When Disaster Philanthropy Comes Home

November 14, 2012

Point Pleasant photo by REUTERS/Les Stone/American Red Cross

Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey (Photo: REUTERS/Les Stone/American Red Cross)

As I write this, it is just two weeks since Hurricane Sandy.  The grief and exhaustion of our neighbors who have lost so much is hard to imagine.

The clean-up and relief effort will be going on for weeks if not months, while the recovery and rebuilding will take years. There will come a point in the weeks to come when the work will transition from first response to recovery, when the American Red Cross will move on, and the long road to rebuilding will start.  If things in New Jersey unfold the way they have in other communities devastated by catastrophic events like this, we know that the philanthropic community will be deeply involved.

I can tell you that the funding community in New Jersey and around the country has been quick to respond.  The Council of New Jersey Grantmakers is sponsoring weekly calls for funders to share information and strategies, hear from officials, and learn from others.  We launched a special website at www.cnjg.org/sandyresponse the day after the storm.  In addition to providing members of the funding community with information on emergency relief providers, the site also includes several excellent guides offering best practices in disaster philanthropy.

Among the reports is an extremely helpful publication Creating Order from Chaos, which was published following the devastation in Alabama after 62 tornadoes hit in a single day. Our colleagues at the Jessica Ball duPont Fund have done a masterful job of outlining so much that we all need to know.  The guide covers many of the issues that grantmakers need to consider – from first response, to recovery and rebuild. Examples include working with libraries to help those that need to get their FEMA applications in before the deadline and mobilizing law schools to help the legal services offices assist clients in desperate need of legal help.

Funders have many things to thoroughly contemplate and many ways to respond including:

  • Do they provide cash assistance or goods and services?
  • How do they pay for the additional grantmaking?
  • Do they focus on filling gaps in relief services, long-term development or both?
  • Should they support research on the root causes or evaluation to learn for the next time?
  • How might they coordinate with others to effectively leverage their giving?

The Council on Foundations also published an excellent Guide to Disaster Philanthropy and has outlined 8 principles of good disaster management for philanthropies:

  1. Do no harm.
  2. Stop, look and listen before taking action.
  3. Don’t act in isolation.
  4. Think beyond the immediate crisis to the long term.
  5. Bear in mind the expertise of local organizations.
  6. Find out how prospective grantees operate.
  7. Be accountable to those you are trying to help.
  8. Communicate your work widely and use it as an educational tool.

In the days since the storm and the many conversations I’ve had with foundation and nonprofit colleagues from around the country who have been through disasters, there are two of these principles that they keep discussing: Do No Harm and Think Beyond the Immediate Crisis.  What do these mean? Well, doing no harm includes several things but perhaps most importantly, philanthropy should hold current grantees harmless, that is, don’t cut back on current funding to make up for the emergency or increased grantmaking the foundation will do in response to the disaster.

We saw foundations – large and small – show tremendous leadership in this way in response to 911, to Hurricane Katrina, and to the economic crash of 2008.  Let’s hope we see this continue now, especially with our New Jersey philanthropies.

As for thinking beyond the immediate crisis, all those who have been through this before strongly suggest private philanthropy ensure they plan now for the funding that will be needed for years to come.  The challenges created by Sandy will be with us for a very long time, and yet we aren’t even sure what all of these challenges will be.  Additionally, there will be great opportunities to bring innovative ideas and practices to some of our longstanding problems. This is what philanthropy can do quite well.

Hoboken flooded - photo  REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Flooded streets of Hoboken (Photo: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

I think about how after Katrina, it was a community foundation that underwrote a fact finding tour to the Netherlands for officials to learn about flood suppression techniques. Or, how after Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont, their community foundation created a fund specifically to help farmers in tremendous need.  There was also the Stratton Foundation’s support program to cover the gap in a FEMA home buyout program.  These are just some of the hundreds of examples of how foundations can provide the pivotal money for intermediate and long-term recovery needs.

A number of funds are being established here in New Jersey that will provide the much needed flexible, “strategy” money to address these kinds of needs. One, the New Jersey Recovery Fund, will help support nonprofits and communities rebuild. The Fund is a collaborative effort between the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and other local and national philanthropies. You can find out more details here.

But for now, our communities are still very much in the first response stage of need.  Hundreds of foundations and corporations have already stepped up, donating money, products and volunteers.  The CNJG website has a partial list of what has been donated by our members thus far and the list grows each day.

In the past two weeks, I’ve heard from foundation leaders and philanthropists from across the country wanting to know how to help.  I’ve been reminded once again of what an extraordinary field I work in.  Philanthropy means “love of humankind.”  Today, it feels a lot like love of New Jersey.

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 Association of Grantmakers, a 33-member network serving more than 4,000 foundations, corporations and other donors across the country.