Philanthropy & Disaster Response: Part 1 (nonprofits) – printers & propellers.

This post is the first of a two part series looking into the future of disaster response in its immediate aftermath and the ability for nonprofit organizations and philanthropy to rally quickly in support of its community.

It was a surreal moment posting last month about how it had been a decade since the Brisbane and Western Corridor floods of 2011. I had never been a firsthand witness to the destruction and despair of a natural disaster and the memories still weave in and out of my thinking to this very day. 

The floods peaked at 14.6 feet, with over 200,000 residents affected and property damage amounting to AUD $2.4 billion. There is a surreal photo of two kayakers paddling over the area of which the federal electorate office resided, which only went to highlight the devastation on our local community. 

It was an episode of conflicting emotions. On one hand it restored my faith in humanity. Folks came together to help one another. People from as far away as Sydney took leave from their jobs to put on gloves and work all day for free. On the other hand, it showed how fragile life can be. It proved that having a roof over your head and food on the table is nothing to take for granted. 

The electorate/district office’s number was rerouted to my cell. Every night I took calls from residents who didn’t know what to do or where to turn. They cried uncontrollable tears, outpouring their troubles to a complete stranger and (on a couple of occasions) sharing suicidal thoughts. It was a rough time for the community and it would take a lot of healing and rebuilding to get it back on track.

That episode changed me. While it reaffirmed to me that I was in the right line of work, it also prompted me to take a step back. I was burnt out but fearful that if I moved on I would be letting people down. Working in service of your community always bears a unique pressure that is hard to explain. It also lends itself in search of a balance that is often unachievable.

I revisited many of those memories recently during the recent winter storm in Texas where temperatures dropped to record lows and a majority of folks were with power and water for the better part of a week. While I wasn’t as entrenched in my community as I was in 2011 (I moved to Austin a month before everything shutdown due to COVID), I still empathised with my new community, especially those that would have felt this more acutely than most including older folks and the homeless. 

We were fine, just inconvenienced, hundreds of thousands more were not. My heart goes out to them, knowing that in times like these our governments, systems and infrastructure are put to the ultimate test. They were all found wanting and again people lost their lives because of it.

Yet many lives are also saved during the harrowing moments. When disaster strikes, people truly stand up and extend their hand in support of their neighbors. Nonprofits answer the immediate call too – opening their doors for safety and shelter, ensuring individuals have access to food and clean water and of course there to support those in need of other critical services.

In this part we look at two examples of the tech that can help nonprofits address the immediate concerns of individuals that have been caught up in disaster – mainly in support of healthcare & triage and also issues that pertain to the first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Quick clarification here before we move forward – ‘printing and propellers’ for those wondering refers to the use of 3D printing and drones not some upcoming new alt rock synth band.

With an ever increasing spate of natural disasters, civil unrest and a volatile economy that have only been exposed and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the need to activate people and business to support governments in supporting and rebuilding communities beyond a cash donation or ‘hopes and prayers’ is driving a new focus on disaster planning, mitigation and response. 

The pandemic showed us two things. First, our systems were wildly underprepared for the virus, seeing ventilators, PPE and even sanitizer being in short supply. The second part though was more inspiring and a common effect of incidents that reach the levels of states of emergency. Folks stepped up and helped fill an urgent need. Breweries and distilleries converted their operations to make sanitizer. Equipment manufacturers shifted their focus of production to facemasks and ventilators, and tech start-ups pivoted to create new contract-tracing apps.

3D Printing

An example of this comes from my previous neighborhood of Scripps Ranch in San Diego, who’s civic association made a call to residents with 3D printers to create face shield holders for first responders via a design they had on file. The simple headgear shield took 6-7 hours to make, with volunteers then attaching the transparent sheets and bands. Yet they still managed to source and distribute hundreds of them to areas of urgent need. It really was one of those rallying calls that restore your faith in humanity, especially with doctors, nurses and paramedics taking photos and sharing their thanks online.

In the future it would be wise for state emergency departments to collate a list of organizations with 3D printing capabilities (perhaps even providing equipment in advance to preferred partners) that could be called upon during an emergency, and then were provided with the digital files to begin creating items of biggest need. This of course can be supported by donations that come in to be used for rapid response grants. 


Drones are another technology that may be deployed more frequently in the aftermath of a disaster, think critical healthcare such as insulin and prescription medicine and getting essential emergency items such as food and water into areas of urgent need.

While we mainly hear about drone delivery in the form of buzzy articles on our collective dreams of having burritos and pizza being dropped to our doors, organizations such as UNICEF are to globally leverage this technology to protect and advance the rights of children, the Global Vaccine Alliance has four distribution centers in Ghana can make up to 600 on-demand delivery flights a day delivering vaccines and blood and even the University of Southern California (USC) have online courses on the use of drones for health.

With drones such as the one used by Flytrex flying at 32 mph and 230 ft. in the sky, with the ability to lower goods via wire from around 80 feet above the ground, this option is becoming more and more of a viable option in ensuring residents are safe and secure especially when disasters such as floods and wildfires can see them cut-off from broader assistance.

Nonprofit organizations will no doubt be a critical part of this rollout and I would be surprised if groups like the Salvation Army, Red Cross and Save The Children are not actively looking at partnering with drone companies to activate them in times of crisis.

There are a few other tech options that nonprofit service providers might want to keep on their radar too:

Internet of Things (IoT)      

IoT refers to the network of connected objects that are embedded with sensors and software that collect data and communicate with each other. As it relates to emergency management, IoT can be used to help compile data collection from areas of disaster (such as air/water quality and temperatures for example) and send it to different city departments, informing their decision making. Houston is a great example of this when they worked with AT&T after Hurricane Harvey.

While there are still a range of barriers to scaling IoT solutions across regions for emergency response and management this data sharing is something that might be a great impact investment project or a public philanthropic project especially when partnering early with dynamic anchor institutions.


We will talk more about disaster response funding in part II of this article, but blockchain stands to help get money quickly into the organizations doing the work on the ground by creating elevated levels of trust in smaller organizations. Many of the donations that flow from out of state during disasters are normally encouraged to go through vetted organizations such as those we mentioned above. The reality is however that multiple organizations are often contributing resources to aid an affected area especially those that directly serve those affected communities. If all nonprofits working to help in this aftermath operated off of a blockchain-based ledger, they could coordinate more efficient and collaborative responses, ensuring funds were allocated to the areas where they are needed most and by those best positioned to help. 

This can also apply to the data itself. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is looking to pilot blockchain for the use case of public health data surveillance, where it will collect and communicate data to entities who treat patients in disaster relief scenarios, including local public health agencies, hospitals, and pharmacies. 


Communications are critical in times of crisis. Being cut-off from your community makes you more vulnerable to the worst elements of disaster. 

There have been some really innovative responses to disasters such as the Haiti earthquake of 2010 of which saw the Serval Project established to allow you to use your mobile phone to communicate directly with another even when there is no network coverage, and the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) which allows you to text message directly with aid agencies. One of my favorite finds while researching this piece included a NASA built tool called the ‘Finder’ which can detect human heartbeats through 30 foot of rubble and 20 feet of solid concrete. 

Our world would be better served if awareness was built around options like these and nonprofits services such as 2-1-1 had those comms options as part of their offerings and that some organizations had machines similar to the ‘finder’ on hand (very much like defibrillators) and they were listed on an open mapping service for emergency access/response. At the end of the day not everything has to be consolidated within our emergency services departments and their trucks. A decentralized infrastructure might in fact contribute to faster response times which in times like these are paramount.

I get that these are all big picture approaches and that organizations feel things more acutely. I have felt them too so I can empathize. In most instances you will not be able to prevent a disaster from happening, but with solid planning and recovery strategies, your organization can bounce back from a disaster more quickly.

To wrap up, I wanted to recommend readers of this blog check out ‘The Resilient Organization’, curated by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and TechSoup. It’s a great guide to IT disaster planning and recovery and is intended for organizations that want to prepare for a disaster, as well as those that need to rebuild and maintain operations after a disaster. After all getting back connected is the first step in regrouping and responding.

Philanthropy & Disaster Response: Part 2 (foundations) funding & forecasting, which will take a deeper dive into rapid response funding and disaster analytics, will drop later this week in time for its inclusion in this weekends Substack newsletter. Don’t miss out – subscribe today!

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