“Double Disaster”: What can global philanthropy learn from Australia’s consecutive bushfire and COVID-19 crises?

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Alexandra Williamson, Queensland University of Technology & Diana Leat, Independent Consultant and Visitor Professor at Cass Business School

If, as Oscar Wilde remarked, losing one parent may be regarded as a misfortune but losing two looks like carelessness, the same might be said of disasters. For Australian nonprofit organizations and philanthropic foundations scrambling to frame and action responses to the unprecedented damage caused by 2019-20 bushfires in four states, the advent of coronavirus seems worse than unlucky. But does Australia’s double experience of misfortune offer any useful insights?

While it is obviously too early for comprehensive national data on giving by individuals, corporates and philanthropic foundations, there are some key themes and reflections on the similarities, differences and challenges of Australia’s philanthropic response to disaster overload.

Unlike some disasters that happen almost instantaneously or with only a few days’ warning, both the bushfires and COVID-19 built over a period of months. Similarly, neither the bushfires nor COVID-19 could be simply ‘put out’ but had/will have to run their course (given our current state of knowledge on a vaccine). In another temporal dimension, both disasters require responders to think beyond immediate short-term response to longer-term recovery. Both disasters take a greater toll on those who are already disadvantaged, with a disproportionate impact on physical and mental safety, social and financial wellbeing. Lastly, both disasters restrict movement and access of and to people and resources. Nonprofit responders and funders cannot go into the field to observe and understand for themselves under COVID-19 lockdown conditions or bushfire emergency evacuations.

It is a truism that no two disasters are the same and there is no ‘normal’ disaster or crisis, but in the differences between the bush fires and COVID-19 there are potential sources of learning.

There are donor differences. The response to the bushfires was dominated by public appeals and individual giving, yet in Australia COVID-19 has not seen an outpouring of public generosity as yet. Likewise, social media and celebrities played important roles in bushfire response, but not to date with COVID-19 in the Australian context. It will be interesting to see if this changes – or has compassion fatigue and perhaps disillusion set in?

There are geographic differences. The bushfires were mostly in three states (VIC, NSW, SA), whereas COVID-19 is national but dominated by NSW. COVID-19 is concentrated in urban areas, whereas the bushfires were in regional and rural areas. In Australia, regional areas are to date far less affected by COVID-19 and local travel restrictions are designed to keep it that way; not least because regional health infrastructure is smaller.

There are environmental differences. The bushfires were viewed as a natural, environmental disaster (although human-amplified through links to climate heating). COVID-19 is being viewed as a human-generated (and human-amplified) disaster. Further, the bushfires impacted iconic Australian animals (cute and furry mammals), while COVID is associated (whether correctly or not) with rather less-appealing bats and pangolins (apologies to pangolin-lovers).

There are demographic differences. COVID-19’s impacts are so far greatest on older people and those with underlying health conditions (and perhaps those more affluent through its spread via international travel). Bushfire victims were all ages and generally probably less affluent. But COVID-19’s impact has very quickly extended to those at risk through the effects of lockdowns, on financial security and potential domestic abuse across classes.

There are economic differences. The bushfires were contained in their impact, meaning that those unaffected could give to those affected. During COVID-19 we are all – rich or poor – affected by economic recession (although to varying degrees of immediacy), certain to get worse steadily via unemployment, lower pensions, business collapse, and public sector cuts. COVID-19 flow-on effects are exposing much bigger and deeper economic inequalities. The bushfires require a state and national economic recovery, COVID-19 will require a global economic recovery.

There are duration differences. Bushfires are in some ways a known quantity – Australia and other countries have done it before and broadly know the timeline of effects and consequences. Bushfires’ effects are capable of being understood and dealt with (even if wrongly). Broadly things are ‘put back the way they were’ by rebuilding homes, premises and community facilities, instituting better fire precautions, and buying essentials for individuals and families. COVID-19 is unknown in scale and seemingly endless in its ramifications.

There are differences in government(s) funding support. During the bushfires the focus was on growing government support for direct service provision in the form of firefighters, equipment, evacuation transport and shelters. In Australia government support during COVID-19 to date has been interventionist and also unpredictable, with confusion between states and between state and federal governments, as well as uncertainty about what will follow regarding social provision. Yet COVID-19 funding support schemes have been more widely and clearly publicised and targeted.

So, to what extent did the bushfires prepare philanthropic organisations for COVID-19? In Australia fires and floods are, sadly, very predictable. But does preparedness and relationship-building with actors and stakeholders help in responding to the needs of nonprofits and charities in a pandemic?

Let’s start now to identify the questions and challenges for Australian and global funders and nonprofits over the coming months and years:

Q1: Are any funders looking specifically at those communities that have had a ‘double hit’ from both disasters? Or is there little overlap?

Q2: Considering the importance of speed over ‘getting it perfect’, how do we think about, understand and frame what constitutes ‘impact’ under crisis conditions?

Q3: Who else is doing what, to meet what – and whose – needs? During the bushfires philanthropic giving focused on ‘community recovery’ but arguably COVID-19 has been a demonstration of ‘community strength’ (however deep this turns out to be), so what is the role of philanthropy?

Q4: How should donors balance their desire to support current and previous grantees with anxiety about giving money to nonprofits whose survival may be in doubt, regardless of a grant?

Q5: Exactly how far will foundations go? Will they dip into their corpus, increase grant distribution rates, refocus their grantmaking on a single geographic area or a specific issue, spend down and close, or take other measures outside the usual foundation ‘playbook’?

Q6: How do you distribute money ‘fairly’ in a pandemic, where there are so very many victims (direct and indirect), as opposed to in a disaster such as bushfires where it is at least possible to determine those geographic areas most directly affected?

Lastly, let’s not overlook the importance of generosity and giving as an act of conviction and hope, nor forget the power of money to relieve suffering in the short-term.

This is one case when ‘making the same mistake’ twice can hardly be dubbed ‘carelessness’ but if philanthropy starts to reflect on and learn from its experiences in responding to disasters it may make the next one that little bit easier to bear.

Alexandra Williamson and Diana Leat have contributed papers to NVSQ on philanthropic foundations.

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