Learning & Leading When Disaster Philanthropy Comes Home

April 10, 2013

Back in November, I wrote for this blog about the work the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers had begun to help the philanthropic community understand what the needs would be for our residents and communities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It has been an eye-opening, heart-breaking, and profoundly rewarding process in the months since.

Educational Relief & Recovery Conference Call Series
: Beginning one week after Sandy struck New Jersey, and continuing through March 25, 2013, CNJG presented these calls providing an opportunity for dozens of grantmakers – both in-state and national – to hear from a wide range of experts including: national leaders in the field of disaster philanthropy, FEMA and HUD officials, renowned psychologists working in the field of disaster trauma and PTSD, local housing and mental health nonprofit leaders, city and state planners, and a host of other stakeholders.

We learned about the stages of disaster planning, about best practices and strategies to ensure rebuilding and recovery continues after FEMA, the Red Cross and other relief agencies depart.  We heard from people like John Davies, of the Baton Rouge Community Foundation, who was on the forefront of the philanthropic response after Katrina and whose organization grew into one of the largest community foundations in the country.  We also heard from Christopher Ilstrup in Vermont, whose group sprang into action after Irene, and Jera Stribling, with Alabama Giving, who was on the front lines of helping coordinate philanthropy when 62 tornadoes struck her state in one terrible day in 2011. The calls were all recorded and the audio files are available for anyone to download and hear.  These provide an exceptional resource for those wanting to understand what the state is facing and what processes, partners, and considerations are at work to help those directly impacted.

(left to right) Nina Stack, President, CNJG, Seaside Heights Mayor William Akers, Rissa Lavizzo-Mourey MD, President & CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation along with more than 50 of New Jersey’s philanthropic leaders view the destruction along the Seaside Heights beach during CNJG’s Coastal Communities Site Visit of disaster-affected communities. (Photo Courtesy of CNJG)

Coastal Communities Site Visit Tour: On February 26, CNJG took a bus of 50 foundation leaders on a rare opportunity to tour several disaster-affected communities in Monmouth and Ocean Counties.  The funders were able to hear from those on-the-ground working on relief, recovery and rebuilding. The specific sites included communities in Northern Ocean County and Southern Monmouth County. Throughout the day, twelve guest speakers representing all areas of the effort, including individuals from FEMA, local and state government, Long Term Recovery Group leaders, city and state planners, environmental professionals, social services personnel, and faith-based leaders, among others spoke to a group of  philanthropic leaders.

One of the Council’s members on the bus, Doug Schoenberger of Verizon New Jersey, shared some of his observations from the site visit on our weekly call.  He spoke of the magnitude of change that people are facing – “when the ground beneath has changed it means everything is different.” For a funder working in this community it means taking a discerning look at one’s strategies and working with grantees to see how to best achieve your mutual goals.  Doug also spoke of the “anyway factor”…the conditions that were already an issue in these communities BEFORE the hurricane: the lack of available rental housing – anyway; the fact that 13% of residents in Ocean County have mental health issues – anyway; how domestic violence is a huge concern – anyway; low and moderate income families were still really struggling from the economic downturn – anyway. And now sadly all these have been compounded 100-fold.

Philanthropy has a vitally important, long term role to play in our state’s recovery. As we heard early on and bears repeating over and over again – this is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires thoughtful, well-considered investments that can leverage resources, and fill some of the small, nuanced gaps that aren’t covered by the major funding from FEMA, the Federal Government and the State.

At the Council, though our weekly calls have ended, we are convening another site visit for funders, this time in Hudson and Bergen Counties. And, our annual Spring Conference for the Social Sector on June 10th will focus on Our Shared Road Ahead: Sandy & Beyond. The conference is open to the public and we encourage nonprofit leaders from across the state to attend.

Photos courtesy of CNJG.

Nina Stack is President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association of more than 120 funding organizations working in New Jersey. She also serves as Chair of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, a 34-member network serving more than 4,000 foundations, corporations and other donors across the country.