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Beyond Disaster Relief: How Companies Can Run to the Rescue in ‘Silent’ Emergencies

Image credit: July Brenda Gonzales Callapaza

This summer came to a calamitous end with the rapid succession of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria and Nate, two earthquakes in Mexico, rampant wildfires currently raging across Northern and Southern California, and countless other natural and man-made disasters across the globe. With entire islands, cities and communities devastated beyond recognition and thousands of people losing everything, it’s a sad and sobering time.

It has me reflecting on the nearly 10 years I spent working for the United Nations’ first-responder disaster relief agency (WFP.org), responsible for engaging the private sector in and outside of emergencies. During that time, I was continually challenged to match the resources of the private sector with the needs created by a sudden onset emergency, and to do it in a way that was fast and effective.

I am heartened to see that more companies have emergency response plans that can be activated within hours and delighted that many companies stepped up in a big way during these recent disasters (among many, many others):

We Need More

There are too many companies to list and, thankfully, Puerto Rico and other affected areas are receiving an influx of support from companies and much-needed utilities to restore power and infrastructure. Yet as effective as this support is in meeting critical needs, what I really long for is for companies to also consider supporting what the UN calls “silent emergencies.” From the floods in Louisiana and mud slides in Sierra Leone to the ongoing drought in Sudan and millions of children who miss school because of poverty, there are constantly many equally devastating emergencies that are not covered by the media, receive little to no attention and lose out on critical funding. I want to see that change.

An abundance of research shows that employees and consumers want companies to genuinely engage in social and environmental issues. What better way for a company to demonstrate that its support is rooted in helping people and communities than to help with such “silent emergencies”? Natural (and, sadly, man-made) disasters are only going to increase. Therefore, aligning your corporate resources with your employees’ and customers’ locations and interests builds long-term trust and loyalty, while facilitating a deeper understanding of the community your company is serving, allowing your company to better anticipate your stakeholder needs and offer solutions.

It also allows for companies to get in on the ground floor to ‘market-based solutions.’ For example, MasterCard is working with the World Food Programme to educate government officials in many developing countries about the return on investing in childhood education. WFP has a model that proves that for every dollar spent on a school feeding program, the country gets an $8 return.

Given our heightened awareness of the devastation this summer has brought so close to home, there are ways to find out how to support silent emergencies around the world:

  • Overlay the countries where you have current or prospective operations/sales/customers and talk to the Red Cross or International Red Cross to see how your company can engage in emergency preparedness or disaster relief in these areas
  • Survey your employees across the globe to see what they are interested in supporting in their local community
  • Engage with the UN to learn about the shortfalls in funding for emergencies

One cannot underestimate the effort it takes for companies to stop operations when a disaster happens and pivot to deliver on a promise of help. An early count showed $157 million was raised for Harvey and Irma, and commitments to help Mexico, Puerto Rico and other recovering areas are still streaming in. While support from business is crucial at a time of disaster, it is equally important for companies to support all emergency situations that will inevitably impact their business and require their support.


Monica Marshall, SVP and Director of Ketchum Purpose, helps companies align with sustainability and social issues and build ‘purpose’ driven internal/external communications. She served as Deputy Director of Public-Private Partnerships at the UN World Food Programme from 2004 – 2013… [Read more about Monica Marshall]