From NCG.org: The Theory and Practice of Disaster Grantmaking

October 8, 2018, by Terence Mulligan

Roughly a year ago, I participated in a funders meeting about the North Bay fires, hosted by our friends at Northern California Grantmakers.

At that time, I said in jest that I planned to spend the rest of my career in an iron box in the high desert of Nevada – far away from active fault lines, nearby rivers or forested hillsides that could bloom, overnight, into terrifying oceans of fire.

The people in the room who knew me well chuckled in sympathy, because they understood what my team and I had been through in recent years: a 50-year flood on the Napa River in 2006; the South Napa Earthquake in 2014; and the wildfires of last October.

Quite by accident, I’ve had an opportunity to work on three different types of disasters in one convenient location.  With the anniversary of the North Bay fires upon us, this seems as good a time as any to share some of the things I’ve learned from generous colleagues like you and the School of Hard Knocks.

So with appreciation to my co-workers at Napa Valley Community Foundation, who will each get their own room in my Nevada hide-out (once construction is complete in 2021), here are some principles and practices that inform disaster grantmaking in our star-crossed neck of the woods.

  • Principle: respond immediately, but take the long-view. We are committed to working on all phases of a disaster, including making investments in resiliency between disasters. We learned, reflected, and adjusted our approach between the 2014 South Napa Earthquake and the 2017 wildfires, and were better prepared because of it.
  • Practice: make pre-approved disaster grants to key nonprofit partners. After the 2014 earthquake, we asked ourselves, and our grantees, what could be better next time.  Because we had the luxury of surplus funds, we decided to strike MOUs with 16 local organizations that said, in effect: in the next disaster, your agency will automatically receive a grant (in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $75,000) to provide relief and recovery services that are in your wheelhouse.  To qualify for automatic disaster funding, our partners agreed to accept technical assistance from a disaster preparedness consultant that we selected.  The deliverable was an Emergency Operations Plan and a Continuity of Operations Plan for each organization.  These plans were tested far sooner than anyone expected, but really helped our grantees step up and be of service after last year’s fires.  Plus, we were able to put nearly $600,000 into the community within five days.  After the 2014 quake, we needed three weeks to get dollars moving.
  • Principle: financial aid to survivors is paramount, but can’t stand alone.  Very often, those who live through disasters need the support and compassion of other people.  Services like mental health therapy, legal aid and assistance in navigating the insurance claims process can be just as important as cash.
  • Practice: defend the role of human services.  We’ve spent a lot of time talking to donors, civic leaders and the public at large about the crucial role that services play in easing the suffering of disaster survivors.  Everyone understands cash assistance, and we think it is incredibly important.  Too often, however, that’s the sole focus of those who want to help their neighbors.  Last month, I met a woman who barely made it to safety on the first night of the fires.  She said: “The healing process started for me when I began to see a therapist.”  Through our nonprofit partners, we paid for her counseling sessions and also made a grant of $7,500 to help her replace essential household items that were lost when her rental house burned down.  I’m not sure she would have found her way to the cash grant without first dealing with her grief.  We do our best to share stories like this one with generous people who want every dollar they contribute to go directly to a disaster survivor.
  • Principle: disasters don’t discriminate, but recovery does.  Some families have savings, insurance, and access to government aid, while others do not.  Unfortunately, this means that the poor, the elderly, the medically frail and the undocumented often have a much harder time getting back on their feet.  The programs we develop take this into account, and seek to catch those who fall through the cracks.
  • Practice: look for disaster victims hidden in plain sight.  As the fires raged last October, we were in frequent contact with county officials and others in Napa.  They helped us understand how many homes had been lost, or were partially damaged.  But in conversations with our nonprofit partners, we began to hear about a second class of fire victims: people who work for $15 to $30 per hour in agriculture and hospitality, who lost days or weeks of income when our visitor-focused economy was profoundly – if temporarily – disrupted by the firestorm.  We developed an emergency financial assistance program to help these families pay for things like rent, groceries and clothing.  So far, nearly 2,000 households have received assistance.
  • Principle: invest strategically in local nonprofits. Those that work year-round with our community’s most vulnerable are best equipped to come to the aid of local residents in a crisis.  Moreover, their year-round clients are the very people who often struggle the most with recovery and rebuilding.
  • Practice: get in the LAC as soon as you can.  After any declared disaster or public health emergency, it’s the job of county government to create a Local Assistance Center.  The LAC is where federal government disaster aid programs – like FEMA grants and Small Business Administration loans – are available.  It’s where a fire survivor goes to replace his driver’s license or apply for disaster unemployment insurance.  We funded a core group of grantees to staff a community resources center in the LAC on the first day it opened, following the fires.  What they learned there, over the course of several weeks, was the answer to this essential question:  who is falling through the cracks, and what kind of help do they need?  The programs we launched to help undocumented heads of household and uninsured renters would never have come into existence without the investment we made in our grantee partners.
  • Principle: bridge funding gaps and bring additional resources to bear. The charitable dollars we collect are deployed strategically where other sources of funding are not available.  As much as possible, we leverage our grants by first tapping into federal aid programs and insurance.  We also use the strong relationships we’ve built with city and county agencies, and the nonprofit sector in our community, to ensure greater coordination and effectiveness.
  • Practice: use claw-back provisions in disaster grants. As time passes after a disaster, new and better information about needs, gaps and funding opportunities becomes available. For funders like community foundations, which generally don’t know on day one of a disaster how much money they might raise to be of assistance, it is important to strike a balance between speed, on the one hand, and the universe of things we don’t really know yet, on the other.  Our approach to this challenge is to get dollars on the street, with strings attached.  Right now, for example, we’ve approved a grant of up to $750,000 to help small business owners who suffered physical or economic injury because of last year’s fires, but couldn’t qualify for federal disaster aid.  We will likely spend a bit less than $500,000 for this purpose, and the balance will come back to our Disaster Relief Fund, so it can be deployed elsewhere.

What is a Community Foundation?

We know you might not know, and that’s ok.
Click the “learn more” link to tuck into the details.

Learn More