Proactive Business Responses to International Disasters

By Jane Smallman, International Programme Manager - Disaster Relief, Business in the Community

Proactive Business Responses to International Disasters

Governments and the humanitarian community around the world are struggling to cope with the frequency and scale of international disasters.

During Responsible Business Week 2014, senior business, INGOs and government representatives discussed the key opportunities and challenges to business engagement in international disaster response, recovery, mitigation and preparedness.

The following highlights some of the key challenges and learning. Members of Business in the Community can download a fuller report of the event.

To find out more about the BITC International Disaster Relief programme, including the recent survey analysis to be published in October 2014, please contact Ja***********@BI**.uk

Long term partnerships – Benefits and Challenges

Dr Jane Cocking, Humanitarian Director for Oxfam led the discussion. Too often NGOs, like Oxfam, are unable to take advantage of the unique business contribution, (products, services and skills) in the response stage of disasters. Dr Cocking stated “While we want to engage the non cash business offer at this stage, it is very difficult for us to facilitate as need to make sure the support is valuable and appropriate.”

Stéphanie Pullès, Head of Corporate Responsibility, Bouygues UK said “our architects, engineers and town planners are highly skilled, with the technical and practical expertise needed to help rebuild vital infrastructure – from homes to hospitals – providing emergency and longer-term support to communities affected by natural disasters.

“Part of the preparation involves rigorous training before colleagues are deployed to affected regions, so they have a realistic idea of what to expect when they hit the ground. We couldn’t do this without the support of our NGO partner, Emergency Architects, and here at Bouygues UK we are very proud of the benefits we are able to bring to communities worldwide as a result of this partnership.”

To maximise the benefits, preparation and long term commitment appear to be key. Time invested in advance of a disaster leads to better communications and understanding of each partner’s contribution of expertise and ultimately to greater effectiveness.


Discussion led by Claire Hitchcock, Director, Community Partnerships Europe & EMAP at GSK. Claire Hitchcock stated; “For every £1 spent on preparedness, £4 is saved in post disaster response.”

Businesses can combine their local expertise and their global resources to enhance disaster preparedness. Katie Armstrong from Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited highlighted how they use the local knowledge of their employees and clients, and existing local relationships with NGOs to assess how best to respond to disasters.

Rowan Johnson, Senior Partnership Manager with the British Red Cross added “we map communities at risk from disasters and this helps us identify where we should focus our preparedness activities and programmes. We are always happy to share this information with business to identify how best they could engage. For example, the potential for Kathmandu to suffer from a major disaster in the next 15 years is high and we are currently working there on strengthening infrastructure.”

Unique Business Contribution

Bob Gibbons, Humanitarian Programme Manager, CHASE, DFID led a discussion on the barriers and solutions to unique business contributions that go beyond cash.

Barriers included lack of clarity from both sides on what businesses can provide in disaster response to support relief agencies. Abi Griffiths Price from Hitachi Europe suggested NGOs and DFID could help businesses understand more about what are the challenges so business can identify their skills and resources that match the need.

Bob Gibbons concluded that with the increase of disasters affecting employees, supply chain and markets the social and business case for greater engagement is great and will only increase with globalisation.

Inspiring action

Kate Gibson, Vice President Corporate Responsibility, IHG led this discussion.

Better communication to build understanding came out strong for creating success in partnerships between business and the humanitarian community. In addition the table discussed how to build the business case internally for disaster relief programmes and the need to engage all levels of employees. Representatives from IBM, Bank of New York Mellon and Bain and Co. suggested employee engagement is important and that the millennial employees are extremely enthusiastic about the sustainability of our planet and want to build resilience in our society while strategically linking to the employer’s business agenda.

Full cost of partnerships

Jay Aldous, Director of Private Sector Partnerships from the World Food Program examined how to understand the full cost of non financial partnerships and asked if and how we should attribute a financial value, and whether this would provide a greater understanding of the benefit.

Full cost recovery of in-kind support from business, it seems, is not necessarily communicated very well. This can lead to businesses being frustrated by a perceived lack of interest in products and services by the humanitarian community. Jay Aldous explained “A business can offer such a variety of goods that would be very much in demand in a relief situation. I think we need to be able to communicate effectively with that business the cost of moving, managing and monitoring that contribution. It is these costs and sometimes the appropriateness of the goods that restricts NGOs ability to accept the goods. The positive point however is if discussions about in-kind support can take place before a disaster strikes, more in-kind support can be utilised and benefit the victims of disasters.”

Resources and capacity investment

Celia Moore, Director of Corporate Citizenship for Europe, Middle East and Africa for IBM led discussions on how to develop a disaster relief programme that links to the core business strategy and how to ensure maximum success within the partnership through appropriate resource commitment.

Three key points were highlighted as essential, namely; complete a disaster risk analysis of your business so you can link these risks to the activities of the programme which will drive buy-in from management and also get real commitment beyond philanthropy. As Bill Royce from Weber Shandwick stated “use the language of your finance people and talk about the risk as a when and not if. Finance will support you if they feel confident that you are identifying real risks to the core business.” Secondly determine the business’s ‘unique contribution’ and sphere of influence that could span your supply chain, customers, geographical coverage etc when deciding what and when you could assist your NGO partner. And finally identify and build a bank of skills and products that can support your partners when a disaster strikes.

Matt Sparkes, Global Head of Corporate Responsibility, Linklaters suggested “getting a framework agreed and signed off by your legal team commits both sides. The framework rather than a full contract will allow you flexibility to change and adapt to need.”

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Editor’s Note:

This blog was previously published on Business In The Community and is reproduced with permission.

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