Disaster Resource Center

When disaster strikes

After natural disasters such as the series of hurricanes that hit the Caribbean and U.S. within weeks of each other in the summer of 2017, one of the biggest challenges is knowing how and when to respond—whether you need help or want to give it.

For those affected by Harvey or Irma and Maria, an essential guide of priorities and local resources in U.S. territories can help.

For those who want to provide support, “taking a few extra steps to act strategically will go a long way toward maximizing the impact of your donations in both the short and long term,” says Diane Whitty, Global Head of The Philanthropy Centre at J.P. Morgan. These steps include researching the charities you want to support, targeting your donations toward a particular interest, and being aware of special tax-code exemptions.

Think long term

“Disaster recovery happens in several phases,” says B.J. Goergen, a J.P. Morgan philanthropic advisor based in Texas.

Phase one is coping with the immediate, life-threatening aftermath of an event by providing shelter, water and medical care. But phase two is every bit as important: building back. That can take years, long after the news cameras and international attention have moved on.

“There’s a sharp drop-off in giving after six months,” Ms. Goergen says, “so we encourage donors to look at not just relief, but also long-term rebuilding efforts.” Many funds are aimed at long-term support, including charities set up by affected mayors and governors.

To increase your contributions’ effectiveness, pace yourself. “If you have a certain total in mind for giving, perhaps only give half of that now and hold back half for six months, when new needs will arise on the ground,” suggests Ms. Goergen.

Know your charity

To be sure you know the charities you are supporting, advises Ms. Goergen, look for registered charities with proven track records in disasters, if possible, and little or no overhead.

Other strategies to consider:

  • Look for groups with local connections. Charities involving local government and industry leaders may have an advantage in rebuilding quickly.
  • Align your contributions with your interests. Donors committed to protecting animals or environmentally aware development may select charities that align to their philanthropic interests in the rebuilding process.
  • Look beyond the major cities. Small towns and rural areas that attract less attention than large metropolitan areas may also lack big cities’ industry and economic resiliency.
  • Call those organizations you’re supporting to ensure their interests align with yours, particularly if you’re considering making a significant gift.

If you support a charity created specifically for a current crisis, take the time to assess its suitability based on such factors as:

  • quality of leadership and governing board
  • relationships with local government and other nonprofits
  • experience managing funds
  • ability to evaluate needs on the ground

Consider your tax implications

Any donations to qualified charitable organizations will be covered by standard tax rules controlling charitable deductibility. But federally declared “qualifying disasters,” such as Hurricane Harvey, are eligible for special IRS exemptions, says Tom McGraw, a tax specialist in J.P. Morgan’s Advice Lab.

In one growing trend, Mr. McGraw explains, many companies let employees exchange their unused sick leave, personal leave or vacation time for equivalent employer contributions to relief organizations. Employees aren’t taxed on these benefit waivers, and employers may deduct the contributions as business expenses.

Employers may also consider other tax options triggered by qualified disasters, including:

  • Employee Assistance Funds (EAF). If an employer creates a separate entity (fund) that receives formal tax exemption from the IRS, the employer’s contributions should be deductible, and assistance payments the fund makes to employees may be excluded from the employees’ income.
  • Employer-sponsored Donor Advised Fund (DAF). In the case of a qualified disaster, a corporation may establish a DAF to make grants to employees meeting specific objective, need-based criteria, broad beneficiary class definitions and independent selection committee requirements.
  • Employers may also establish corporate private foundations. Those meeting criteria similar to those for the DAF may make tax-deductible contributions that can make qualified disaster-relief payments to qualifying employees.

Employees facing personal hardships, such as flooded homes, can receive hardship distributions or borrow funds from their qualified retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, without penalty.

Engage with other funders

Sometimes private philanthropy can move more nimbly than government assistance. You may want to investigate collaborative or innovative organizations that complement or supplement the work of governmental and international organizations and corporations.

“The face and tools of global philanthropy are rapidly changing,” Ms. Whitty says. “Learning from past disasters and other experienced donors and organizations, as well as from data partners, can help define effective ways to give.”

Learn more about supporting relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

For information about strategic philanthropy and collaborative opportunities, we invite you to contact us and a J.P. Morgan representative will be in touch with you.

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