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Philanthropy in times of disaster: Beyond the emergency


Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

Philanthropy, beyond peak donation periods while the damage is being done, needs to address the enduring social and environmental challenges that affect a community or city after a disaster. This cannot be done through philanthropy alone.

The incredible campaign run by radio stations KFM and CapeTalk to raise funds for the Volunteer Wildfire Service involved in beating back the devastating Cape Town and other Western Cape fires has proved to be an important indicator of how people pull together in times of crisis and disaster, not only volunteering time and effort, but also their financial resources.

As I listened to the radio, I heard children donating their pocket money, sports people and celebrities publicly pledging money, small businesses coming to the party, along with large corporations that challenged their clients and customers to contribute. Besides money, all kinds of resources were provided such as food, shelter, water, medical assistance, blankets and clothing.

There are few things that attract the public’s attention more than natural catastrophes such as the tsunami in 2004 that affected14 countries and killed over 200,000 people. Every news channel carried coverage and stories of their own nationals trapped in such a dangerous situation. There was a rallying cry across the world and money poured in to assist the victims. In Cape Town, the fires galvanised the whole community. We have read stories in the media about the incredible bravery of the fire fighters, the loss of homes and the death of wildlife. The fundraising campaign launched by the radio stations had reached over R3-million at time of writing.

What focused the public’s mind was the level of disruption to the whole city – whether it was road closures, the evacuations, changes to the route of the Cape Town Cycle Race, the scare of dense smoke – all of us were affected. The more this was highlighted in the media, the greater our concern. However, as the common danger subsided, so too did the news and, while donations were made for the emergency, we are frequently left without the resources to contribute to recovery.

The great outpouring of financial gifts to contain the danger can only be commended, but for those who would like to play a constructive philanthropic role, it would be necessary to explore what would be required to sustain the momentum of reconstruction and recovery and how to ensure that all the elements of damage have been contained. This entails going beyond the initial emotional reaction to reach a point of effective strategic philanthropy; it means exploring what is required to ensure resilience in the medium term including, in Cape Town’s case, environmental and species recovery, road- and mountain-side repairs such as will be required on Chapman’s Peak as well as the welfare of wild animals and their restoration in the national park.

Cape Town also suffers from regular shack fires in our informal settlements. We have a history of floods and even the odd earthquake. How do people reconstruct their lives without assistance? The urgent help with blankets, clothing, food and shelter is very short term. They provide for immediate succor. While government has some capacity to assist in the medium to long term, it can take years to rebuild homes and schools, to restore and regenerate the flora and fauna of our natural environment and re-establish the lives of those who have been at the core of a disaster. What about counselling for firefighters and people who lose their homes? Do we consider assistance with employment or often, as we hear, replacement of precious ID books, drivers’ licences and birth certificates that might go up in flames?

Philanthropy, beyond the peak donation period while the damage is being done, needs to address the enduring social and environmental challenges that affect a community or city after a disaster. This cannot be done through philanthropy alone, but one of its key strategic roles is to provide leverage and to serve as a source of convening power to encourage engagement by the corporate sector and other stakeholders. Philanthropy can galvanise others to devise long-term recovery efforts.

The wonderful KFM and CapeTalk campaign saw many individuals and companies make a valuable contribution, but we need to sustain this energy as people’s lives and our spectacular environment needs to be rebuilt and rehabilitated. DM


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