Three Hard-Earned Lessons for Disaster Response and Grantmaking

Two weeks ago, a dozen tornadoes touched down in southern Louisiana and gouged devastating paths in the earth that destroyed homes and, in the tiny town of Convent, took two lives.

Then, less than a week later, Louisiana fell under the pall of a slow-moving storm that swelled the rivers and bayous, flooding 5,000 homes. Now FEMA and the governor’s office are telling us that nearly 2 million people could be affected by downriver flooding.

Thankfully – miraculously – it seems that none of the people affected so far were our coworkers at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana. But – as is always happens in our company of 2,300 locals – the hurt isn’t that far removed. Those who’ve lost are our family members. Our friends. Our neighbors.

This week, we’re gearing up to help, so it’s timely that GMN has asked me to blog about how grantmakers can respond in times of disaster. Without invoking too much of our Katrina experience, I’m still sorry to tell you that our company and its Foundation have all too much experience with this kind of relief. After Katrina and Rita, we opened our company’s reserves to keep payments flowing to medical facilities in affected areas – keeping doctors and hospitals open to those who needed treatment. And after the Gulf oil spill in 2010, we partnered with local hospitals to provide health services for those affected. We’ve invested millions in grants and sponsorships into recovering communities.

But we know that we aren’t singular – that every major philanthropic force in any part of the world feels the duty to respond when nature is ferocious. As one of the oldest and largest companies in the state, we take a deep pride and satisfaction in our charitable investments into the people and communities we serve – and we’ve been around long enough to see those seeds sprout. So, naturally, when those people and communities are threatened, we respond.

Our first reaction is always “do whatever we can.” But, over time – and with lots of practice – we’ve learned that there are some things we are great at… and some things we aren’t. With that in mind, here are three key ideas that I believe will help you as you plan your disaster response (though my fingers are crossed that you never have to act on these plans):

1. Consider every resource.

As funders, our organizations’ philanthropic capacities grow from the background and experiences of the people who work for us. A hospital conversion foundation has a depth of community and healthcare experience. A corporate foundation has deep understanding of and ties to its industry. Those associated with an individual or family foundation have unique professional and avocational skills.

This means that we have financial resources and other resources that will be needed in a time of disaster – hands to help, practical know-how, capacity to communicate to or on behalf of victims. We shouldn’t draw up boundaries within our lanes of experience. If we can help, we should try.

For example, our greatest resource at Blue Cross isn’t actually the charitable dollars we invest – it’s the hands and hearts of the people who work here. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many our employees opened their homes to those who were displaced. Our company opened a daycare for the children living with our employees and collected dry goods and food not only for shelters, but for those who were housing and feeding friends and family.

Meanwhile, on the corporate scale, we adapted our payment and claims model to keep clinics and hospitals open, and funded partners to meet the immediate needs of the community.

Recovery means that philanthropic organizations bring the full weight of their resources to the table. So ask yourself – what resources aren’t you considering? If you have employees, what can you do to free up bandwidth for them to give or to volunteer?

2. Do what you do best.

At the risk of contradicting myself, while we should bring our full capacity to bear, there are also things we do better than anyone else – and we should make those things the thrust of our disaster response.

As a healthcare company, we focus on making sure people affected by disaster have access to doctors and hospitals. We are a statewide company with deep ties to healthcare providers and charitable organizations – we are uniquely positioned to facilitate communication between community health partners.

After the Gulf oil spill, we partnered with hospitals to deliver direct health services. For those who lost their livelihoods – and, thus, their ability to pay for medical care – we created Coastal Care Fairs where free health services were available to those in need.

We convened partnerships and communicated about our efforts in the context of the overall recovery effort. We relied upon universities, churches and local coalitions to do what they do best – in-depth community outreach. We seeded grants and sponsorships to community health nonprofits. Our partners kept us advised on the potential for growth and progress in the aftermath.

In a disaster, our desire to help and lead can tempt us to assume a role that isn’t a natural. Ask yourself – what does my organization do best? How can we compliment the work of others for the good of the community?

3. When it comes to partnerships, don’t get ready; stay ready.

Not to be a downer, but disaster will come. Inevitably, unescapably, it will come. It won’t always wait until hurricane season or an election cycle finishes.

When disaster does strike, if there isn’t a coalition of natural, established partners in place, the community will flounder longer before it can begin recovery. If the coalition isn’t large enough to solve the problem at hand, if it isn’t cooperative and spends time mired in deliberation and squabbling, people will suffer while we struggle to get our act together.

As foundations, our resources tend to make people want to cooperate with us. That may sound cynical, but what it really means is that we are uniquely positioned to be a convener and a facilitator. And not just in the days immediately after a disaster – but for the long term.

You see, the challenge isn’t just in building partnerships – it’s in keeping them strong through adversity. Communities most often exhibit what makes them powerful in times of stress and strain. They band together and work in ways for the common good. But recovery is slow, painstaking work. As time ebbs on, disasters point out our problems – fractures in communities and in social systems.

Once we get through the immediate challenges – how do we keep our coalitions together for the good of everyone involved? Ask yourself, after your community’s immediate needs are met, how can you keep your partnerships strong? When the furor dies down, what can you do to maintain and plan for the next time disaster strikes, making your response time faster and more effective?

Louisiana has no shortage of challenges, but one of the things we continue to do well is finding ways to recover from these challenges. Our people do so with joy and with grit, coming out stronger than we were as we went in. That resilience and exuberance comes from the way we approach life and approach problems, particularly when times get tough.

I hope you’re not reading this in the moments after a disaster. I hope wherever you are the skies are clear. Most of all, I hope that these hard-learned lessons get you thinking about what your organization will do when the inevitable comes while you have time. Knowing how you’ll respond ahead of time will make you a better partner, a better funder and will help the people you serve get back on their feet.


Michael Tipton

Michael Tipton is President of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelWTipton.

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