Key Takeaways From the National VOAD Conference

I’ve just returned from spending three days in Indianapolis, Ind., to attend the National VOAD (National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters) annual conference. I went there with three purposes in mind – learn, connect, present.
As part of my quest to learn, I attended sessions on tornadoes, storm surges, disaster giving, drought response across the western United States, art and arts readiness, and effective volunteerism in the post-Katrina environment. Speakers discussed safe rooms, wave moments and wave gathering, the westward movement of the drought pattern, the relatively small amount of donations allocated for Typhoon Haiyan, and the myriad of ways that artists are both affected by disasters and can minimize their destruction on their craft and livelihood overall.
Takeaway? People and responding organizations are using data, big and small, to better predict, respond to, and minimize the destruction of disasters across the United States and around the globe.
Connecting is easy and enjoyable at this conference – it brings together humanitarian assistance practitioners from across all 50 states and U.S. territories – people who may not have actually seen one another for the past year, but who have been actively in touch over that same time. One of my colleagues called the National VOAD annual meeting the homecoming of her adult life. I can see why! Connecting for me included a long walk and talk with my colleague and friend at Catholic Charities, dinner with my American Red Cross and CIDI friends, a morning meeting with the new head of AidMatrix, and another dinner with my old friend at the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation and a new friend from the National Academies of Sciences. During those points of contact, we would lay out the issue areas we were working on – they ranged from tracking the percolating issue of unaccompanied minors coming across the Texas border, to ensuring the successful implementation of a highly targeted mission, to bringing together different voices around the hard to grasp topic of resiliency, to ensuring the future financial sustainability of a transitioning organization. We talked about the strains of travel on our work life balance (caveat — I travel 15 percent time, whereas some of my colleagues have literally been on the road for months at time this past year), and about “why” we do the work we do.
I also had the good fortune of sharing a ride with Craig Nutt, Director of Programs at CERF+ (Craft Emergency Relief Fund + Artists’ Emergency Resources). On our drive from Nashville to Indianapolis and back we talked about everything from jazz and guitar collections to the Southern California wildfires to working for mission driven organizations. We did some good thinking on how to reach new people and organizations and talked at length about disaster preparedness and readiness.
Takeaway? I am proud to call members of the National VOAD colleagues and friends and am thankful for a few brief days of catch-up time. Our nation benefits tremendously from the role of National VOAD and the individuals who make up its membership. And, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy benefits from the strong partnership we have with National VOAD, and to be able to meet with National VOAD’s membership, learn from them, and telegraph their successes to our CDP audience is incredibly important to my organization.
Juanita Rilling, Director of the USAID-funded Center for International Disaster Information, and I gave a presentation on Effective International Disaster Philanthropy. We talked about our respective organizations – describing our missions and the reach of each of our organizations. We then dove into a discussion around disaster trends, highlighting the most recent data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) and tying those statistics back to the evidence we have at CDP about how much has been awarded by private funders to address the humanitarian needs following each disaster event. As this presentation was focused exclusively on international disasters, we highlighted a subset of disasters that sought international assistance over the past year – West Africa drought, the earthquake in the Central Visayas, Hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid, Typhoon Phailin, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and Typhoon Haiyan. Juanita gave the audience her vision for the perfect private philanthropist, further driving home her organizational commitment to smart compassion and giving cash, not goods. As the discussion turned my way, I dove into a discussion of the role of the private philanthropist – addressing the question of when, where, and how the private philanthropic sector should respond to a disaster. We closed our conversation with a rich discussion between the entire audience, Juanita, and I, looking to itemize the assets that international NGOs and private philanthropists bring to the table before, during, and after a disaster.
Takeaway? First, working with smart and fun people like Juanita makes putting together a presentation a pleasure and not a chore. Bouncing ideas from person to person only enriches my thinking and the thinking that I can bring forward to my organization and to the private funder audience that we serve. Second, talking about effective private philanthropy is critical – we are at a time when we know that the frequency of disasters is on the rise. Knowing how to prepare for, respond, and aid in the recovery process is critical knowledge for the private donor community. It is core to the mission of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and one that I’ll champion for years to come.

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