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Planning for Disaster: Creating a Corporate Response Strategy Before Disaster Strikes

NYC OEM Ready Ad – Winging It (credit:

If you’ve lived in New York City, you’ve likely seen the NYC Emergency Management  ‘Winging It Is Not An Emergency Plan’ advertisements lining bus stops throughout the five boroughs. Designed to emphasize the importance of creating a disaster plan with your family, the poster hits the nail on the head of what, realistically, could happen when disaster strikes and there is no plan in sight: the dad grabs a broken flashlight, the daughter dead batteries. While meant to seem silly (the dog grabs the cat!) the message is clear; when disaster hits and you’re without a well-defined plan, all bets are off.

Now think about your company. For many of us, we spend a lot of time in the office. Estimates go as high as 90,000 hours of our time (or 1/3 of our lives) are spent at work. Like it or not, your teammates are an extension of your family. Considering the fact that natural disasters are on the rise – the average number of weather and climate events like hurricanes, floods and wildfires has nearly doubled in the past five years– not having a strategic plan in place for your company before the storm hits seems remiss, if not negligent. In fact, disaster response is now included among the top five issues most likely to be addressed through community involvement efforts[1].

So, what can you do? Make a plan – don’t let your coworkers grab broken flashlights and dead batteries! Here are some concrete ways CSR practitioners can create a strategic, thoughtful approach to disaster preparedness and relief:

  • Decide what stage(s) of disaster response your company will focus on. Disaster relief is most often defined in three stages: preparedness, relief, and reconstruction. When determining how to best support, take time to assess the strengths of your company and employees, and consider the general needs of the communities where your people work and live. Based on your company’s assets and the skills of your people, how can you make the most impact? One of our former clients, a leading water technology company, offers aid across all three stages. Through tips, guidelines, and step-by-step plans, they equip their employees and stakeholders to prepare for the inevitable, helping ensure they’re ready to protect themselves and their communities in a disaster event. When disaster does strike, together with their trusted disaster relief partners, they leverage their manpower, expertise, and technology to swiftly address the acute needs of affected communities. In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, they deployed critical water pumping technology and after the Midwest flooding earlier this year, they provided basic life necessities to those in need. Using their business strengths and the skills of their people, the organization makes a significant impact at each stage of disaster response.
  • Amp up your corporate giving. It’s hard to comprehend the breadth of damage that comes with a natural disaster. In 2018 alone, the estimated total cost of disaster relief was just about $91 billion. Following an event, donating cash to a trusted disaster relief organization is the most needed and efficient way to help those impacted, and over the past few years we’ve seen companies rise to the occasion, with more than 70% of companies now organizing a giving program around disaster relief[2]. Following the tragic events of 2017 (including Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, and the Las Vegas shooting), the business community donated over $426 million in support, and this doesn’t even include in-kind donations. If realistic for your organization, set aside funds to be used specifically for disaster response. You can also lean on the generosity of your people by engaging your employees (and customers, if applicable) in a matching gifts program. Of those 70% of companies that offer an official workplace giving program for disaster relief, 66% also offer a match[3]. Following that same string of disasters in 2017, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation matched all employee donations over $1, resulting in Bank of America and its employees committing over $5 million to support impacted communities that year[4]. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Verizon set up a text-to-donate program through the Mobile Giving Foundation, leading to Verizon customers donating $1.8 million[5]. Diversifying your disaster relief corporate giving strategy will help maximize your impact and ensure your employees and customers feel involved in your efforts.
    • Consider affected employees in your giving plan. One way to do this is to set up an employer-sponsored employee relief fund, so you can provide timely charitable financial support to employees affected by disaster[6]. In 2017, with funds raised through the KPMG Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund, the firm chartered an airplane to relocate half of the San Juan office, including families and pets, to Florida. Now that’s taking care of your employees!
  • Leverage your best asset. The donation of your people’s time and talents is invaluable – harness their energy and willingness to help. While on-the-ground volunteering should really be left to experienced professionals and trained volunteers in the immediate aftermath of a disaster (we urge passionate employees not to self-deploy without being assigned by a response organization), volunteer efforts in the preparedness and recovery phases are key to maintaining and rebuilding communities. Whether providing employees with post-event volunteer opportunities through a trusted disaster relief partner or leveraging your employees’ skills to help disaster relief organizations better prepare for times of crisis, there are a number of ways you can help your people make a difference in the lives of the communities they care about.
  • Use what you’ve got. Beyond monetary donations and volunteering, figure out how to best utilize your products and services. When Hurricane Dorian struck the southeast seaboard earlier this year, Airbnb launched its Open Homes Program, which provides free housing to displaced residents and disaster relief workers impacted by hurricanes. Started in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, the Open Homes Program encourages people to list their properties that would otherwise be empty in an effort to help relief workers and evacuees find safe, welcoming places to stay. Similarly, the Carnival Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Carnival Cruise Line, offered relief to Bahamians impacted by Dorian using its Carnival Pride and Carnival Liberty cruise ships to deliver much needed food and relief supplies to Freeport, in Grand Bahama. From Hanes delivering clean underwear, to UPS chartering flights of supplies, companies helped those affected by Hurricane Dorian by leveraging their own services, commodities, and equipment.

We’ve seen a significant uptick in catastrophic natural and man-made disasters in the US, and it’s clear that companies need to think ahead in order to act quickly and effectively[7]. There is no one-size-fits-all approach – evaluate your giving budget, employee skills, geographic presence, and your products and services to create a disaster relief strategy that will guarantee your company, employees, and communities aren’t left in the dark.

[1]  BCCCC Community Involvement Study 2019

[2]  BCCCC Community Involvement Study 2019

[3]  BCCCC Community Involvement Study 2019

[4]  CECP Giving in Numbers 2018

[5]  CECP Giving in Numbers 2018

[6]  Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Corporate Guide to Disaster Response and Preparedness

[7]  Common Impact, Disaster Response: From Relief to Resiliency

About Leah Brody

Leah is a Senior Managing Director in Changing Our World’s Corporate Social Engagement Practice. With over ten years of philanthropy and corporate responsibility experience, Leah brings a strong background in program strategy and implementation, employee engagement, and communications to her […]