Advice from the Field: Responding to Mass Casualty Events

It is an unfortunate reality of our times that all too often foundations must respond to mass casualty events in their communities. There are immediate questions that need to be addressed and an ongoing crisis to manage if your foundation is going to raise and deploy philanthropic capital in support of the victims, their families or the impacted community.

Because these incidents occur at random:

  1. It is important to start by having contact information readily available outside normal business hours—this includes key staff, government and nonprofit partners, board members, and community leaders.   
  2. The first and most critical step is to ensure your team and accounted for immediately following an incident. 
  3. Once you have key team members safely accounted for and capable of engaging, it is important to start mobilizing additional partners to identify who is doing what and how best to plug the foundation into the process of supporting the community.

Community Foundations in particular have wide range and capacity for deploying philanthropic dollars raised, including:

  • Institutional/organizational support (immediate and/or long term) for community organizations, nonprofits and agencies responding and providing emotional, physical, and social forms of support to victims and their families, as well as support services to the community at large that is now feeling unsafe, scared and simply distressed. 
  • Direct compensation and support to victims and their families for health care, funeral costs and unrelated loss of income due to inability to work, etc.

A few immediate considerations:

  1. Assess the landscape of all providers (Red Cross, mission relief service providers, city government and law enforcement) to see what resources are immediately available.
  2. Determine what can be coordinated, if anything, around mobilizing funds and donations for support.
  3. Assess whether those funds coordinated are best utilized in support of immediate or long-term benefit. Be as clear as you can in the criteria for disbursement of funds to honor donor intent from the onset.
    • If funds are being raised elsewhere to directly support the victims and their families, the foundation might have an opportunity to address the long-term implications of mass violence on the community. It should be noted, mental health, anxiety and distress can take a toll on people and communities long after a tragedy. 
  4. Be prepared for any potential political fallout or pressures that could come if elected officials or others choose to uplift your fund as the de facto for their institution(s)—they may then want a hand in its disbursement and politically overstep when determining how this will take place—even before decisions are made.
  5. Prepare yourself for a range of possibilities and stand ready to adapt to changes as outside influence will come quickly and you will not have control over every decision.

If you elect to go down the path of victim and family compensation or direct support:

  • You will need to consider the support of a viable firm, association or consultancy group to assist in processing funds for disbursement.
  • Give an Hour, National Compassion Fund, and American Red Cross are examples of organizations who can provide the necessary coordination involved in assessing victim's compensation.
  • Consultancy groups typically come with varying costs that need to be incurred alongside the disbursement—this may range from $75,000 to $300,000, depending on the scale of the tragedy and compensation pool.

Last cautionary advice is to realize there are significant administrative costs coming your way to manage the fund and its varying components:

  • This comes in the form of staff resources, hired expertise and contracts to develop additional web pages and media coverage, as well as advice on legal protections against fraud, scammers, and so on. 
  • The waving of administrative fees often feels right but be prepared to manage all the misdirection it creates in staff time and resources. Also remember that new contracts will need to be signed with service providers who themselves will charge 10% or more.

Everything moves at the speed of trust, so be sure to have qualified partners engaged:

This may includechurch leaders, local government, social service providers, hospital foundations, you name it. It's important to constantly assess the network, motives and long-term potential of each step as best you can without allowing it to immobilize your efforts. Consider quickly assessing who would be the best fit to coach your team through the process to better clarify who is responsible for what.


Here is a quick sampling of resouces from foundations who have experienced and managed tragic incidents. These tools share how they responded and the lessons learned along the way. If you would like to share additional resources, please contact Brad Ward.

The One Fund Boston: Lessons for Leaders

Ventura County Community Foundation