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Best Practices in Disaster Grantmaking: Lessons From the Gulf Coast

April 18, 2008


Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,300 people, caused $150 billion in property damage across 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast region, and put 80 percent of the city of New Orleans under water.

As destructive as the storm was to life and property, however, it may end up being remembered more for what it revealed -- about the shocking inequality and inequities in the region, about the lack of public sector accountability at the city, state, and federal levels, and about the wellspring of generosity that continually reinvigorates American society -- than for the damage it did.

Two and half years have passed since the storm made landfall, and the region's recovery advances by fits and starts. The public sector response has been halting and hampered by bureaucratic red tape, leaving much of the dirty, nuts-and-bolts work to underresourced nonprofits, community-based groups, and volunteers.

One of the bright spots in this often lackluster picture has been the response of the New York-area philanthropic community. According to data compiled by the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (NYRAG), 145 New York-area philanthropic organizations have contributed over $325 million to 950 nonprofit organizations in 196 communities for rescue, recovery, and rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast region. Under the aegis of the NYRAG Gulf Coast Recovery Task Force, detailed information about that giving was provided in the NYRAG publication Donors' Guide to Gulf Coast Relief & Recovery, 2nd Edition (144 pages, 1.74mb, PDF).

In order to share the experiences of the foundations, corporations, and individual donors that made grants or gifts to address the needs of those affected by Katrina and its aftermath, as well as "to provide a blueprint for future philanthropic intervention following such disasters," NYRAG has just published a new report, Best Lessons in Disaster Grantmaking: Lessons From the Gulf Coast, that, in addition to a list of best practices, includes practices to avoid, brief case studies of innovative grantmaking in the region, and opportunities for future philanthropic investment.

You can download a copy of the report (44 pages, 1.45mb, PDF) here, but I thought it might be nice to give you a preview. As NYRAG president Ronna Brown has said before, "The ongoing efforts to rebuild and transform the Gulf Coast for all of its citizens and communities require focused, collaborative, and inclusive strategies." Best Lessons in Disaster Grantmaking: Lessons From the Gulf Coast is a valuable contribution to that effort.

Best Practices: Strategies Identified by Nonprofits, Community Foundations, and Governmental Agencies

Utilize key people in the affected communities. Recognize, respect, and utilize the skills and knowledge of key people and local leaders in the affected communities.

Utilize existing relationships to gather information. Leverage existing relationships with both nonprofit partners in the local community and philanthropic peers who are funding in the region to learn of needs, opportunities, and potential funding relationships in affected areas.

Be willing to take risks. Overcome the inherent cautiousness of foundations and invest in nonprofit organizations that have not previously received significant support from the philanthropic community.

Share information with other funders and with nonprofits. Foster collaborative relationships with peers, share ideas and funding opportunities, and encourage direct communication with nonprofit organizations in the affected communities.

Create a dynamic funder collaborative. Partner with other funders to create a flexible, adaptable information-sharing method that has the ability to adapt its purpose and function to the changing needs of its membership through all stages of the recovery process.

Create a nationally relevant information resource. Collaborate with other funders to develop a practical, user-friendly resource that distills information about community needs and grantmaking opportunities into a referenced document that encourages communication among funders.

Put staff "on the ground." Use staff to develop relationships in the affected communities, to garner knowledge about the ever-changing needs of the communities as they move through the recovery process, and to provide practical, skills-based support to nonprofit organizations in the days immediately following a disaster.

Be proactive. Don't wait for nonprofit organizations in the affected communities to request assistance -- make phone calls and offer support.

Create collaborative funding efforts. Work with peers to pool funds and maximize financial resources available to the affected areas.

Strengthen local philanthropy. Use financial resources and staff expertise and time to invest in and develop local philanthropic organizations. Stronger local philanthropic organizations will yield stronger nonprofit organizations.

Defer a portion of grant dispersal. Rather than providing only short-term funding to the affected communities, wait to see what "gaps" need to be filled and provide medium- and long-term funding in those areas.

Expand funding focus. Recognize the extraordinary circumstances that arise following disasters and look for opportunities to fund outside traditional funding guidelines.

Simplify the application process. Modify the grant application process to minimize demands made on nonprofits in the weeks and months following the a disaster, and utilize common application forms whenever possible.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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