Maasai child in Amboseli KenyaDisaster relief efforts are designed to be immediate, focused and effective. People in dire need of help can’t afford to wait for bureaucratic organizations to set up relief teams or to have scarce resources misallocated to things which are neither urgent nor of the greatest importance. They need immediate help in specific areas, or things will get worse.

Nonprofits that focus on longer term issues (such as food security, poverty alleviation, human rights, or economic development) can learn important lessons from observing disaster relief efforts and should apply these to how they organize themselves and operate in the field. The objective is ultimately the same: to have as much positive impact as possible given the resources available.


Five things nonprofits should learn from effective disaster relief efforts:

1. Understand the Issue

Get a quick, firm grasp of the issue(s). Bring in people who are very close to the issue(s), as well as people who have different backgrounds and can raise considerations you might otherwise overlook. Know who to talk to and who has the insights to help guide efforts in the field. Establish priorities, balancing what is urgent with what is of greatest long-term importance.

2. Allocate Resources for Maximum Impact

Allocate resources according to the priorities established, and ensure the resources are available and accessible to the people in the field. Remember: issues aren’t solved simply by making resources available, but by knowing what needs to be done, how things need to be done, and investing resources accordingly. Be effective by focusing on the right things and efficient by doing things in a manner that minimizes waste. Focus on sustainable initiatives where possible, those that have a lasting effect and that can be taken over and “owned” by locals over time.

3. Communicate Clearly and Empower the Team

Communicate the organization’s mission and projects clearly, to external andinternal stakeholders. Do it consistently, to ensure everyone stays on the same page. Ensure board members and staff are all aware of the organization’s principles and ethical standards. Empower the “do’ers” of the organization to act and make necessary decisions in the field. If you work with partners (governmental, business or NGOs), share information(!) as it maximizes efficiency and reduces duplication of efforts or unnecessary delays.

4. Track Progress and Adapt Quickly

Keep tabs on project streams and track progress, learning what works and what doesn’t work. Quickly adapt accordingly to avoid wasted resources. Measure the real success of your organization by using impact measures (impact vs mission goals), activity measures (progress vs specific project goals), and capacity measures (required resources vs available resources)

5. Show Results and Continuously Advocate for your Cause

Keep donors informed about progress and success stories so that they can see the impact of their donations on the lives of those who need it the most. Out of sight is, sadly, often out of mind. If you do not advocate for your cause, donations and resources will be allocated elsewhere.


In short, disaster relief efforts achieve extraordinary results under extreme pressure, enormous complexity and tight timeframes. Nonprofits would be wise to observe them in action and apply relevant learnings to their own operations. At Coins for Change, we incorporate these learnings into how we work every day.