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Our guest blogger this week is Ben Smilowitz. In his first year of law school, Ben saw the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and realized a need existed for someone to demand public accountability and provide an open line for survivors, emergency workers and volunteers to report gaps during disasters...so he started the Disaster Accountability Project. DAP has become the leading nonprofit that provides long-term independent oversight of disaster management systems.
His perspective is valuable, and The Gathering wants to share his thoughts with you.
The recent natural and man-made disasters in Boston, Texas, the upper-Midwest, China, Iran/Pakistan, and Bangladesh underscore the importance of disaster planning. Although costly, effective and speedy responses and well-planned recoveries can make the difference in saving lives, alleviating suffering, and reviving communities.
Community foundations in and around disaster-impacted areas are uniquely positioned to convene regional stakeholders and serve as magnets for the typical post-disaster flood of donations. Within a day of the Boston bombing and Texas explosion, The Boston Foundation and Waco Foundation launched or joined fundraising efforts that quickly became the main fundraising hubs for each disaster. This fundraising model helps ensure relief and recovery is locally controlled and fosters community participation. Those administering and overseeing these local funds are more likely to have the first-hand information needed to determine which efforts deserve funding, reducing wasteful duplications and dangerous service gaps.
Contingency plans are useful in situations where a local foundation is temporarily knocked off-line by power outages or staff shortages. Sister/brother relationships between foundations in different geographic regions are one way to ensure continuity. After Hurricane Katrina, a group of foundation executives parachuted into Louisiana to create the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (now Foundation for Louisiana) as a local receiver and disburser of funds. The inclusion of survivors and community members as directors or advisory members of these local funds can increase local buy-in and public trust.
Similarly, in the context of international disasters, locally controlled responses are much faster and more efficient and effective than those originating overseas. We know time is of essence, and we may only have 72 hours to find survivors under rubble after an earthquake. Hundreds of thousands, or even millions, can become homeless overnight and need shelter, food/water, and healthcare. Should we invest in shipping shelters across time zones or instead support local civil society organizations that have the capacity to provide services in a neighboring community?
Disasters can be horribly disempowering: Loss of life, homes, and jobs; debilitating injuries; and devastated communities. Empowering survivors to make post-disaster decisions is integral to a successful recovery. In fact, a local response/recovery is the best way to ensure help is demand-based and avoids many of the logistical headaches when so many well-intentioned relief supplies are unneeded or duplicative. Furthermore, investing in the civil society of disaster-stricken communities increases the likelihood that recovery will include aspects of mitigation and disaster risk reduction to prepare for future events.
Unfortunately, the Boston and Waco examples are not the norm and current post-disaster fundraising trends unintentionally empower the decision-making and priorities of organizations based thousands of miles from most disasters, over those of the directly impacted. Donors offer few incentives for relief groups to be more transparent and accountable, as most aid organizations know that their Charity Navigator and Guidestar ratings are based on their tax compliance instead of the effectiveness and efficiency of their real-time efforts in particular disaster zones. We all know disasters are more nuanced than looking good on paper.
Disasters have become feeding frenzies for thousands of relief organizations large and small, respected and newly formed. With heart-wrenching pictures on their websites, groups solicit funds regardless of their current position to deliver services in affected areas. Potential donors consistently lack sufficient data to make informed decisions about where to direct resources and differentiate between organizations that are re-granting, focused only on recovery, and those with long-standing relationships and many “boots on the ground” in the disaster zone.
I started Disaster Accountability Project to change this disaster fundraising paradigm. We can maximize the impact of disaster relief by incentivizing transparency and creating donor demand for better real-time information. Our SmartResponse.org is collecting pre and post-disaster data on the capacity and activities of civil society and other organizations in disaster vulnerable areas so the public can have immediate data about which organizations (both local and international) are on the ground and have ability to deliver services. While it is important to generously support direct aid, it is also critical to support dedicated oversight to ensure aid is working.
Feel free to email Ben at Ben@disasteraccountability.org.
Early on in the life of The Gathering I had a conversation with Anne. We had never met but she wanted to know more about the mission of The Gathering. When I told her we were hoping to be a “bridge” between donors and what they needed to make good decisions she smiled and said, “Well, aren’t you the good little social worker? You really need to be needed, don’t you?” She then drew a graphic I will never forget. Two lines down the middle of the page represented a river. On one side was The Gathering and on the other side she drew a blank circle with a question mark. “Instead of building a bridge you should build something on the other side of the river that will be so compelling, interesting and useful that people will figure out a way to get there without the ease of a bridge. They will tunnel under, dam up the river and walk across, use a helicopter, throw a cable or swim. They will get across because they are determined to get to what they want and value. Otherwise, you will be focused on your own need to be a “bridge” and that is not only unhealthy for you but you will attract people who need bridges.”
I realized then the wealthy and donors are surrounded by people wanting to build bridges for them and to solve problems. They want to serve them by relieving them of the stress of doing it themselves. It is everything from shaping the values of their children to doing the due diligence for their giving. There are organizations and services clamoring to be a bridge to make it easy to get to the “other side”. I knew The Gathering was not going to be that. We could not be just another organization or ministry meeting a need and making things easier. We were going to build something that would be of such value that people would find a way to get there to be with others who had done the same. It would not be for everyone.
I’ve never forgotten her challenge and now when I meet with people wanting to be a bridge for donors I ask them the same. “Do you want them to become dependent on you and your need to be needed or do you want to see them figure out a way to get there themselves – at the risk of not needing you?”
It’s a good question for us a donors as well. Are we creating a whole network of bridge builders in our lives to make things easier or are we learning how to get across the river and grow?Comments
We spent two weeks on the Danube river recently and part of the tour was a variety of churches, chapels and sanctuaries. One of our guides, a nonreligious person, was also one of the most knowledgeable about Gothic and Baroque architecture. In the course of looking at a number (a large number!) of cathedrals she talked about the theology and world view each represented. I had never thought about it but it got my mind going about other things.
Briefly, Gothic architecture was built around the transcendence, awe and majesty of God. Everything pointed vertically and the effect was to draw the congregation’s attention to heaven and the life hereafter. The theologians and clergy of that period of history were caught up in the splendor of heaven – partly because of the squalid and miserable conditions below. Life was difficult and the prospect of a better life was compelling. The church represented a “universe in miniature” that was designed to convey the distant and awesome glory of God. “The logical and ordered nature of the structure reflected the clarity and rationality of God’s universe.”
On the other hand, the Baroque period was something of a reaction to the Gothic and, as always, the conditions of the world had changed. People had lived through extensive wars, plagues, economic downturns and there was something of a general desire to focus on making this life better instead of thinking only of the hereafter. So, the emphasis was not spires “reaching toward heaven” and the “ordered nature of structure” but light, color, texture and art intended to draw people in – a kind of celebration of creation and the here and now.
I think evangelical philanthropy is in something of a similar transition from a primary focus on the hereafter towards both the celebration of creation, the arts, and the role of the church in the here and now. Of course, we have such a short history but there is clearly a shift from the generation that was motivated so strongly by “finishing the task”to a generation that sees the role of philanthropy as broader. Who is right? I don’t think that is the issue. I loved both Gothic and Baroque. There is room for each.Comments
A few weeks ago, a friend at a foundation in Michigan asked me to put together a list of books and/or other resources that would be helpful to him in his work in philanthropy. I had never put a list together before and as I thought about what I would recommend to him I realized philanthropy is about so much more than the simple act of giving away money. It involves understanding and working with individuals and organizations. It relies on history, psychology, theology, the arts, business and economics. So...here is what I sent him.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I am part of a community to which I am called and not merely a detached benefactor.
The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid taught me how information works and moves in real life. What could be more important in our work than understanding that?
King Lear is the best text I know on estate planning and family dynamics.
How To Change The World by David Bornstein helped me understand how long it takes to make social change real.
The Essence of Strategic Giving by Peter Frumkin is pretty much self-explanatory.
Inside American Philanthropy by Waldemar Nielsen. The subtitle says it all: The Dramas of Donorship.
The Road to Hell by Michael Maren is still the best book I’ve read on “the ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity.”
Focus by Al Ries is the one book I hand out to both donors and non-profits more than any other.
The Seven Faces of Philanthropy by Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File describes the basic motivations for giving.
The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins was the first book that clearly described the transition of the geography of the global church
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell helped me understand my particular role in philanthropy.
Self-Renewal by John Gardner is about far more than self-renewal. It is about the renewal of the institutions of society.
The Fall by Albert Camus taught me the difference between judging and discerning.
Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis was so helpful in learning to work with entrepreneurs and teams.
Giving: Western Ideas of Philanthropy by J.B. Schneewind. It may not be in print but the one chapter “Contexts of Charity in the Middle Ages” is worth searching for the book. It traces the development of our treatment of poverty from the early church until today.
The book of Ecclesiastes should be read and re-read as long as you are in this work.Comments
There is a rising tide of giving in this country. Even in a weak economy, giving in 2011 increased 7.5% from 2010 for a total of $346 billion. According to "Giving USA" that will rise to $360 billion in 2012. Individuals are the single largest source of giving (75%) and the largest recipient is broadly categorized as religion (36%). The largest non-religious channel for individual giving is the United Way which allows individuals to deduct contributions directly from their pay.
Another more publicized increase is that of young people giving small amounts through mobile phones to a wide variety of causes. While it has been steadily growing for a few years, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a turning point. Some think almost 10% of contributions to the $5.2 billion that was raised came through channels like Twitter and mobile phone contributions. While disasters are now the single biggest stimulus for this giving, there is no doubt it is increasing significantly from year to year. Online giving jumped 34% between 2009 and 2010. The average online gift is now $140 - actually higher than the average gift given in traditional ways. So, a swelling number of online gifts is having a marked impact on overall giving in the country.
But, is this philanthropy? Some would argue that any gift is philanthropy. No matter the size. Others would say it is only philanthropy when it reaches a certain size of gift or it is somehow formalized and structured in a particular way. Still others have said philanthropy includes not only money but volunteer time and in-kind giving. I've even heard fund raisers include their work under the broadest definition.
I would be interested to hear what you think. Responding on a blog is sometimes inconvenient and clumsy so you can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (903)509-9911. I'll compile the results and publish them in a future blog.Comments