As hurricane season begins, community foundations prepare permanent disaster funds

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After the collapse of a condominium tower in North Miami in June 2021, Rebecca Fishman Lipsey realized her organization needed to overhaul how it responded to disasters.

As CEO of the Miami Foundation, the city’s primary community foundation, Fishman Lipsey got to work coalescing support for victims of the tragedy that killed 98 people and destroyed the 136-unit building. Funders were eager to help, but there was a problem.

She remembers corporate partners calling her saying, “We are in, we are with you. Just fill out this application and the money will be there in six weeks.”

Those who lost homes and loved ones couldn’t wait that long. As Fishman Lipsey and her team scrambled to raise and disperse funds, she imagined the next crisis.

“It’s not going to be one building in an isolated neighborhood,” she said. “It is going to be a climate disaster, and I’m not going to have internet to fill out an application. I cannot wait six weeks for the check to clear. I need everybody’s ACH information already. I need to know what supplies people need, before the disaster.”

To meet those needs, the Miami Foundation set out to build a new model of crisis response. With help from several foundations and partners, including Citadel and the Miami Heat, it created the Miami Disaster Resilience Fund, a permanent, revolving fund, the earnings of which could be used to support a network of nonprofits across Miami before, during and after a disaster.

Establishing a permanent fund allows the Miami Foundation to issue grants as soon as hurricane season begins and, if a storm does strike, send help quickly. Money remains in the fund, which increases through investments, until it is needed. In the last year, the Miami Disaster Relief Fund grew by more than 17% to about $8 million. “We’re coming into this season with $1 million that no one had to donate,” said Fishman Lipsey.

Community foundations — tax-exempt philanthropic institutions that manage a variety of funding sources to donate to other groups and individuals — typically focus their giving on their local populations. But as community leaders, they are also called on to aid in crises, a role they may fill more often as climate events become more frequent and intense.

Last year, the United States broke its record for the most disasters with damages exceeding $1 billion. A forecast of the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1, issued last week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association predicted at least 17 named storms and four to seven major hurricanes.

Foundations need new strategies to prepare, said Patty McIlreavy, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “There is space across all types of philanthropic entities to explore how you set money aside for this and to be much more proactive,” she said. “We need all types of foundations to explore the realities of the disasters that are coming for communities.”

Having funds ready ahead of time can also save money — and possibly lives — because foundations can direct money toward preparation. “It will be a lot less costly,” said McIlreavy. “It’s a lot harder to get yourself out of a disaster and to recover from it than it is to have something mitigated and never occur.”

On the first day of hurricane season, the Miami Foundation will issue a round of proactive grants supporting programs to educate residents about what supplies to stockpile, how to prepare their homes and when to evacuate. It will help provide sandbags, tarps, and other protective equipment.

If a storm is forecasted, the foundation will be able to move money to those same partners right away. “When I see the storm is going to hit in three days, I can send them the resources immediately,” said Fishman Lipsey. “I don’t need to wait for the checks to clear.”

About 100 miles north of Miami in Stuart, Florida, a much smaller community foundation is about to launch its own permanent disaster fund. The Community Foundation Martin-St. Lucie has raised $300,000 for its Local Disaster Relief Fund, with a goal to raise $500,000 by mid-summer.

When CEO Elizabeth Barbella heard Fishman Lipsey speak at a meeting of community foundation leaders last year, she related to the frustration of having to wait too long to help in a crisis.

“Historically, in the middle of the storm, I would be preparing something to reach out to our clients and friends to say, ‘Okay, it’s real. The storm hit. We’re going to need to help the frontline organizations really quickly’,” Barbella told the Associated Press. “And when the dust settled, we’d be reaching out to organizations asking for some type of simple application and then deploying the resource.”

To speed up that response, the foundation is creating agreements ahead of time with half a dozen local nonprofits that can supply basic needs like food, medicine and housing after a storm.

One of those partners is House of Hope, based in Martin County, Florida. It began as a food bank 40 years ago and has grown to offer a range of essential services like job and housing support to around 21,000 residents per month.

With a grant from the Local Disaster Relief Fund, House of Hope will spend the summer distributing hurricane kits to its clients filled with food, water and batteries.

Without this assistance, most of the organization’s clients wouldn’t be able to stockpile supplies, said House of Hope CEO Rob Ranieri. “It’s a couple hundred bucks they don’t have in their budget.”

If a storm does hit, the fund will support House of Hope’s work to replace what clients lose, such as perishable food that spoils in a power outage. Most of the people it assists are hourly workers, who don’t get paid if businesses shut down, so the organization will be ready to help them with rent and medical bills.

Paying House of Hope’s own employees to work overtime, or adding temporary staff to provide services, gets expensive too. The agreement with the community foundation gives Ranieri confidence that he will have the funds to meet the need.

“Now we can plan, know we will have the resources, have things in place and ready to go,” he said. “It will make us an effective resource for the lower income community, and it will be almost instant, like flipping a switch.”

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Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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