Leading the Way in Disaster Philanthropy

Memorial for students who died during the Moore, Oklahoma tornado.

Community foundations are focusing a lot of energy on the critical role they play in their own communities during disasters.
I make this statement with some certainty as I spent most of this week with community foundation leaders, from Sarasota to San Francisco and everywhere in between.  The special venue has been the annual Council of Foundations conference for community foundations in San Diego.
On Monday I led a conference session and started by asking participants to raise a hand if they had personally experienced a natural disaster.  Over two-thirds indicated that they had. A similar percentage said that his or her community foundation operates a disaster fund.
Community foundations see a special role for their organizations as conveners in disaster planning and preparation. Among our speakers was Andrea Zussman, who has the amazing job title of  Disaster Preparedness Officer for the San Francisco Foundation. She has placed special attention on getting nonprofit service providers ready for disaster. Her foundation has identified 50 or so nonprofit organizations with which they have signed MOU’s guaranteeing grants with little bureaucracy in times of disaster. She also convenes meetings with these important service providers and other important external partners such as government agencies and advocates for the nonprofit sector in planning meetings among disasters.

Memorial for students who died during the Moore, Oklahoma tornado.
Memorial for students who died during the Moore, Oklahoma tornado.

Another speaker, Nancy Anthony of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation has seen a decade of disasters, from the Oklahoma City bombing to numerous tornadoes including the recent one Moore, Oklahoma..  She shared insights into the powerful role of the news media in disasters. She observed that most people learn about disasters from the media, are motivated to make disaster-related donations from the media, and ultimately form opinions about the effectiveness of service from media. Unfortunately the media usually focus on the amount of money raised rather than the services provided or the unmet needs that still need support.  Her organization has a full-time director of communications to help get the right messages out.
Nancy urged community foundation leaders to quickly get involved in the money flow. In Oklahoma City’s case, money has freely flowed into the city from generous contributors eager to help out.  If you don’t get involved in the money management, she warned, the money will all go to relief and there won’t be enough left for recovery and rebuilding.  We have a special responsibility to give donors good choices for their giving.
The group was eager to share experiences and suggestions about response to natural disasters.  We here at CDP hope to support this interest by offering more convenings, webinars and other ways for donors to learn from each other and improve the effectiveness of their work.
Stay tuned.

Robert G. Ottenhoff

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