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What Your Nonprofit Should be Doing After Katrina (or any other Major Disaster)

[This article was written in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina's landfall in Louisiana in August, 2005]

Hurricane Katrina has elicited the largest outpouring of U.S. private and governmental resources since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.. Over $500 million was raised privately in the first week alone. Government assistance and personnel, both civilian and military, poured into the affected areas.

The devastation is massive. It will take months to clean up the cities, towns, and farms destroyed. It will take years to rebuild.

Our hearts are with those who have suffered, and who are still suffering.

When the public reacted with unprecedented generosity after 9/11, giving $2.5 billion to major charities to assist affected people and families, there was talk of at least some of this giving causing other nonprofits to fall short of their fund raising goals. While 9/11-related giving only amounted to about 1% of all charitable giving in 2001, and many charities were successful in meeting their goals, some charities did feel some pain.

The economic slowdown already present before 9/11 was magnified by it, resulting in foundation investment assets and foundation gifts shrinking after 9/11. Overall fundraising was stagnant in 2002. Politicians, regulators, the media, and the public were concerned with nonprofit accountability and donor intent after reports of how gifts to the American Red Cross and the 9/11 Fund established by the NYC area United Ways were being used.

Organizations with well-developed, written strategic plans -- plans that are being used actively by staffs and leaders -- have a big advantage over organizations less prepared and less organized.

What should you do, and what should your organization do, to preserve and protect your nonprofit's mission and the causes you serve?

  • Be genuine, truthful, and authentic in all your communications and actions, both public and private.
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  • Exercise forbearance and tolerance with those who are having difficulty coping, whether from fear, anger, frustration, powerlessness, lack of information, or for any other reason.
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  • Remember that 9/11 was a shining example of charitable reaction to crisis as well as a shining example of public generosity. Record funds were raised, and almost all those funds were raised ethically and spent wisely. A U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) study in 2002 concluded that over 97% of 9/11-related gifts to charity were raised and spent appropriately. There is no reason to believe that post-Katrina fund raising and charitable service activities will be any different.
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  • Re-establish (or establish) contact with your key supporters -- donors, clients, grant funding sources, legislators, etc. Keep lines of communication open so you can listen as well as speak. You need to know what others are thinking, hearing, and saying.
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  • It's time to assess the landscape. It's quite possible that the political, economic, and social environment in which your organization works will change in the coming weeks and months. Energy prices spiked immediately and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes and jobs. Families are resettling, either short-term or long-term, in communities across the U.S. Longer-term impacts may include interest rate changes, economic growth changes, cost and availability of construction materials and labor, and governmental spending priorities.
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  • Evaluate and predict based on the information you collect and analyze. How will these short-term and long-term changes affect your mission and how you pursue that mission? How will these changes affect your supporters, and how will your supporters' actions affect your ability to pursue your mission?
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  • Based on your investigations, assessments, evaluations, and decisions, act decisively -- and be seen to be doing so. Whether you identify new or expanded populations to serve, or simply need to serve your existing mission even better, being certain in the decision will help you chart a successful course for the future. Communicating that certainty will help build your organization's credibility and success.

Americans give over $240 billion to charity (2004 figures) and donate more than three billion volunteer hours a year. Over 3/4 of US households give either money, time, or both to charity each year. Especially in the face of adversity, there are people motivated to help with their hands, their hearts, and their resources.

Building -- and communicating -- a compelling case for your organization and the people it serves will help assure success. Having a solid, yet flexible, strategic plan in place is an important step toward clarifying priorities and reassuring your clients and supporters when the unexpected happens.