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Philanthropy and Disaster Response

In this episode, in light of recent high-profile disasters in places like Ukraine, Afghanistan and Tigray, we take a look at the long-standing relationship between philanthropy and disaster response. Including:


  • The history of disaster response philanthropy: from 16th Century “charitable briefs” in response to fires and floods to the emergence of the Disasters Emergency Committee and the rise of celebrity-led disaster appeals
  • What has been the relationship between one-off disaster appeals and efforts to encourage regular giving?
  • How did fundraisers of the past use published donor lists to name and shame people into giving?
  • Has disaster response philanthropy always been a cross-border affair?
  • How has perception of victims of disasters shaped philanthropic response throughout history?
  • Why has slowness in distributing funds always been a source of criticism?
  • How have paternalistic and judgmental approaches to distribution led to to resentment and even riots?

Psychology & Economics

  • Why does the “identifiable victim effect” mean that it is often better to focus on individual stories rather than statistics?
  • Can giving people too much information about a disaster actually decrease their giving?
  • What is the “bystander effect” and why does it lead people to give less when in groups?
  • How does out perception of disasters as “natural” or “man-made” affect our willingness to give?

Current Context

  • Why is the Ukraine war receiving more attention than other disasters e.g. Tigray, Afghanistan? Is there a racial element?
  • Why do people prefer to give goods, and why don’t most NGOs want this?
  • Are donations of weapons philanthropy?
  • How are people using technology to disintermediate disaster philanthropy (e.g. “donating” via Airbnb,  giving cryptocurrency)? What concerns should we have?
  • Is it helpful to depoliticize disasters, or does it deflect attention from what is truly necessary to deal with some situations?
  • Can we ever shift from disaster response to long-term development and prevention?

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Learn from our past to better understand our future.

Philanthropy has a long and varied history. We’ve created bite-size chapters that you can jump in and out of to better understand philanthropy.