on a webinar without a bunch of slides to sort of follow this, but the number is about 110 million people who are considered forcibly displaced and in need of some form of international protection. So, within that category, its refugees, and we all sort of know what that is, somebody who’s crossing a border because of conflict or persecution or violence. We know that there are huge numbers of people who are called internally displaced persons, IDPs. So, they have left a part of the country where they’re from, but they haven’t crossed an international border, but the UN Refugee Agency would consider those individuals as part of that pool of people in need of international protection. We have asylum seekers, probably five and a half to 6 million of that total, that are crossing an international border and are seeking asylum, so legal protections from the violence or the persecution from which they fled.

And then a sort of a catchall category of those who are in need of international protection but may be considered stateless. So those who are not even considered a citizen of any country for a variety of reasons. It’s actually a really kind of fascinating area of exploration, statelessness, that the UN mandate also has UNHCR covering. I think a couple of interesting stats or figures, if you will, because we think we know what the refugee crisis looks like. We think we know who’s sort of in support. 52% of all refugees, of 110 million, come from three countries, and that’s from Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. So that’s a lot of people from three countries that represent the whole. We also think we know who hosts these people. These people who were on the move and in need of international protection, they’re scattered all over the globe. Actually, no, they’re very often going just to neighboring countries, so to the next country over from where they are fleeing. I think 70% or so, end up in neighboring countries and never really move that much farther away from where they came from.

And those neighboring countries, or really any host country, are not the wealthiest countries in the world. I know Patty’s going to nod her head on this one. It’s low in middle-income countries. It’s places like Turkey. Actually, I think Turkey is the single biggest host of forcibly displaced persons in the world. Iran is in second place. A country like Columbia, and countries like Germany, maybe a little bit more familiar to this crowd in terms of the role they’ve played in hosting forcibly displaced persons. And then Pakistan, which has actually been in the news quite a bit recently, and the hosting that they’ve been doing of refugees from Afghanistan and kind of hitting the limits of what that hosting had, the impact that it’s had on the economy and on the society.

But just to give a little bit of an insight into the numbers, the categories that make up that big number, the countries that are providing sort of refuge for refugees and those who were forcibly displaced and the UN refugee agency then working in all of those places, DR Congo, horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, places that we can get into as our remarks continue. But that’s a little bit of a sort of stat check, Whitney, in terms of where we are active.

Whitney Hosty:

Patty, I know you have a great tool on your website that I turn to regularly, looking at where you’re watching and where you’re currently active, but could you tell us a little bit about it?

Patty McIlreavy:

Yeah, so I would definitely encourage everyone on this webinar, if they’re interested in what we’re watching, to subscribe to our email. It’s weekly, comes out and tells you what we’re looking at. That doesn’t mean we’re responding to all of those. We are an intelligent intermediary, which is what we call ourselves in terms of being there in service to philanthropy. So, we don’t necessarily stand up a fund for everything you’re going to hear about, everything that might be there because philanthropy may not be giving substantial dollars to that location, or they may not be looking to us as a conduit for that location. So, for example, on refugee settings, I’m sure a lot of organizations would know USA for UNHCR, and they would just go directly to USA for UNHCR. They would need to go through us, but we try and be an option for donors who aren’t sure where to go or want to get more local and want to get as local as possible.

While we are a 501(c)(3), we give to a lot of non-501(c)(3) in our giving. I think our current statistics are about 60 to 70% of our funding for this year alone is going out to local grassroots organizations. On the domestic side, it’s even higher. And so, just to give you an idea of our numbers, last year, we gave out 28 million to through 170 grants and 99 grantee partners, and we’d be looking at… In our 13-year history, we’ve given out 123 million to 676 different nonprofit grantee partners. So, we have an enormous scope of organizations with whom we work, but sometimes we only work with them once because maybe that state was hit that one time, right? So, we are not necessarily repetitively giving to the same organizations. We really follow where the disasters are and where philanthropy is looking to give.

If you go onto our website, you’ll see the different funds we’ve stood up. Again, we give advice beyond these funds. If a donor wants to come to us and say, I really want to assist with typhoon, sorry, Storm Ciarán in Italy, while we haven’t stood up a fund for that, we can probably point you in the direction to help you for that. So, it’s about trying to nuance that. We don’t see the need to always stand up something if there’s not a huge donor interest there. So, we have international funds, and we have domestic funds, and we have, so for example, as I mentioned already, we have a tornado fund, we have Atlantic hurricane season, we have wildfires, we did something for Hawaii. Those are all US-based funds. But we also have a generic one called the Domestic Recovery Fund, and that’s where we try and support some smaller-scale disasters happening in the United States that people haven’t heard of.

I don’t know if those on the call know this, but there’s an incredible amount of billion-dollar disasters. The US keeps breaking record after record. I was speaking at an event last week, and I said, I think we have to stop using the word unprecedented because, at the moment, we are just constantly breaking records that we had never thought we would ever break before. And so that’s something to keep in mind. We also have an early recovery fund. We’re actually looking to rename that to a low-attention disaster fund. The early recovery fund is our primary fund for 10 states in the Midwest. And that is because in the Midwest, we have recognized, and through one donor’s strong support, that there are an enormous amount of crises that are existential to communities, to villages and towns that if we don’t provide some level of funding, we’ll cease existing. But they’re not even making national news, much less state news. And so, we have a staff that tracks those disasters and invests in community solutions within those disasters to try and get people to stay in place to try and get them to recovery they require for their future. So that’s on the domestic side.

On the international side, you’ll see more of our assistance is what we would call complex humanitarian emergencies, which is what Suzanne was speaking about, where people are on the move, often due to conflict or large-scale disasters. So, we have, as I mentioned, the Israel-Gaza Relief and Recovery Fund. We normally only do recovery, but when the disaster is so large, we will at times have a relief component to it, as we did with COVID, we decided on that for Israel-Gaza. As we all know, that the terrifying news that’s happening at the moment in relation to just the devastation for both the Israeli and Palestinian people at the moment. The Global Recovery Fund is our generic fund that is there for putting funding in similar to our domestic one, just in those smaller scale disasters that people maybe don’t make the bigger news, but they want to give. And we have a mechanism in which they can give to us, and we will program that out. We also have a global Hunger Crisis fund. We have a Turkey and Syria earthquake, so lots of different funds that you can explore depending on where your interest lies. And that’s where, as I said, if you look at what we’re watching, it gives you an idea of what are some of the things we’re addressing and exploring and looking at. We really have. We try and not, as I said, just stand up for the purpose of standing up a fund.

We really want to be there where we feel philanthropy, believe they have an effort, a change that they can make through scale, and we try, and stand up and be responsive to that. But as I said, we try and also be attentive, if there are smaller needs, to be a servant to philanthropy in that.

Whitney Hosty:

Great. Patty, can you help us understand the difference from your organization’s standpoint between relief and recovery? How are those two parts different? And is there something that happens at all of a sudden, switches between the two phases?

Patty McIlreavy:

Well, I would say no. I would say in the past, we’ve always thought there was a timeline. Okay, this time happens, and suddenly, woo, things change. I was operational for over 17 years. There’s no time. There’s no magical time when things adjust. What I see as relief versus recovery is the approach you take. Relief is kind of when we’re coming in as experts, and we’re telling you a community, “We know what you need. We’re here while you catch your breath. Here’s your warm meal. Here’s your plastic sheeting. Here are maybe some food. Here’s educational supplies. We’re here to help, and we’re kind of determining for you what you need because you’re in shock. You’re in flight or flight.” Recovery is about sitting with the community and saying, “What do you need? How do we help you?”

I’m just going to build on Suzanne’s example for COVID. So, relief was “here’s a mask, here’s some antibiotic lotion, here’s practices you can take to keep yourself safe,” really kind of those immediate needs that we had. Recovery is, “here’s a vaccine that will actually allow you to get back to your life and here’s addressing the digital divide and the psychosocial crisis your children are having.” It’s about trying to look at what is the longer-term needs for your community for you as an individual. And what’s really important within the recovery mindset to recognize is it’s not homogenous. Relief, we often give out. It’s one thing. Everybody gets the same thing. Maybe there’s some adjustments for certain vulnerable categories, such as women or children, some adjustments. But recovery, you have to be open to the fact that what I need isn’t the same as what Suzanne needs. It’s not the same as what Whitney needs.

We have to be adjustable and adaptable. And again, using that COVID example, think about your own block during COVID. So again, you’re not talking about huge socioeconomic or geographic spreads and cultural distinctions, just the people on your block. And I guarantee you, if you went and took a survey of everyone on your block, they had something different that they wanted to get out of the pandemic. Some of them, it was just pure and simple, “I want the vaccine. I want to go back to being outside with people.” But for some it was like they had to lose their job because their childcare became a complication, so I had to quit. So now, suddenly they have an economic distress. Or they have a family member, elderly or another who was sick, and they have to… “What is the relief for them? How am I going to find the solution for them medically?” Or they have a child who was falling further behind from school, or they had internet issues and they didn’t have the digital knowledge to support their child or to support their job. We all had different things, and it actually wasn’t about one solution.

It wasn’t like, “Here’s a warm meal. It’s fixed.” It was like, actually, “This is going to take more than you giving me something. This is actually, I need you in partnership with me as I progress from this moment of trauma or disruption into a moment of where I actually feel I’m now back or better than I was before this happened to me.”

Whitney Hosty:

Now, I’d like to dig a little deeper into your organization’s work in this space. Specifically, I’d like to learn more about how your role fits into that bigger picture in that collaboration. We heard some about public, private and governmental sectors. How do your organization and philanthropy come towards this work? And how do you partner? Suzanne, let’s hear from you, and then we’ll pass it over to Patty.

Suzanne Ehlers:

Great. Thank you for that. I just will say that, building on that last set of questions around relief and recovery, and how unfortunately, there is sort of the merging of the two worlds and that we see so many protracted crises, I think we think of emergencies and urgent response, and of course, I’ll tell you a little bit about what that role looks like for the UN Refugee agency. But if we have protracted crises around the world, which is sort of five consecutive years, at least 25,000 refugees, 76% of all refugees are in protracted situations. So, they’ve been in these places for at least five years. Sometimes we’ll have generations that are growing up in camps, multi-generational families that are living in these sort of situations where their hopes of returning home are sort of slim to none. And so, then where is the emergency response?

When does it transition to a longer-term response? And so, to your question, Whitney, the role of the organization and what we do, I think of it in a couple of different buckets, if you will. The first is sort of what we’re best known for, and that’s the first 72 hours. We’re on the ground, the blue vests. Up until the most recent conflict in Israel and Gaza, often very few lives lost on the UN side of things. I think unfortunately, many on the call will know that over 100 UNRWA colleagues have been killed in the conflict over this last month plus. But it really is that sort of humanitarian response supported by the United Nations, broadly speaking, and the UN Refugee Agency is there. We’re assessing the situation. We are absolutely partnering with the government right from the start to assess where a humanitarian safe space can be because if we’re going to be sort of welcoming in or inviting in tens of thousands of people, you’ve got to figure out a place in your country where those people can be settled, where camps can be set up, and where the distribution of food and essential supplies can take place. We know that sometimes those locations then end up, of course, turning into long-term settlements for people, but that’s the first 72 hours.

We’re also deploying, and Patty spoke to this earlier around crisis response experts. So that’s everyone who is looking to do legal protections. They’re doing intake, they’re doing family registrations, they’re making sure that families can stay together as housing and different temporary shelter things are set up. We are transferring funds to the UNHCR operation in that country so that they can make and pay for the response in really those first hours and days after a crisis has happened, whatever it is that is forcing so many people to be displaced and on the move.

And the partnership with government, it’s important that you say that. Everywhere that I’ve been for the UN Refugee Agency this last year, I have been really, I should say, impressed at how well-leveraged those relationships are. So, from my time in Bangladesh to my time in Mexico to my time in Ethiopia, different countries, different types of relationships, different responses from the government, but in every instance, the UN Refugee Agency partnering with the government and saying, “Where is your response begin and end? And where can our response begin and end?” Thinking of Ethiopia, every site that I visited, we had our Ethiopian government partners with us, really appreciative and supportive of the UN Agency response that was a compliment, and it was filling in the gaps that the government couldn’t get to on its own. So, getting to your question of where are the different roles played.

That’s really sort of my second bucket of the response, is after that emergency, and on those first 72 hours, then we really do begin to do a longer-term sort of assessment of roles. And this is often done in partners. So, to the question earlier around grassroots groups and strategic program partners, let’s remember that the UN Refugee Agency doesn’t do all of this on our own. We are funded by governments and by the private sector to have the response in partnership with groups like IRC, groups like Save the Children, and local groups who are doing the provision of education and livelihood services. So, it’s really a comprehensive response. And after those first 72 hours, as we start to sort of assess with the government, how long are we going to be here and how many people will we be serving and supporting, then you’re pulling in your program partners to help really provide a comprehensive and holistic response, mental health, wellbeing, all of the services.

I always say refugees and people who are on the move, they are just a collection of humans under really extenuating difficult circumstances. They need the same services that any of us need. They need school for their kids, they need healthcare. And so, making sure that we really have a full complement of partners to provide that. And then I guess the last thing I would say, just in thinking about the role, I started off in that really traditional space, the blue vests and the refugee camps that I think so many understand from kind of a global perspective, but let’s be clear that camps are only meant to be temporary facilities. Unfortunately, we know that sometimes they exist for much, much longer than they should. We have some massive camps around the world, and some of the names will be familiar to some of you on the call. We’ve got Kutupalong in Bangladesh. We’ve got Kakuma in Kenya. These are places that are hosting hundreds of thousands of people in what really should have only ever been temporary facilities. And trying to build in more notions of semi-permanence and permanence into those places is not always easy.

But the truth is, the vast majority of refugees are in cities. I think it’s upwards of 75%. So, three-quarters of all people who identify as refugees are in cities. And on the one hand, it gives those people a greater sense of agency, and a greater ability to live autonomously. We also know, though, that there are major challenges associated with that kind of urban living without the protections that a camp can provide. That’s shared accommodations, it’s sort of public buildings, its collective centers, it’s slums with really sort of substandard and inadequate living conditions. But the truth is that that’s where the vast majority of people who are forcibly displaced and on the move are actually finding themselves living, in urban centers without the same sorts of protections and accommodations that the UN Refugee Agency provides. So, a bit of a snapshot of what our response looks like and the role that we play in partnership with all sorts of sectors, but certainly the public sector and government in key places.

Whitney Hosty:

Patty, can you talk a little bit about how you work with the other sectors?

Patty McIlreavy:

Yeah. And this is such a good question, and I think it really comes down to different modalities of different types of agencies. We’re not operational, right? So, we are not working alongside governments and host countries where these disasters are being felt, though, of course, the US is our home, so we engage with the United States, with FEMA, HUD and some of the others as a representative of philanthropy to them. But our role is really different than it would be from an operational agency perspective in terms of government engagements. And philanthropy, they are our main partner. They are our stakeholder. We work very, very closely with all types of philanthropy, community foundations, family foundations, individuals, and corporate. We seek to be attentive, flexible and nimble to the different needs because philanthropy is not all the same thing. They all have different needs, require from us, different types of information of how to progress and how to advance, especially in terms of understanding what may be the pressures upon them, what they’re trying to achieve.

We look at how to engage and work with them. We, of course, have a really strong relationship with grantee partners because we do work with them. We pre-vet them, both for our own purposes in terms of our fund making, grant making, but also for assistance to donor-advised funds and others looking to cultivate client lists. Those who are looking to say, “Here are recommended organizations working in this crisis that you could support and that are vetted by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.” So, we have longstanding relationships with a lot of these grantee partners in terms of helping them just advance on their capacity, but also to continue to maintain relationships with them, so that if a disaster were to occur, as unfortunately some of these places, they’re quite cyclical, that we have that relationship already preexisting with them. So, our team does quite a bit with them in terms of that.

We also are exploring working with affinity groups. There are a lot of other philanthropy-serving organizations or membership organizations that are members of affinity for philanthropy. So for example, last week, I was just at Philanthropy Southeast, their conference, and just kind of looking at what are the specific issues that geographical regional philanthropy may have compared to others, and how do we engage with them effectively? So, we try and stay very attuned to what’s happening within philanthropy and what their needs are from us in terms of their communications. So that’s, I think primarily where our partnerships lie.

And the corporate side, we have a few relationships that can vary as well, greatly in terms of whether it’s a corporate foundation, whether it’s a foundation that’s actually very strongly connected and still into the business side of the company, engaging with them and having different types of partnerships. Sometimes it’s about preexisting grant drawdowns towards us, or it’s about standing us up as a partner. I know USA for UHCR has similar relationships in terms of that checkout change-up type approach.

We have a couple of different relationships, and we try, again, to be very responsive to our clients’ needs. And our clients are philanthropy, so what do they need from us? And how do we address them and help them become a more effective disaster philanthropist?

Whitney Hosty:

I know many of the donors that we work with, and we see these terrible things happening out in the world, and we want to try to make a difference, and we may make a contribution towards supporting this. But then the head comes into play too, in addition to the heart, and thinking longer term, what impact are these contributions having within organizations? And Patty, I really loved your term intelligent intermediary because it is a great description of your work. But also, in that role, I can imagine it’s not super easy to always be able to tell the impact of the funds that are being distributed. Could you both talk a little bit about the kind of impact and measurement, and how you calculate that and track that within your organizations?

Patty McIlreavy:

Suzanne, if it’s okay, I’ll go first on this. This is such an incredibly complicated answer because I think… I’d like to say it’s a difficult question, but it’s actually an easy question. The answer’s more complicated. What we talk about at CDP is if you really want to make a difference in communities, and you have found grantee partners that you believe in, and that you trust and you vet it, we have to trust them. We have to trust them to know the solutions, and we have to trust them to actually do the work. And by many ways, by trying to ensure that we have an impact in a short timeframe that we can see a result, it drives all the kind of negative practices that we’re trying to get beyond, right? We don’t want to do handouts, but if you’re telling a grantee partner, I need to see the impact, that drives them towards handouts because the impact is often more nebulous.

A community rising up, a community better, being better prepared, a community, having an equitable recovery or addressing root causes, it’s harder to quantify that. It’s harder to see that, and that’s where it’s a longer term kind of commitment. And so, we often advise philanthropy is, yes, we should be effective. We do evaluations of ourselves to make sure we are effective, that our grantee partners are effective, definitely that. But by seeking impact, we’re saying that’s centering yourself in your giving. And I understand it. It’s a natural tendency, but we’re trying to advise philanthropy center the dignity of the community, center their choices, and do the hard work in advance to know that you’ve chosen the right organizations that work for you, for your strategy, for your values, for your mission, and then give to them and let them do what they’re the expert in doing.

And that’s hard, giving that control up, but that is what, time and again, has proven as having the greatest impact. And so how do we get to more comfort in them? By being creative, by allowing more creative funding, by allowing organizations cash, giving them cash, because cash changes on the way. You look at the Turkey and Syria earthquake, and everyone was like, “They need blankets. Winter’s coming.” Well, I hate to tell you, but by the time you resource those blankets and you flew them over there, winter was over. And now you’ve spent all this money in your country and in someone else’s error costs where you could have just sent all that money as cash, and the Turks and the Syrians would’ve been able to say, “Actually, what we need is this, and we can buy it locally. And we’re infusing money into the economy, into our economy that’s been affected. We’re hiring people who’ve maybe lost their jobs. We’re giving flexible money. This person needs food. This person needs a blanket. Yes, maybe they need a blanket. This person needs something else.” And that impact is they are in control. They have agency over their future. And your impact is you are there with them. You’re the wind beneath their wings. And that wind is hard to capture, but it sure makes a difference, and it will help these communities fly. So how do we get people being comfortable being wind? That’s hard. But that’s where at CDP, we really try and encourage people to move away… Of course, we can give you stats, and we can give you some information, but to move away from that is your primary driver and what you’re looking for. And instead, look at the hard work in advance, and then trust them to do their job.

Suzanne Ehlers:

Beautifully said. And I would just, on that last part of cash-based assistance, there’s a number of UNHCR programs around the world, different countries, different locales where cash-based assistance in that cash-based interventions. We could talk about it for hours. So just to say, I want to put a plus one on that, Patty. I think it’s a really important point to make.

Whitney, when you asked about impact, I sort of thought of two things. For me, there’s the story of the impact that I have born witnessed to, that its response. The camps are there, and you walk through a refugee camp. And even though it may not be always the most inspiring or easy place to be, the truth is that people are safe, and that people are tranquil with their families, and they have found peace, and they have found freedom from the persecution and violence from which they fled.

That is sort of impact. I’m sitting in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and I’m talking to a 13-year-old girl. And through an interpreter, I say, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and she says, “I want to be a pilot.” That’s impact, the idea that she is sort of in a head space and in a place of learning and possibility and curiosity, that living in a refugee camp with such limited mobility, and you would think such limited options for what’s next for her, and she still says, “I want to be a pilot.” That’s impact to me. I was in Mexico, in northern Mexico, with an integration program, something a little unusual that the UN Refugee Agency has supported. And it’s really getting those who are on the move from Central America who don’t even make it to the US border, who actually stay in northern Mexico and are employed by these factories in partnership with the Mexican government.

A woman who had fled kind of unspeakable violence in Central America who’s now stitching upholstery on a car seat in an automobile factory, and she’s like, “my kids are in school, and everybody’s tranquil, and I’ve got this gorgeous little dog,” that is a story of impact that goes well beyond what we would be able to capture sort of time and time again in the pages of an annual report. That said, I also sort of want to point out, and Patty, you said this is sort of hard but easy, the story of impact for the UN Refugee Agency also has to be tailored to the different markets and to the countries. And so, I would say an American donor, and all of you on the call may feel like this really resonates with you, American donors are hungry for a particular kind of impact story. They like a story of innovation. They like a narrative that talks about sort of a new reality or a new set of future opportunities for an individual.

We work closely with the refugee agency to make sure that with all the quantitative and qualitative data that they’re collecting, that we are then sourcing what we most need for our market and our community that sort of gives back the value and principles-based giving that we were able to put forth for UNHCR. So, sort of a different kind of answer, but sort of always thinking about impact and always thinking about durable solutions, long-term futures, how the narrative and welcoming and… The welcoming nature of host communities’ changes, that’s a narrative that I pay attention to that I think has an impact on the long-term kind of viability of these sorts of responses and resources. So I’ll pause there because I know we don’t even have that much time, but that’s a great story about impact that I’d love to follow up on.

Whitney Hosty:

Yes, thank you. Before we move to questions, I have one more question because I love those stories and examples, and I really think they say so much about your work. Before we move on to questions from the participants, could you tell us a little bit more about where have you seen your work succeed in helping people’s lives come back together or communities to recover? Could you maybe just give us a couple more stories, anecdotes, or examples?

Suzanne Ehlers:

Patty, I got to tell two stories already? Do you want to go first, and then I’ll come in with another one or two? I have so many.

Patty McIlreavy:

That’s fine. I think for us, we do these trips, we call them shoe leather philanthropy, where we get out there and we meet with communities and hear from them directly. And what’s amazing to me is some of the work we do is it’s actually not that expensive for some of the impacts we can have in terms of within communities. For example, in South Dakota, assisting with disaster case managers. So someone from that local community who gets trained up to be basically a translation service for FEMA and HUD, because a lot of our restrictions, our rules, our administrative regulations, they’re complex, they’re hard. They require you to have things you don’t have. And so how do we, basically through the salary of one staff member and training, reach an entire community and help them actually access funding that they deserve, that has been promised to them.

You see, FEMA denies 80% of all claims the first go. But if you don’t know that, you walk away. And if you have a distrust of the government already, you walk away without any of the funding that you actually deserve. We’ve also seen impacts through things like heirs’ property and generational houses that have been passed from person to person, generation to generation. No one knows where the deed is. And I was just in Mississippi a couple of weeks ago in Rolling Fork, where tornadoes tore through that town, and there are people who just had no idea how to prove their ownership of a house. Without proof of ownership of a house, you don’t have access to FEMA or HUD funding. So how do you actually get access to that? And that’s through legal assistance, but it has to be legal assistance that understands that community, that can work with them.

I see, again, talking to people who have actually now been able to claim their assistance and are able to get a support, they require, another programming I saw in Rolling Fork. It’s a church-based group that has raised so much funding that they’re actually piloting an innovative project. Rolling Fork was about 75% renters. A lot of the property was destroyed. There’s not enough insurance money or funding to actually make it viable for the landlords to rebuild. They just want to leave Rolling Fork. But that would be the end of Rolling Fork. So, this community church, through the funding they have, is piling an entire program to turn renters into homeowners. So, what they called it is generational poverty to generational wealth transitions. And they’re basically buying and building, buying land and building houses. And then through a whole series of trainings, exercises, equities, they are basically creating opportunities for these community for these prior renters, probably generation of renters, to become homeowners, to actually have something for themselves and their future and their children.

You see programs like that that are just massively just telling in the change that can come through just an ability to be creative, a willingness to kind of push against this norm of like, well, it’s a disaster. You lose everything, and you move on. And we saw this after Katrina. We’ve seen this one after another… We have refugees or displaced people in our own country. They are not able to return to their home. They have become impoverished even to another layer because now their community support has deteriorated or has diminished because of this crisis. So having programming that addresses that psychosocial support, childcare support, we’ve seen so many ways that our programs and the things that we fund, which are not necessarily the traditional sexy things, but they’re the things that make an enormous difference to communities. And I’ll give one last example of something we did during COVID because I think this really, for me, was an eye-opener.

Again, you introduced me. I’ve got almost 30 years of experience working in this sector, so very much an expert, subject matter expert. And we had a grant come across my desk for a census. So, you may not remember, but 2020 was not only the year of the pandemic, but it was also the census. I got this grant. We want to count people in our community. And I’m like, how is this related to the pandemic? How are we going to actually help people through counting them? And the response from this organization was incredibly thoughtful. They said, “The reason we are disproportionately impacted by this pandemic is because we don’t have the health services our community needs. The reason we don’t have the health services our community needs is because we’re not counted. If you want to help us recover from this pandemic, help us be counted, so in the future, we have the health services we need.”

It’s that kind of thinking where, again, you wouldn’t know if you don’t listen to the community. They’re the ones who will tell you what the real problem is and how to address it. And that’s where, for us, we funded them. We’re like, yes, of course. That’s great. And that’s where even the experts need to sometimes stop, actually not just sometimes, a lot of times, we need to stop, we need to listen, and we need to trust the community knows best their solutions. They may come to us and say, “Well, how does that sound?” You act as a sounding board, a brain trust, but at the same time, rely on them to come up with ideas that you maybe don’t think will work, but actually will work because that community will make them work.

Suzanne Ehlers:

Whitney, I’ll come in with just a few stories. If I can, I’ll make them quick. And they’re really just to imagine a face. The first one I can’t help but think of is in Bangladesh, not in Cox’s Bazar, but in Bhasan Char, which is sort of an isolated silt island where about 30,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees live, and went into an early morning sort of sewing class where some beautiful stitching was being done. And through an interpreter, I asked one of the young women in the class, “What does this livelihood program do for you?” We hear these wonky terminologies, livelihood. And she said to me, with this sly grin on her face, “What does it do for me? This is like the hour or two of the day where I am out of this sort of tiny little home that’s considered my only place to be safe. I’m away from my child because my family is required to care for them while I’m here. I’m sitting among a group of other women my age. We get to just sort of chatter and gossip to each other about how we’re solving sort of the daily problems.” The impact of a livelihood program on the life of this woman in a place where you felt so paralyzed with sort of lack of possibility, felt to me like a story of impact that I’ve clearly carried with me.

In Ethiopia, we visited the refugee leadership councils. So these are people who’ve been decision-makers in their countries, they’ve been elected officials in their countries, and they find themselves in a refugee camp in a foreign country. And they’re organized as part of this Refugee Leadership Council and giving me a list of 15, 16, 18 things that could be improved about the camps and could be improved about their conditions in that place. That story of impact is that the UN Refugee Agency, with its partners, has made that leadership possibility a reality for these individuals who’ve been displaced and who are seeking a new form of purpose and a sense of direction. And what an amazing kind of small and sort of, as Patty said, non-sexy intervention that ends up having kind of voice and impact well beyond.

Then the last one, this one’s really brief. A Honduran grandfather, who with a grandson on his knee, maybe 18 months old at most, said, “My grandson is Mexican. I’m a proud Honduran and I always will be, but I can’t raise my grandson in my country of origin. And I’m here in Mexico, and through UNHCR, this country has made this life possible and his life possible, and I’m proud to call him my Mexican grandson.” And so, this sort of marrying of communities and sort of culture in order to build possibility for this 18-month-old, it’s like a story of impact that the agency can take partial credit for with our partners in that community for making that a reality. It feels like a really impactful thing to measure and take note of.

Whitney Hosty:

Absolutely. Thank you both for sharing such powerful stories with us. We did have one good question that was submitted, and so I wanted to make sure we cover that before we wrap up. With the increase in natural disasters and humanitarian aid needs, we’ve seen a decrease in overall engagement in special fundraising appeals. Could this be from giving fatigue, distrust, social media activism? And this is thinking about specifically from kind of the corporate giving angle. Have you seen successful ways companies combat this through impact measurement, communication, etc.?

Patty McIlreavy:

I guess I would first say, is that true? Have we seen a decrease in giving? The increase in needs, the increase in appeals. Yes, we never meet the appeals, but there’s a massive increase in giving. Okay, we saw for COVID, 50 billion. I would’ve loved if we’d stayed at those numbers, but we have seen some relaxation of it. But I do think the philanthropic community needs to give itself some credit. You do an amazing job. Will we always be asking for more? Yes, we will. But I also want to put the numbers into perspective.

The current global appeal. Now, I’m not going to count Israel-Gaza on this because I haven’t redone my numbers, so I don’t know what the global appeals, including Israel-Gaza, the current global appeal could be covered for the cost of three Halloweens in America a year. Okay? Now, I’m nothing against Halloween. I’m not trying to take away people’s Halloween, but the needs globally are actually not as high as we think they are. They could be covered quite effectively without a huge impact on governments or philanthropic giving. If you think of, again, the equivalent of three Halloweens. And so that’s where, for me, in some ways, we have to shift the narrative. We have to make it less about where the gaps are and actually more about, actually, we are doing an incredible amount of good with what is going in. And yes, it’s not just one time of three Halloweens. It’s three Halloweens every year.

I get that it’s protracted, and we’re constantly looking for more, but this is where for CDP, our message is if we center humanity. People give for three reasons. They give because of the media, because of scale, and because of proximity. And if we could change the proximity narrative to be about centering humanity, all of us on this planet together, raising up each other and supporting each other, and looking at how for what is a relatively small amount of funds, we can make a huge difference, then I’m all in for that. And I will give yes to the question. There’s ups and downs for different organizations. There are times where they give to some and not to others. And so, at times, it can feel like that generosity is a roller coaster, and I would agree. For a lot of organizations, it is a roller coaster. Money is like a lamp or a lighthouse, it shifts to where the needs are, and people move, and that’s devastating for those on the other side of that receiving.

But I would say that if organizations that corporations center their mission and align and find organizations that they can support over that long haul, that’s always something we advocate for. Find the places where you can invest in for a long time and invest in them. And we can’t do it all, so give yourself some grace. If you can’t assist everywhere, and actually just make sure the places you are giving, you’re doing all you can.

Suzanne Ehlers:

That’s a great answer, Patty. And what I would add to that sort of from the company relationships and sort of corporate partnerships that we have, what I’ve seen work best, and my colleague Joanne will love that I’m using this phrase, this sort of idea of aces in their places. Bring your core competency to bear and provide your employees all sorts of opportunities, I think that’s sort of one way of getting past this sort of fatigue and distrust. So, for instance, as winter approached in Ukraine in 2022, a California shoe-based company called Bear Paw called us. And to Patty’s point earlier, gifts in kind aren’t always the right thing at the right time. In this instance, we had kids in Ukraine who were absolutely going to need high-quality shearling boots, and that’s what Bear Paw does. And then we called another company who does rapid shipment. They find extra cargo space on a plane, and they put those boots on, and they get it to where it can be distributed.

Employees then engage with such a sense of pride that their company, what they do best, which is to make boots, were on the boots of kids in Ukraine that winter keeping their feet warm. And then, through that employee engagement, and through that gift in kind, those relationships have deepened and broadened for us and for the UN Refugee Agency. There’s stickiness all across the relationship now because we started in an area where our core competencies were really sort of called into service if you will. And that, the proof’s in the pudding. Once you do that and you really see how gratifying it is to align your work and your values with this sort of philanthropic impact and it had opened the floodgates.

I have always said this since I’ve been a fundraiser in chief, which is basically the role of a CEO, there’s enough to go around. We leave so much charitable money on the table in this country. It’s all about collaboration and leveraging other people’s areas of excellence and expertise in pursuit of a shared greater good. And I think that just never gets tiring. I think that you can beat fatigue with that story sort of all the time if you work hard enough at it. So that’s my last intervention there.

Whitney Hosty:

Yes, absolutely. Well, thank you both so much for your time today. Unfortunately, our hour is up. I could easily spend at least another hour with both of you. But Patty and Suzanne, thank you so much. And I know that the work that you’re doing is not easy, but it is so, so important.

We thank all of you for listening in today as well. And for anyone who would like to discuss your grantmaking and how you might support disaster relief or help refugees, please let us know. Our team of philanthropic advisors would love to help you to connect to these organizations and others in the field. So, thank you, everyone, and have a great afternoon.

Patty McIlreavy:

Thank you so much.

Suzanne Ehlers:

Thanks so much everyone.