When there is a crisis like the floods in Kerala, employees in most companies are usually the first ones to ask what is being done and how they can lend support. Many companies facilitate payroll donations, or conduct collection drives.

But sometimes the need of the hour demands more—quick action on the ground. “A week or so ago, when the floods were still just a probable threat, we found it a bit difficult to convince corporates to give money. But as soon as the magnitude hit them, they were quick to give without inhibition," says Atul Satija, director of Give Foundation, which runs the non-profit giving platform GiveIndia. Given that natural disasters now occur with predictable frequency, Satija suggests that companies set up crisis response cells. “For companies working in sanitation, food, healthcare, etc, having a disaster response cell makes sense because it fits with their work," he says.

Having contributed to relief measures during the floods in Kashmir, Assam, Uttarakhand, Chennai in the last four years, some companies are applying the lessons learned then to the situation in Kerala. Here are four key learnings:

Have a team in place

Last week, media conglomerate Star India set up a disaster team selected from its marketing units. “Our learnings in mobilizing awareness during disasters in Uttarakhand, Bihar and Nepal in a way allowed us to be disaster-ready and mobilize an awareness campaign in eight languages across the network in 24 hours," says Gayatri Yadav, president of consumer strategy and innovation, Star India.

The team roped in over 60 celebrities, including singers and actors, to record an appeal for donations. Internally, it was decided that employee donations would be matched by both Star India and the parent company, 21st Century Fox. The team was aware that people aren’t always comfortable with cash donations, so they reached out to non-profit Goonj to help spread awareness about its work. Some employees are working on the ground, helping in the rescue, relief and rehabilitation initiative with other NGOs.

Footwear firm Bata used its Kerala operations to identify three of the worst-hit areas and create local teams of managers to reach out to communities and arrange for essentials like shoes, medicines and clothes.

“We empower the local teams since they know the ground situation best. A cross-functional team was constituted led by a project leader from the affected region who, in turn, was provided with the necessary funds and logistics support. In Kerala, we are supporting the communities by organizing medical camps as well as providing shoes as a preventive measure and protect them from unhygienic conditions," says Vikas Baijal, senior vice-president, HR, Bata India.

Different geographies, different needs

Companies have also learnt that the response and material needed differs from region to region. “While we have been in similar situations, we must remember that the needs are not the same. Identifying the needs and fulfilment of intent took us a short time. For example, while in Uttarakhand, we needed to send warm, woollen blankets, those would not be required in Kerala. Our on-ground volunteers therefore have been able to give us a better picture of what exactly we can send," says K. Madhavan, managing director, south business, Star India.

Sonia Huria, head, corporate marketing, communications and sustainability, at Viacom18, says, “Every natural calamity is different in terms of its scale, and, more importantly, the affected region. While first response for disaster relief could be standard, the next steps need to be a bit thought-out to ensure impactful action and relief." Viacom18, which operates the Colors, MTV, Comedy Central channels, mobilized a crowd-funded donation platform in partnership with GiveIndia; all the proceeds will be going to Goonj for the relief effort, especially in the areas of healthcare and sanitation. “At Viacom18, the sustainability team doubles up to become a quick response team in disaster situations as we have the right abilities to assess the gravity of the situation, understand the means with which we can support, identify the right partners to mobilize the plan of action and ensure last-mile delivery," Huria adds.

Awareness of cultural differences is important. “For Srinagar, we sent salwar-kurtas and thought it would have been fine to send it to Chennai also. But in a few days we realized that in these situations also people want to be in something they are familiar with—so we sent saris, petticoats and blouses eventually. The food sent to Kathmandu and Srinagar was not the same as the one we are sending to Kerala," says Summi Sharma, vice-president, iFly—IndiGo’s corporate learning academy.

Now is important, so is later on

It’s imperative, of course, to get the material across. IndiGo has increased the number of flights to Kerala. The IndiGoReach team (its corporate social responsibility, or CSR, programme), relying on its experience, knows, for example, that most people want to send relief material right now. But this will dry up in a few weeks. “So this time around we will supply materials collected in batches, so that there is enough to go around for a longer period. The past experiences of handling Srinagar and Nepal have actually really helped us to prepare," adds Sharma.

While IndiGo is collecting supplies independently, it’s also providing transport to its crisis management partners—Goonj and Uday Foundation. In addition, the carrier, and employees from several smaller companies, have come forward to help pack and transport the relief material.

“While this is extremely helpful, a lot of companies can also help in the rehabilitation phase. They can keep some amount for then, or maybe invite the local businesses from Kerala to display here, thereby providing them with an opportunity to pick up their businesses again. It is not just individuals there who will be affected, but also small and big businesses as well," says Rahul Verma, founder of the Uday Foundation.

Take help of technology

Online food ordering platform Zomato learnt during the Chennai floods that while technology can be a great mobilizer, it can sometimes overwhelm those offering help. “We had introduced ‘Meal for Flood Relief’ in 2015 and realized the power of technology and community back then. We were able to help distribute over 110,000 meals at the time but had to stop it to make sure the restaurant partners were not overwhelmed," says a Zomato spokesperson.

Last week, Zomato tied up with the nonprofit Akshaya Patra Foundation and initiated a flood relief fund, through which anyone across the world can donate a meal for three, six or 10 people. Akshaya Patra teams are shipping these meals as well as raw supplies to the temporary kitchens via boats, delivery vans and aeroplanes. To ensure that the restaurants are not overstretched, Zomato halted meal funding for Kerala after 200,000 meals.

Quick action, coupled with a team learning from past experience, has become the key differentiator in the effort. As Satija puts it, “We are no longer in a world where we can sit idle. Crises and calamities are happening every year, we need to be ready to take action as soon as it happens, if not before."

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Build a quick response team

As part of the CSR committee, each company should create a disaster response team. People in this team should know how to work with non-profits, and should understand how work on disaster management happens.

If disaster fits into the company’s CSR strategy, it can be proactive by setting aside a clear budget for disasters. At the last minute, you don’t want to wait for board meetings to release funds and give support.

While healthy in intent, there are more resources sent for rescue and relief than for rehabilitation. Organizations need to balance their funding so that it can carry on for medium- to long-term rehabilitation as well.

—Atul Satija, GiveIndia

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