Organizing a Response:  The Immediate Aftermath of a Natural Disaster

Natural disasters are never expected and extremely difficult to watch from afar. Students often want to organize a response to these tragic events and the following document will help you lead a group of university faculty, staff and students through how to respond directly after an event.
Get the right people in the room for a first meeting
You want to be sure you are drawing on all resources  possible across campus. Invite any concerned students, faculty or staff, strategically targeting particular centers, departments, etc. as appropriate for the location of the disaster. Don’t forget para-university partners like the Princeton In’s (Princeton in Asia, Princeton in Latin America, etc.).
Once assembled:

  • Set aside time at the beginning for people to express their fears, concerns, prayers for those involved and affected by the disaster.
  • Appoint a note-taker you can trust to do a thorough job. Pass around a sign-in sheet and email notes to all who attended the meeting.
  • Lead a brainstorming session with the following goals for the assembled group:
    • Identifying disaster response organizations. This can be time-consuming, difficult and complicated, and you will likely want to quickly task a subgroup with this mission (see Identify Disaster Response Organizations). Should you establish that donations are being accepted, you will need to:
      •  Educate folks on the University’s limitations of charitable donations (see Cash Donations and the University).
      • Create a donation website (see Online Donations).
    • Creating and sponsoring events for mourning/praying/remembering and donation collection if applicable
    • Divide tasks and assign them to folks – Students will likely want to and can act as point people, but it can be useful to have a staff person helping them in that task as well.

Identify Disaster Response Organizations
This is where making sure the right people are in the room becomes very important. It can be very difficult to identify the right organizations. However, those who know the country well because of working there and native international students are a great place to start. You have to be careful to avoid nepotism in this choice. It will be much easier to choose just one organization because of the complications around donations explained below. When you lead this portion of the conversation use an unbiased guide like this one to help you avoid common mistakes and pitfalls. You will want to print it out before the meeting. Highlights include:

  • Making sure the country is receiving aid
  • Not gathering “things” to mail
  • Don’t earmark donations
  • Don’t support adoptions or evacuations of orphans
  • Take your time to choose!

You may, at the end of this process realize that the best way to offer support for an affected country or region is to raise awareness rather than money. In this case the Pace Center offers several suggestions and staff support for discerning what type of advocacy might be most effective and how to achieve it.

Cash Donations and the University
The University is a tax-exempt institution and is limited by law in transferring cash donations to other tax-exempt organizations. To facilitate cash donations, the Office of Religious Life (ORL) has a "chapel fund" which is exempt from this restriction. Funds must be deposited into this account in order to be passed on to an identified non-governmental organization (NGO) relief organization. The Pace Center business manager can assist with depositing funds into the ORL account, working with the ORL Finance Administrator to transfer the funds to the NGO designated for the donations. 

Online Donations
You can get permission from organizations like Indiegogo to use their online services without any charges for disaster relief fundraising. However, they will need account information from the relief organization that you may not have and that can be difficult to obtain. DO NOT START online fundraising without this information as you may find yourself in the position of having money to pass on with no ability to do so. If people gave money thinking it was going to a particular organization, you will have an ethical dilemma on your hands if you find that you cannot fulfill the task. Other types of donations (ex. Toothbrushes, blankets, flashlights, clothes) have little chance of getting to affected areas in a timely manner and often do not address the actual needs that exist. It is not advisable to hold drives for anything other than monetary donations.

For more information contact Program Coordinator Evan Schneider