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Two Years After Sandy: What the Robin Hood Foundation Has Learned About Disaster Relief

October 31, 2014

Emary_aronson_for_PhilanTopicOctober 29 marked the second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. While for some the devastating storm is nothing but a bad memory, for too many in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, Sandy remains present every day as they struggle to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Over the last two years, the Robin Hood Foundation’s Sandy Relief Fund has tried to do what it could to aid those in the tri-state area affected by the storm. With the help of many generous donors, we have provided more than $74 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and have helped tens of thousands of families.

While Robin Hood is not a traditional disaster-relief organization, we were prepared to help after Sandy made landfall. Thanks to our twenty-five years of experience as New York's largest poverty-fighting organization and our expertise in providing assistance to the families of victims of the September 11 attacks, we knew that many of the frontline, grassroots organizations that assist New Yorkers every day could benefit from our help. We made our first grants within three days of the storm to organizations already in the Robin Hood network. Ever since, we've been allocating funds for Sandy recovery efforts within a hundred days of receiving donations for that purpose. Two years after Sandy, we have made more than five hundred and fifty grants to over four hundred organizations in New York City, New Jersey, Long Island, and parts of Connecticut.

Along the way, we have learned many lessons about grantmaking, partnerships, and the nature of disaster relief. Two of the most important lessons have to do with the importance of being flexible and being transparent. Because we had "boots on the ground," we quickly got to know communities we hadn’t worked with before and were able to adapt to their post-storm needs. In terms of transparency, we made all our grants public on our website, including the name of the recipient organization and the amount and purpose of the grant, and located all those grants on an interactive map.

Two years on, the question we are asked most frequently is: What compelled Robin Hood to allocate funds so quickly? There are three reasons:  

1. Immediate need. Many people who found themselves in the storm's path quickly realized they were in urgent need of essentials. In many cases, they had lost their home, or had no heat, hot water, or electricity. Their place of work had been damaged or destroyed, or their child’s day care was shuttered. They began to run out of food and, if they were poor or disabled, could not access their benefits. They were traumatized. It is no accident we called our fund a "relief" fund. Our efforts were about providing assistance in the short term, not about preparing for the next disaster. Moreover, when we had engaged in post-disaster relief efforts before, we had made a point of focusing on the specific conditions of the disaster. In the days after Sandy hit, it was clear to us the situation required getting funds out to frontline organizations quickly.  

2. Donor intent. When nine-year-old Sam in Colorado Springs sent us his entire allowance of $1, he did not expect us to hold on to his donation for the next disaster. Sam knew that people in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were hurting now, and he wanted to do something to help them. Perhaps he had seen a picture of children wearing their winter clothes indoors because they had no heat. Perhaps the senior citizen on a fixed income who sent $500 worried about other seniors and wanted to make sure they wouldn't have to live in apartments ruined by mold.

Robin Hood doesn't have an endowment to support our core grantmaking. The reason is simple: What's the point of saving for a rainy day if it’s pouring outside? Since Robin Hood’s board covers the organization’s administrative costs, every dollar we raise is granted out within twelve months. With the Robin Hood Sandy Relief Fund, we accelerated the process. Two-thirds of the dollars donated to the fund came to us through "12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief." Featuring some of the biggest names in music, movies, and television, the concert at Madison Square Garden was attended by more than thirteen thousand people and seen by millions of viewers around the world. The vast majority who contributed to relief efforts that night were looking to help victims of the storm in real time, not to help Robin Hood prepare for the next disaster.

3. Nimbleness. While private contributions are no match, and should not be considered a replacement, for public funds in major disaster situations, Robin Hood and other charities could (and did) respond far more quickly than government. Indeed, many government programs were not rolled out until a year after the storm.

Because the Robin Hood Sandy Relief Fund was a re-activation of the Robin Hood 9/11 Relief Fund, we benefited from having an existing governance structure in place and a model for moving quickly. Most importantly, our relief committee, which was comprised of various board members, met weekly to ensure that donations to the Relief Fund were being allocated efficiently and effectively.

In the end, it took ten days for a federal omnibus bill to pass after Hurricane Katrina. It took ten weeks for an omnibus bill to pass after Superstorm Sandy. In contrast, it took Robin Hood three days to start awarding grants for Sandy relief, even though, like so many in lower Manhattan, we were displaced from our offices for a week by the storm.   

From the day it made landfall, it was clear Sandy was not like other storms that had battered the region. For starters, it was huge, affecting an area the size of Western Europe. And it was unusually destructive, causing upwards of $80 billion in damages. As we look back on our efforts to assist the region in the days and weeks after the storm hit, my colleagues and I think about the many occasions over the past year when we've had the privilege of visiting a family in their rebuilt home. Every story we hear is a story of loss — not just of physical belongings like furniture and clothing, but of irreplaceable photographs and mementos. But every story is also a story of hope and optimism — and a testament to what the generosity of strangers can accomplish.

Two years after Superstorm Sandy, thousands of families are still in need and have yet to return to their homes. As the recovery and rebuilding process continues, so too will the Robin Hood Sandy Relief Fund, as we allocate any new funds for Sandy as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Emary Aronson is managing director of education and the Relief Fund at the Robin Hood Foundation. Originally established to help those affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Robin Hood Relief Fund was re-activated following Superstorm Sandy to support organizations  working to assist Sandy victims across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

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