On The Scene

This past August, I had the opportunity to return to New Orleans for several days. Though the primary reason for returning was the biennial conference of my college fraternity, I took the opportunity to connect with some of the New Orleans firefighters I met while there last October as a volunteer performing search and rescue for Katrina victims in the lower Ninth Ward.

I also scheduled some time to visit with nonprofits in the region. Putting that meeting together was difficult until N-TEN’s Katrin Verclas put me in touch with John Kimble, New Orleans Public Policy Director for the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations (LANO). He hosted a meeting at Nonprofit Central, a converted furniture store just outside of the central business district that houses office and meeting space for area nonprofits.

John sent an email to area nonprofit executives and about a dozen took advantage of the opportunity to discuss how they could use the Web to enhance their mission. First, it’s clear that many of them did not exist a year ago. They were created in direct response to the hurricane’s damage. They are collections of individuals who have banded together to help their community cope with rebuilding.

Those nonprofits that were in existence before the storm have re-defined their missions in light of the reality that everything in the area has changed, that everything is harder to do, and that their constituents are always and primarily concerned with rebuilding.

The lack of progress in the New Orleans area is hard to fathom. When I was there in October, leading a strike team of search dogs from Virginia and Maryland, I saw the poorest part of a poor city at its very worst. I also saw devastation in the better-off sections of the region, like Slidell. Some 10 months later, I went back to see a city a little bit cleaner, but hardly recovered.

The lower Ninth Ward remains devastated, with hardly any rebuilding. Much of the debris is cleaned up, but some of the gray mud, ubiquitous in October, was still present. The only color I saw this time was grass growing abundantly where homes once stood. Mayor Ray Nagin takes credit for the grass growing, but I bet it is a result of so much, shall we say, organic fertilizer.

One nonprofit executive lives in St. Bernard Parish, just east (downstream and downhill) of the lower Ninth Ward. It’s an area that was flooded by the levee breaks, and I’m told every building was damaged. Only about 5 percent of its residents have returned. The nonprofit executive lives in a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer, in a neighborhood of FEMA trailers.

As we discussed one problem of using the Web there — Internet access — she told me that she expects to get her landline telephone service restored to her trailer on November 18, more than a year after the storm hit.

That reminds me of the old joke about the old Soviet Union’s inability to delivery goods and services. Now, the Soviet Union has been out of business since 1991, so let’s say the story takes place in 1989. The joke goes like this: A man walks into a car dealership and wants to buy a new car. The salesman goes through the list of options with him, fills out the paperwork, and then announces that the car will be delivered on June 5, 1997. The customer asks if it will be the morning of June 5, or the afternoon. “That’s eight years from now! How can you possibly care?” roared the salesman. “Because,” the customer replied calmly, “the plumber is coming in the morning.”

Order is overrated Another observation about local nonprofits is that they are very small, in geographic scope, in staff, and in budget. Yet, they are large in ambition. Some groups not in the area have more employees dedicated to the Web sites than these nonprofits have on their total payroll, not that many of them have been paid lately.

It’s also clear that there is substantial overlap of services from one nonprofit to the other, and little coordination between them, in spite of the good work LANO is doing there.

When I spoke to them about this, I assured them that this should not deter or discourage them. I told them, “We tried order here. It didn’t work too well.” They know exactly what I’m talking about. Big didn’t work for FEMA. Maybe small will work better for these groups. Quick decision-making, responsiveness to the community, low overhead are all virtues here.

I’m reminded of how “big” didn’t work on my last trip here. Not only were our search group’s orders (presumably handed down from some FEMA brain trust) vague, constantly changing, and impossible, but we were given virtually no resources to help us do the job. We got much of what we needed from other volunteers who were working for other nonprofits. We got medical supplies for our search dogs from SPCA volunteers who were in the ward rounding up lost pets. We got more medical supplies from some nurses who were volunteering with Heart to Heart.

And, after daily unanswered requests to FEMA for a veterinarian to check our search dogs, the SPCA folks showed up one day with a volunteer vet from Oklahoma who was there with The Humane Society of the United States. And of course, we ate whatever The Salvation Army and American Red Cross were cooking.

What worked, in each of these cases, was that volunteers on the ground saw needs and responded to them. Never once was a form filled out or a big-wig consulted.

Don’t be linear As I struggled to come up with some advice for these fledgling and shoestring nonprofits, I realized there was no need for them to follow the path of larger charities and other groups that are now being successful online. There’s no need to “catch up” with what others have been doing online.

Most big nonprofits spend lots of time worrying about their “legacy database” and integration with their direct mail and telephone campaigns. If your database is in a shoebox, however, “migration” ceases to be something to fear.   NPT

Rick Christ is a managing partner of NPAdvisors.com in Warrenton, Va., a consulting firm that helps nonprofits use the Web for fundraising, advocacy and communication. He also volunteers as a Search and Rescue Field Team Leader and instructor with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.