Disaster Philanthropy Playbook

Spotlight on Oklahoma City Community Foundation

In the days immediately following the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City tragedy, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation (OCCF) epitomized best practices in the role of a community foundation.

Initially, the Foundation did not believe they had a specific role to play in the aftermath of the disaster, not considering themselves “emergency responders.” But it became obvious that the implications in terms of how people had been affected were much larger than imagined. The services the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army normally provide for people in times of emergency wasn’t required after the first couple of days. People didn’t need shelter. They needed help in rebuilding their lives. OCCF understood the long term needs of those affected by a disaster of this magnitude; children in particular.

In the days and weeks following the bombing, the governor felt it was important to find a way to collect and share information so that everyone involved in the recovery effort would know who the victims were and who the family members of those victims were. The OK City Community Foundation and United Way of Oklahoma City, volunteered to coordinate the database effort. The Foundation created a database that all cooperating organizations had access to.

An additional issue arose when the City received a tremendous amount of money in response to the attack, yet lacked the capacity to manage such funds. Nancy Anthony, and the OK Community Foundation, had an existing relationship with the City and the Mayor, and together they created the Mayor’s Fund. Later, the same occurred with State, and Governor’s office. Again, OCCF managed these funds.

People didn’t need shelter. They needed help in rebuilding their lives. OCCF understood the long term needs of those affected by a disaster of this magnitude; children in particular.

The Community Foundation realized it could be most helpful by providing the infrastructure for the funds to be distributed efficiently. They know who the players are on both sides. They provided case management, with responsibilities divided among the Salvation Army and American Red Cross. A coordinated effort was key.

Not only did the Foundation manage the distribution of recovery dollars, but it also took on the leadership of managing the Case Management function. They were a funder and a provider; focusing on community counseling, social services, as well as education. They worked with children, paid for tutors, mental health counseling, and summer activities — everything to keep the kids engaged and in school.

Further, the partners knew that a case manager was needed for every person/family affected by the bombing. OCCF paid for additional case managers for a 2-3 year period. Remarkably, they still have one of the case managers on a consulting basis, for the past 20 years, offering unprecedented continuity in disaster response.

Following 9/11 attacks, OCCF was sought out by United Way in Washington DC, as well as leaders in New York, to share what was learned in Oklahoma six years earlier, including the forms that were used, how they had set up the database, and so on. Although the scale of the disaster in New York was of a different magnitude, the fundamental issue which dominated both cities was the same: understanding the importance of providing a coordinated effort in responding to the immediate, as well as long term needs of individuals affected by tragic and highly visible events. The model of coordination developed by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation has subsequently been hailed by philanthropic leaders around the country.