In the News: With Waters Rising, a Community Foundation Launched a National Network for Support

Michael Kavate, Inside Philanthropy • May 26, 2021

At the end of 2017, the team at the Greater New Orleans Foundation realized they needed more than a disaster plan. They needed a formal strategy. In the decade and a half since Hurricane Katrina turned their community upside down, responding to damage from extreme weather—hurricanes, floods, tornadoes—had become a staple of their work.

Those responses required all hands on deck. Development staff had to raise money for the response. Communications staff had to keep the community in the loop. The CEO had to coordinate with local governments and other leaders. And program staff had to get money out the door to those in need.

Yet despite all that painful experience, the team found themselves wondering how other foundations were dealing with the tensions they were facing. With each disaster further exacerbating existing inequities, how were they centering equity in their responses? How were they paying for all the additional work?

“Lots of questions bubbled up, and we found that we didn’t have good places to turn unless we started talking to other foundations,” said Carmen James Randolph, the community foundation’s vice president for programs.

In fact, many funders were looking to them for answers. “We were increasingly getting calls from various foundations about, ‘Hey GNOF, how did you handle Katrina?’” said Ella Aglipay Delio, who until recently was the foundation’s director for environmental and regional initiatives.

Those were the seeds for the foundation to organize When Waters Rise, a network of community foundations, place-based grantmakers and national funders united by their efforts to respond equitably to disasters, both to meet short-term needs and to build long-term community resilience.

Created as a resource for coastal philanthropies facing worsening storms and sea level rise, it has proven invaluable to members during COVID-19—and also attracted attention from funders dealing with wildfires and other threats. Long before the pandemic brought increased attention to the inequities of disaster, it brought funders together to strategize on how to put equity at the center of their disaster response and ensure that recovery efforts do not leave the most vulnerable, particularly low-income communities and people of color, further behind.

With climate change contributing to more extreme weather across the nation, from wildfires across California to hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, the network offers an example of how foundations buffeted by disasters and facing similar challenges are banding together to share lessons and support each other—and ensure that everyone benefits from recovery funding.

About the network

The network kicked off in June 2018, with a convening hosted by the foundation in New Orleans and planned with the help of several of their coastal peers. About 25 people attended.

Participants included representatives from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Greater Houston Community Foundation, Miami Foundation, New York Community Trust, Rhode Island Foundation, and Summit Foundation, as well as from two philanthropic support organizations, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and The Funders Network.

Since that first meeting, the network has held at least a couple such meetings each year, some attracting high attendance, though the gatherings have moved online since the pandemic. Members also use a listserv to keep in touch, share lessons learned and support each others’ funds when disaster strikes. Today, Delio says, the group has about a dozen core members, and representatives from roughly 100 organizations hailing from almost 30 states have joined its meetings.

“We’ve been able to invite funders to the table that don’t necessarily consider themselves disaster grantmakers,” said Randolph.

Equity is at the core of all the group’s discussions, which can be wide-ranging. Some cover the nitty gritty of making grantmaking more nimble, using tactics like ACH transfers. Others look at how to empower communities to voice their vision for how to rebuild. A webinar last year looked at how disasters impact food and water supply chains and the potential “last mile” challenges.

How one member used lessons learned

At the network’s first meeting, some of the attendees were already veterans of extreme weather. Others, like Linda Rice, were in the “when, not if” camp.

Rice is vice president for grantmaking at Hampton Roads Community Foundation in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval base, is among the top 20 U.S. cities at highest risk of coastal flooding by 2050, according to research by Climate Central. Norfolk has, fortunately, still not been hit by a devastating storm or flood. But then came March 2020.

“In December of 2019, I don’t think any of us thought that we would ever experience a pandemic. But the lessons learned from When Waters Rise were very helpful in helping me help our foundation form a response,” Rice said.

Her meetings with the group had reinforced several core principles that guided her foundation’s response. Act rapidly, but with an eye to the horizon. Grant opportunities should be as broad as possible. Do not require elaborate applications or reports. As Rice summarized it: “Be nimble, flexible, understanding and have grace.”

When Waters Rise impressed on Rice the need to budget for the long term. Most federal and philanthropic dollars arrive shortly after devastation strikes, but needs continue long after. “The disaster may hit in a day, but a year later, the community will still be struggling, and nonprofits will still be serving clients,” she told me.

The group has also expanded Rice’s network. She now has personal relationships with the teams at the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Miami Foundation. “We’ve built a learning community where we can learn from each other, call on each other, share with each other,” Rice said. “We have been able to see what other foundations are doing that we can model and replicate.”

Preparations that proved themselves in the pandemic 

Greater New Orleans Foundation also found that ideas from the group were pivotal when the pandemic hit. Based on suggestions from other funders, the team had pre-registered nonprofits in their area who could serve as first responders in a disaster. Randolph said that was initially limited to organizations that do the “gutting and mucking” work necessary in storms and floods. But conversations with the network led them to expand the list to healthcare providers, mental health services, food pantries and other nonprofits.

The foundation also started doing “blue sky” disaster fundraising in 2019—i.e., asking for money before a crisis strikes. Despite initial doubts from the development team about donors’ willingness to give in advance, they found many understood that nonprofits would need funds right away. “They can’t wait for a fundraising effort that takes three or four weeks to generate enough capital to get them started. They need to hit the ground running,” Randolph said.

So when COVID arrived and New Orleans shut down, the foundation was ready. About 25 nonprofits were already registered for the disaster fund. Within 24 hours of the lockdown, the foundation was able to issue four grants totaling $40,000, all electronically.

The lessons from the network have also helped the foundation manage during a year in which COVID is but one of many challenges. The foundation has responded to five successive storms during the pandemic. With its hotels empty due to COVID-19, New Orleans has been in the rare position of serving as a receiving city for evacuees from neighboring communities hit by extreme weather. And with the foundation’s support, the city’s nonprofits have been busy providing food and supplies to those in need.

Their new strategy—focused on equity, community resilience, nonprofit sustainability and civic engagement—has been key.

How will the network evolve?

It’s been clear from early on that When Waters Rise’s appeal stretches beyond water-related disasters. At just the second meeting of the network, held in Miami in 2019, attendees included funders from California and the Midwest working to respond to wildfires in their communities.

Despite the wider interest, the network is still relatively informal. It has no website, for instance, though the team would like to create an online hub with the videos, research papers, strategy guides, and planning documents generated from the group.

The network is also largely a Greater New Orleans Foundation production. Surdna and Summit foundations have each contributed $5,000, and the Blackstone Ranch Institute provided $10,000 for the group’s second in-person gathering. In-kind support has come from various quarters, with The Funders Network hosting one of their convenings and the Ford Foundation helping raise its profile through a partnership with its JustFilms initiative.

The pandemic has forced virtually all funders to become, in some fashion, disaster funders. Climate change, which is making extreme weather a matter of “when, not if” for all of us, ensures that remains the new normal. And historically, such forces have hit the neediest the hardest. Amid these forces, the network is pondering how it will evolve.

“This is the question that we have to ask for this work in the future: what it looks like, who holds it and what are the disasters that philanthropy will need to be more coordinated on?” said Randolph. “What does that coordination look like as we face more impacts of climate change in the future?”


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