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If it seems like the world is suffering more disasters than usual, that’s because it is.
“We are in an unprecedented time,” says Matthew Bane, managing director of UNICEF’s New England office, noting that aid groups are now responding to four humanitarian catastrophes that the United Nations has classified as Level 3 emergencies, its most serious designation. These are in Iraq, Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Meanwhile, there are many other crises, such as the terrifying Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the flood of children pouring across the U.S. border with Mexico. “It’s beyond unprecedented,” says Mr. Bane. “Right now UNICEF and many others are stretched very, very thin.”
What can advisors do to help? “Speak up and take the initiative,” says Charlie Walsh, a principal at Federal Street Advisors who routinely helps clients with their global philanthropy. Ask clients: Is there a part of the world they particularly care about? Is there a crisis they’d like to alleviate? Are they familiar with non-governmental organizations providing on-the-ground responses or do they need help seeking them out? If they have a Donor Advised Fund, do they know they can use it to make emergency grants around the globe?
“Never be shy,” he advised. “Advisors just have got to speak up. They have to take the initiative. Clients are going to appreciate it.”
There’s a need. U.S. contributions to international affairs organizations totaled $14.93 billion in 2013, or just over 4 percent of the $335.2 billion given to charity that year, according to Giving USA 2014, a report published by the Giving USA Foundation. This was an inflation-adjusted 8 percent decline from 2012, compared to an overall 3 percent rise in total giving by individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations. Since 2009, the international affairs sector has “realized the largest decline in giving compared with all other types of organizations,” the report said.
Advisors can find resources by contacting or referring their clients to intermediaries and experts like the Center for Global Philanthropy at The Philanthropic Initiative, a Boston Foundation operating unit, says David Campbell, a Boston Foundation donor who founded All Hands Volunteers a week after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.
Web-based sources include a list of major responders compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations, CapitalforGood.org, InterAction.org, whose 180 member NGOs work in every developing country, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s website. Some advisors and their clients educate themselves by joining New England International Donors (NEID), a membership organization based at TPI.
“Each disaster is different, and what is needed changes pretty quickly,” he warns. “Major disasters have a multiyear impact. It’s useful for funders to be aware of that.”
Maggi Alexander, the new director of the Center for Global Philanthropy, concurs. “The philanthropic response is tremendously important at the time of crisis, and if funds are directed in the right way, they can have a huge impact,” she says. But she cautions that emergencies often cruelly highlight a pre-existing need for development and capacity building in the affected country. “While emergency aid is vital, long-term support is equally important,” she says.
The current influx of young Central Americans across the U.S. border is a case in point, says Daranee Petsod, president of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees. “It is currently a humanitarian crisis, but with very complex roots and equally complex solutions,” she notes. “Issues don’t resolve overnight. The way we look at it is that this is an entry point for a donor to learn about an issue. They’re responding to an emergency initially but they may find that learning more about the issue and all its complexity can lead to future involvement and grant making.”