We are all disaster philanthropists now

By Chris Worman, Vice President at TechSoup


In late January, before COVID-19 dominated our newsfeeds and dictated our daily lives, Regine Webster, Vice President at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, authored a blog post titled ‘Raise Your Hand if You are Disaster Philanthropist.’ With her years of experience in disaster philanthropy, Regine is worth listening to. Whether or not you raised your hand on January 20th, it is probably time to do so now. 

For those new to disaster philanthropy, perhaps the main point to consider in Regine’s article relates to timing. As she points out, in the aftermath of a disaster, donations spike then drop as media attention wanes. The early influx of philanthropic resources is understandable. It’s human nature. People want to mitigate pain, put out fires, and do their part. Others want to capitalize on the moment, be saviors, and grab headlines. Regardless of motives, the initial generosity spike doesn’t leave much for or dedicated to recovery and getting back to the “new normal.”

This is worth thinking about in our current crisis. It is too early to understand the full impact of the current pandemic on society but with struggling healthcare systems, soaring unemployment, disrupted supply chains, mass online work, etc, it is clear that the effects of COVID-19 are going to be significant, widespread and long-term. It will be a part of the global collective memory.

TechSoup, for its part, has been thinking about how we can do our best and meet the needs expressed by thousands of NGOs attending a series of COVID-19-related webinars since the crisis began – many of whom run the risk of being relegated to secondary importance as we frame this crisis almost exclusively in terms of public health. In addition to more traditional health workers, small and medium-sized organizations used to working face-to-face on issues like home care for the disabled or elderly, reintegrating formerly incarcerated persons, and reducing family violence have been forced to reimagine their services digitally. After school programs for marginalized youth, arts organizations dependent on ticket sales, small business support organizations, and those working on the census and preparing for the 2020 Election in the US are struggling; both to survive and to serve. 

These organizations provide a safety net to many. They were part of our childhoods and will be there for us when we are too old to take care of ourselves. They will play an enormous role in reweaving our social fabric, healing our minds and reforming the community as we recover. They do not have tech support but need it desperately as they go online, thanks to a crisis that removes the possibility for us to exercise one of our most basic instincts in times of crisis – to come together. 

This motivated us to launch a COVID-19 Response Fund through which we will increase support for small social service organizations, provide access to technology tools and free support to help those we can in terms of timing, small social service organizations dealing with the indirect impact of COVID-19 need tech support now. We have partnered with other funds more focused on cash support to help with technology. Our response is timed to serve the immediate needs expressed by the NGOs, especially those related to unexpected technology costs as everyone is forced online. This in turn, will give us insight into how we can support through the recovery ahead. 

Which brings me back to Regine’s point about timing and raises another, perhaps equally important point to consider – leverage. True to form for a disaster, over the past few weeks there has been an outpouring of support for COVID-19 response; most of it going to the big brand organizations you would expect to show up if a disaster hit your community. Understandable. They can absorb large amounts of cash and are arguably a good first option. 

However, consider this – If you have $500,000 to give, would it go further contributing to a multi-billion dollar response that will surely do good sometime, somewhere; or would it be better to invest in something that is impactful but underfunded. For instance, in advocacy and lobbying to ensure some of the billions in government relief funds are accessible to civil society.  Would it be better to give directly through unrestricted response funds to organizations in need right now? Or would it be better, as hard as it may feel, to wait and work with communities through the months and years to come? 

Between timing and leverage, where will your funding go furthest? Where, when, to whom and how will philanthropy’s limited resources do the most good? These are difficult but important questions that have been asked before, often with no correct answer. Yet, they are worth asking again now. They are worth posing it to those who push us to do the fastest, easiest and most visible course of action. They are worth asking it to those who would counsel caution. They are worth asking because it would be a shame to look back on this and have to admit that though we did what we could, we knew we could have done better.

For us, leverage – which we see as the area of greatest potential based on our capabilities – relates to our reach to more than a million grassroots organizations across the world and extending the kinds of tech support we can provide to the community level. Our goal is to ensure small and medium-sized social service organizations are able to get online to the most appropriate and responsible extent possible; to ensure that, when it comes to technology, small organizations have a chance to continue serving their communities along the long road to recovery ahead. It is what we know how to do – leverages our skills and reach – and again, though it could have come faster, the timing is better late than never. We also need luck along the way. And we are learning and happy to learn with anyone working through similar questions.

In closing, please accept that I do not proclaim to have the answers to all questions I have raised. I’m not saying where or when you should deploy your resources. I would, however, challenge all of us to remember others have walked these paths and pondered these questions. It will be a waste if we don’t build on their learning and save time as we seek to find the right answer for ourselves, our organizations and our communities.



CP Chris Worman



Chris Worman

Vice President at TechSoup




TechSoup equips changemakers with transformative technology solutions and skills they need to improve lives globally and locally. Read more on their website: https://www.techsoup.org/

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