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How Community Foundations Can Better Coordinate Responses to Disasters

Last month, Hurricane Michael devastated and left a trail of destruction along Florida and Georgia. Two months ago, Hurricane Florence left the Carolinas under water. Last year, Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, Houston, and its surrounding areas, creating a 1-in-1,000 year flood event and causing over $125 billion in damage.

As disasters—natural or manmade—occur with increasing frequency and scale, it is an important time to reflect and consider how philanthropy can help communities prepare for more coordinated responses to unforeseen disasters. On the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, the Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF) released a memo to share the findings from an evaluation that FSG conducted on the impact of the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund (HHRF) and its support of 123 nonprofit organizations and activities.

Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to help communities quickly respond in immediate relief and recovery stages of disaster relief. They can bring together and build relationships among funders and cross-sector stakeholders, leverage experience working in different sectors and on a wide variety of social issues, and quickly provide funding with fewer restrictions than a typical grant process, buying time for government support and the development of long-term recovery and preparedness strategies.

Community foundations are often at the center of disaster relief efforts, whether as the sole administrator and leader of a fund or as the backbone organization in a partnership effort. In the case of Houston, HHRF was an unprecedented partnership between local governments. The Fund was established by the City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and was administered by GHCF—a unique model of collaboration between government and private philanthropy not typically seen in disaster relief efforts.

In addition to this partnership model, there are 7 key lessons from this work that are applicable to the broader field of disaster relief philanthropy—particularly community foundations, who are often the coordinators of local or regional philanthropic responses to disasters—irrespective of region or type of disaster. These lessons include:

  1. Maintain standing structures, such as advisory boards or grants committees, that can quickly activate, empower, and implement increased resources during disaster times. Philanthropic responses to disasters often lose critical time identifying leaders, organizing, and defining governance norms and structures in the first few days and weeks after a disaster strikes. A continued, organized philanthropic response to disasters should engage key leaders from government, philanthropy, academia, nonprofits, and the private sector. This structure should meet regularly (e.g., quarterly)—including in times between disasters—to establish action steps, mechanisms, and a roadmap to support the quick activation of resources during disaster times.
  2. Use data and engage in feedback with the community to inform grantmaking and better serve impacted communities. The HHRF used data, surveys, roundtables, site visits, and convenings to inform subsequent rounds of grantmaking in the year following Hurricane Harvey. Similar mechanisms to collect data and input from the community can be used to inform ongoing efforts for preparedness and capacity building between disasters. One specific example that some disaster relief funds are exploring is the establishment of “community navigators” who have knowledge of and can provide more timely feedback on unmet community needs, which organizations serve those needs, and grantee services and resources during times of disaster.
  3. Conduct an assessment of nonprofits to identify key partners and capacity gaps, and to establish proactive agreements with some local agencies. Disaster relief funds struggle to identify the right partners with the right assets and to deploy funds to the ground quickly enough immediately after a disaster.  A regional landscape assessment of nonprofits can help map a diverse list of organizations that could be mobilized in specific disaster preparedness, relief, and recovery contexts. This assessment could also serve to identify specific capacity strengths and needs of individual organizations in serving their communities as well as the broader assets and gaps across the regional sector. Building on the increased knowledge of the nonprofit sector from the landscape assessment, many funds are creating a pre-approval process in which they select some grantees by geography, strengths, and capacity ahead of time in order to expedite the process of deploying funds during a disaster.
  4. Institute a grant funding category to specifically encourage investments in smaller or under-resourced organizations, with explicit considerations for diversity and equity. In addition to supporting proven, pre-selected organizations with unrestricted funds, disaster relief funds can establish different funding categories—such as a category with required training(s) and opportunities to collaborate with larger organizations in the delivery of services. This structure could help build the capacity of smaller, under-resourced, and minority-led or focused organizations, reduce territorialism for grant dollars, and strengthen the sector. These categories would encourage more equitable opportunities for organizations to demonstrate their capacity to leverage funds.
  5. Maintain flexibility and transparency in operations, especially in grantmaking processes. Given the dynamic nature of disasters, private philanthropy-led relief efforts can remove traditional barriers to funding (e.g., reducing grant requirements, more unrestricted funding). Disaster relief funds can also provide more long-term, multi-year funding to support both project-based and capacity-building work. Clear communication of these guidelines and the grantmaking process will encourage transparency and build trust among grantees.
  6. Support relationship building between nonprofits through ongoing convenings in non-disaster times, and ensure the convenings are accessible. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, GHCF played a critical role in building connections and relationships among nonprofits through its convenings. Community foundations can play this role in an ongoing basis during non-disaster times, providing opportunities for organizations and stakeholders to identify sector-wide gaps, organizations’ capacity needs, opportunities for coordination, and new partnerships that will be critical in the event of a disaster.
  7. Communicate clearly and consistently to the public on progress, needs, and challenges to sustain momentum for ongoing disaster relief work. As administrators or backbones of disaster relief funds, community foundations often play a de facto role as a central contact and source of information for the public, not just for those who are most affected by the disaster and the intended beneficiaries of the disaster relief funds. While it can be easy to overlook communications in the interest of deploying funds, during and after a disaster community foundations can disseminate a plan to inform of the public of how it intends to support and amplify disaster preparedness, relief, and recovery efforts. These efforts, along with town hall meetings, fliers, and social media campaigns, can create forums to communicate the long-term and continuous nature of disaster relief work to the public, which can help build and maintain momentum and resiliency.

It is difficult to predict exactly when and what kind of disaster will strike. While it is impossible to be fully prepared, we hope that these lessons can help community foundations and others in private philanthropy build local capacity to respond to disasters. To begin, community foundations should identify and bring key leaders from philanthropy, nonprofit disaster relief, local government, and the community together to consider and implement these lessons.

Learn more about FSG’s Strategic Learning & Evaluation services >

Nikhil Bumb

Associate Director

Renee Wizig-Barrios

Senior Vice President, Chief Philanthropy Officer Greater Houston Community Foundation

LaMecia Butler

Harvey Fund Grants Director Greater Houston Community Foundation