Creating Order From Chaos: Lessons for Florida Philanthropy From the Alabama Tornadoes

Just as Tropical Storm Debby was whipping through Florida last month, Florida Philanthropic Network hosted a webinar to examine philanthropy’s role in disasters, based on lessons learned by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and its philanthropy colleagues as they banded together to respond to the devastating tornadoes in Alabama last year. The webinar offered some helpful advice for grantmakers in Florida, where we know it’s just a matter of time before we’ll be faced with a similar challenge.

Webinar presenter Katie Ensign, senior program officer for the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, reminded webinar participants that the 62 tornadoes that ripped through Alabama on April 25-28, 2011, represented the largest single-system tornado outbreak ever recorded and the second-deadliest tornado system in U.S. history. Four of the tornadoes were category EF5, which means they had winds of over 200 mph. The disaster affected 65% of the state and resulted in 248 deaths, 23,553 damaged or destroyed homes and $1.1 billion in property damage.

Joining Ensign on the webinar were three philanthropy leaders in Alabama who worked closely with the duPont Fund to respond to the state’s 2011 tornado disaster: Gus Heard-Hughes, director of initiatives for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham; Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation in Jasper; and Jera Stribling, executive director of Alabama Giving and of the Joseph S. Bruno Family Foundation in Birmingham. Together they shared critical lessons about the most effective roles for philanthropy during a disaster—lessons they learned the hard way, on the ground, through blood, sweat and tears as needs shifted daily and the unexpected became a constant. “We were surprised at so many turns,” Ensign said.

The lessons shared in the webinar are also described in a new guidebook published recently by the duPont Fund, “Creating Order From Chaos: Roles for Philanthropy in Disaster Planning and Response,” which outlines 12 roles where philanthropy can be of greatest help in times of crisis:

  • Evaluate: Determine the value not duplicated elsewhere that the organization can bring to bear on the complex needs of disaster recovery; craft a strategic response. Alabama established a statewide Alabama Tornado Recovery Fund with donations from community foundations, corporations and other donors. A committee used FEMA’s unmet needs assessment as a guide to use the funds most strategically to address those needs. “You need to be flexible—but strategic—in meeting evolving needs,” advised Heard-Hughes. Webinar presenters stressed the importance of philanthropy’s role in funding case management, legal assistance and language services early on in the disaster response timeline. A big lesson for Alabama funders, according to Kennedy, was that they waited too long to start supporting assistance for case management, which is a complex system—with many specific and short deadlines—that is confusing for people to navigate through.
  • Communicate: Activate the formal and informal networks and vehicles by which the organization can share information and reinforce governmental directives to reach diverse audiences. Weekly information calls, facilitated by the Southeastern Council of Foundations, became a critical vehicle to update Alabama grantmakers and their key community partners on the latest damage assessments from the Red Cross and FEMA, identify the most pressing needs, etc.
  • Represent: Be a voice for inclusion and equity; encourage Long-Term Recovery Committees to cast a wide net for membership and conversation, including participation of local philanthropic leaders. Stribling noted that while people were quick to contribute dollars for immediate relief, philanthropy in Alabama played a critical role in looking at long-term issues and shining the spotlight on long-term recovery.
  • Educate: Expand local knowledge of land trusts and community development financial institutions. This will be crucial to gaining access to capital in areas without strong non-governmental organizations.
  • Encourage: Invite businesses and commercial networks to become engaged in community redevelopment conversations. Kennedy stressed the importance of seeking out nontraditional partners in Alabama to help with disaster relief and recovery: local businesses, fuel vendors, trucking companies, accounting, legal and media experts.
  • Convene: Capitalize on the position as a neutral mediating partner to gather regional nonprofit organizations, funders and other engaged stakeholders. The philanthropic sector in Alabama quickly formed a group to share collective knowledge, support and contacts to build a framework for what Alabama needed to move forward and what roles each organization could play.
  • Advocate: Champion strategies that provide stable, below-market-rate financing to promote affordable housing.
  • Document: Map local and regional resources that can support recovery efforts, particularly nonprofit and mission-related housing developers. Stribling explained that one particularly helpful mapping exercise done by Alabama Giving was to map community foundation coverage for every county in the state. For those counties with no community foundation coverage, they identified a United Way or other key community group to be the key point of contact, creating a statewide network in place to mobilize quickly. One key lesson: they didn’t document an effective back-up communications system in case a key community organization in a county could not be reached.
  • Engage: Review public policy and master planning laws that may need to change to ensure that communities are repaired and improved by services and amenities; be aware of expiration dates of laws, e.g., “Good Samaritan” laws, that protect volunteers and extend liability coverage to persons working in recovery efforts.
  • Protect: Preserve natural resources and reduce environmental degradation, thereby increasing safety.
  • Listen: Trust others who have faced similar disasters. Alabama foundations learned a great deal from the experience of their colleague foundations in Louisiana in responding to Hurricane Katrina.
  • Support: Be a funder and fundraiser, educating donors about needs and connecting with potential funders locally, regionally and nationally. All the presenters spoke about the importance of reaching out to funders beyond Alabama’s borders. They emphasized that community foundations in other states were particularly critical partners, with 60 community foundations across the country giving nearly $300,000 for recovery in Alabama. Funders from other states also helped facilitate innovative ideas for raising critical charitable funds for disaster relief and response. Stribling praised the work of The Patterson Foundation in Sarasota, for example, for offering unique challenge grants that helped to quickly raise charitable donations in some hard-hit rural areas of the state. And funders in other states provided Alabama grantmakers with far more than just financial support. Ensign observed that by being located in Florida rather than in Alabama, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund could provide critical emotional and logistical support and fresh perspectives to its colleague foundations in Alabama, who were confronting horrific circumstances all around them.

To learn more, you can view the archived webinar on FPN’s website and download the Jessie Ball duPont Fund’s guidebook from its website.

– David Biemesderfer, President & CEO, Florida Philanthropic Network

One thought on “Creating Order From Chaos: Lessons for Florida Philanthropy From the Alabama Tornadoes

  1. Pingback: Helping Oklahoma Recover | The Florida Philanthropy Blog

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