August 20, 2014


Oklahoma tornado devastation: What to do now?

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(@Getty Images/CNN)

As our nation sits and watches the devastation in Oklahoma following a series of tornadoes, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Jennifer Lammers, the new program director for the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, about an article she wrote following the 9/11 attacks. She referenced the pieve during a call with a group of funders and nonprofits to discuss the establishment of Boston's One Fund.

The piece, Disaster Relief: Applying the Lessons Learned, outlines six points that I think are worth repeating as we collectively think about "What to Do" following a month of back-to-back disasters including the Marathon Bombings, the earthquake and flooding in China, the explosions in Texas and now the devastation in Oklahoma.

Below I've highlighted some essential quotations from Lammers article:

1. Sector Coordination is Key - "While coordination of service providers takes time, effort, and funding, its importance cannot be overstated. No organization can do everything needed in the wake of a disaster. Those that have tried have failed. Coordination of efforts allows organizations to provide service in their areas of greatest competency, leaving other tasks to those groups better prepared to handle them."

2. Donors are Not Disaster Relief Experts - "It is up to the charities receiving funds to proactively manage donor expectations and lend rational dimension to the nation's exuberance. As the experts in the field, we have an obligation to tell the public what is needed and why. We need to spell out how we are working to bring comfort and stability to the lives of those touched by the disaster. And sometimes we need to tell the general public why what they think is the answer really isn't."

3. There Are Needs that Cannot Be Seen on TV - "It is incumbent on institutional donors to make the less glamorous and more strategic gifts necessary for the rebuilding and community healing to begin. Money that allows a responding organization to hire additional administrative staff or purchase needed equipment, like computers or vehicles, can have a greater impact on the number of victims served and the speed of that service, than gifts restricted to "direct service provision only."

Donor fatigue is real and can set in pretty fast. It can be compounded when the amounts raised are so large, and people unaffected by the disaster begin to think "how could they possibly need more?  As such, it is essential that a portion of the funds raised in the immediate aftermath be reserved to meet the longer term needs of the victims."

4. Victims are Not as Easy to Find as You Would Think - "It is important that those hoping to help the communities impacted by the hurricane not promise donors or the general public that they will provide payments or specific services to all victims or only to individuals or families. Some services and support, like the rebuilding of shelters, soup pantries, and job training programs, will have to substitute for direct gifts to impacted individuals - but in the long run these expenditures may actually speed the pace of recovery."

5. Listen to the Victims - "Listening to the victims and community advocates can alert you to unique or specific needs that are going unmet." You can expect cultural and religious differences; special language need; and, victims without bank accounts or access to reliable check cashing services.

6. Don't Wait Until the Disaster is at Your Door - "Disaster preparedness is the job of every nonprofit, whether a first responder or not." The six points above serve as takeaways in their own right, but I'll add a few more on top. First, we must take time to learn from one another. We have met 9/11 heroes, Hurricane Katrina Leaders, Earthquake survivors, and disaster experts that have experienced disasters - learning from them, interviewing them, and adopting their recommendations is key.

Lammers has set forth six critical success elements for disaster responders and disaster philanthropists alike, it is now incumbent upon us, the reader, to adopt.

Additionally, Lammers says it will happen to all of us. A disaster will hit each of our communities. From the tornadoes in Oklahoma to the floods that affected my hometown of Nashville this spring or the flooding we are seeing in the Midwest, it will affect us. So, as Lammers says, don't wait until the disaster is at your door. Make a plan - a family plan, an organizational plan, and a neighborhood plan.

Finally, Lammers says that recovery is a long process. To be effective disaster philanthropists we are obligated to sustain our attention - to be patient - and to commit to supporting affected communities for months to come. Not just days or weeks, but months and even years.

Regine A. Webster is Vice President of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which first posted this story.



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