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Lessons Learned From Katrina

By The NonProfit Times - December 3, 2012

In August of 2005, I served as cabinet secretary for Louisiana’s Department of Social Services. Our team of more than 5,000 public servants was responsible for the well-being of children in state custody; aid to low-income working families; child support enforcement; and, vocational rehabilitation clients.

As the storms of that year wrought havoc on large areas of Louisiana, we added to our ongoing roles coordinating the response and recovery demands of moving, sheltering, feeding and helping rebuild the lives of hundreds of thousands more citizens. The need was unprecedented and clearly demanded full engagement of multiple sectors.

Our turn to the nonprofit sector was immediate, and its rapid response was critical. Given the large scale of response and lengthy recovery anticipated, we established the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, a coordinating nonprofit entity, for the speed and agility that 501(c)(3) organizations uniquely offer.

The Recovery Corps served as an intersection of government programs and private investment, partnering for efficient local delivery through comprehensive multi-service nonprofits such as Kingsley House, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America. These “umbrella organizations,” in turn, engaged grassroots service providers.

While the Recovery Corps dissolved after fulfilling its intended five-year purpose, the bonds created among nonprofits during the disaster response continue. Lessons remain and were tested during the storms of 2008, the oil spill in 2010 and Hurricane Isaac this past August. A succinct summary of those lessons might be heard in the Kipling poem, “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

When disaster strikes, the challenge for nonprofits is multi-faceted and spread over a much larger population than the organizations might be ready to serve. How those groups respond will largely determine the success of the relief effort as well as the future viability of the nonprofits themselves.

The following basic principles and strategies might help nonprofits maintain their balance, provide vital services and still live for another day.

Stick to the mission. When the needs are many, no one group can do it all. Expertise built up over years of serving a particular need or segment of the population will be invaluable. Avoid the tendency to shift a partnering nonprofit’s focus. Rather, help redouble efforts at their established mission.

Use all means of communication. Share accurate, timely information. People hunger for information when regular communication systems break down and often fall victim to unfounded rumors. Broadcast on all available media, but fact-check each message for accuracy before release. Form partnerships early and often. Nonprofits are most effective when they join with government and business to solve mutual problems. This is no time for turf battles. It’s all hands on deck. Open channels of communication and coordinate efforts to provide needed services. Establish clearinghouses to direct resources and align them with the most pressing needs.

Good potential for multi-sector partnership can be found within the Corporation for National and Community Service, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters and the National Donations Management Network. Connect with these resources where it makes sense.

Take care of your service pro­viders. Front-line workers who help frustrated and hurting storm victims also have needs. Recognizing their challenges and helping maintaining a balance will help. It is important to offer aid workers opportunities to tell their stories and to have them validated.

Maintain strong systems for accountability. There is a temptation to respond to pressing needs without fol­lowing procedures that assure donor funds are being used wisely. This can lead to major problems later and hurt a group’s ability to serve long term needs. Be open to opportunities for innovation. Disasters often reveal new and better ways to approach problems and generate new alliances that can provide lasting mutual support.

In this difficult time, try to remember that things will get better. Celebrate the small victories. Show respect for all people, and trust that extraordinary times can highlight the strength of the human spirit. NPT

Ann Silverberg Williamson is president and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations in Baton Rouge, La.

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