How disaster charity can pivot to sustainable philanthropy

This has been a heavy year of natural disasters: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, wildfires in California, the Mexico City earthquake, a monsoon in Bangladesh.

In the aftermath of any natural disaster, money rushes in to help those in need. The media attention prompts people to write checks but also to donate clothes, food and medicine.

It’s well meaning — it’s hard not to help people in the midst of a humanitarian crisis — but when the disaster passes from the news, people who give reactively, as an act of charity, turn their attention to something else.

For philanthropists who commit to difficult projects that last many years, the challenge of disasters is different. They need to find a way to maintain the momentum created by so much attention around a natural disaster to sustain long-term redevelopment. It’s tricky turning charity into philanthropy.

After all, Hurricane Harvey, which flooded Houston and drew charitable attention to the city, was not the first storm to wreak havoc on the area. Areas of Houston’s flood zones have a one-in-500 chance of flooding, known as a 500-year flood. But the floods can happen back to back.

“Flooding is not new to Houston,” said Marilu Hastings, vice president of sustainability programs at the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas. “Harvey was the third 500-year flood in three years. Now, we’re thinking we need to change the standard for 500-year floods. It’s a 50-year flood or less.”

Beth Gazley, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, who studies disaster giving, said one certainty was that natural disasters occur every year, and people inclined to donate money to these causes should get into the habit of giving before they happen.

To prove her point on the ebb and flow of disaster donations, she pointed to the Red Cross’s annual financial filings with the I.R.S. to show the impact of a year’s hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis and other destructive events on giving.

Donations rose to more than $1 billion after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and again after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In years without such prominent disasters, donations dipped, to $741 million in 2011, and $788 million in 2013. In 2015, donations were $638 million.

She expects an uptick this year, but she said such patterns were “not how you build a sustainable organization.”

Donors, she said, should always give unrestricted gifts, so the money is used where it is needed most, and resist sending material goods. Giving cash means the charity can put that money to work right away, she said, adding, “Sometimes when people give stuff, they’re just trying to empty out their garage.”

“The Red Cross’s window of service is three days after a crisis — food, shelter and immediate humanitarian needs,” Ms. Gazley said. “They’re not going to build everyone’s houses 10-feet higher. When we focus on disaster charities, we’re not focused on resilience.”

That is where philanthropy comes in.

The prominence of wealthy local families can help bring a community together. Ms. Hastings said the Mitchell Foundation — whose money came from one of the pioneers of hydraulic fracturing — knew it needed to find partners to use philanthropy to protect Houston from future floods. It joined two other family foundations — the Kinder Foundation, whose money comes from Richard Kinder, who made his fortune in oil and gas pipelines; and the Houston Endowment, whose wealth traces back to Jesse and Mary Gibbs Jones, who built some of the city’s first skyscrapers.

“There are a lot of questions about why Houston floods — Is it the zoning? Is it how the city was built? — and there’s a lot of finger-pointing,” Ms. Hastings said. “Those are good questions, but they don’t move us forward. We’re focused on solving problems.”

To that end, the Houston Consortium, as the group is known, has brought together researchers to come up with suggestions for change, like new flood maps and reservoirs.

They are encouraged to understand the options quickly and share what they find. One requirement of the consortium’s support is that the researchers collaborate and not keep their findings to publish years later in an academic journal.

Given the connections all three foundations have from the prominent families behind them, the consortium also hopes to put into practice what its research finds.

“We’re on the ground, and we have the relationships in the community,” Ms. Hastings said. “To me, it’s a matter of taking the longer view and putting together a rapid response that is more strategic than getting people food, shelter and clothing.”

More difficult is turning that charitable impulse into a philanthropic quest from a distance. Effective disaster philanthropy, after all, requires the philanthropist to have the financial resources but also the contacts to make things happen.

Kenny Chesney, the country music star, is trying to show what can be assembled quickly. Watching from Nashville as Hurricane Irma bore down on St. John, the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, he said he felt helpless. He had been going to the island since before he was famous and he had close friends taking shelter on his estate on St. John.

Before he was able to make contact with anyone on St. John, he set up a foundation through a donor-advised fund — called Love for Love City — at Wells Fargo Private Bank. He brought on John McInnis, a friend who had worked on disaster cleanup after Hurricane Katrina.

“When you get past that anxiety state, and the reality of what had happened sinks in, that was why I wanted to start Love for Love City,” Mr. Chesney said. “I wanted to help as quickly as we could, but I also wanted to do it right.”

Mr. Chesney would not disclose how much money he has contributed or his fans have donated, saying only that it was under $10 million. But what has allowed his effort to have influence beyond his celebrity is his partnership with other people with an interest in St. John to bring attention to the island.

Two of those were Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and former mayor of New York, and Tom Secunda, one of Mr. Bloomberg’s co-founders of Bloomberg L.P. Both had resources and connections that only billionaires and civic leaders could bring to bear.

“I was fortunate to know those guys and be a part of it all,” Mr. Chesney said. “I feel I’m very lucky to have the ability and also the platform to help.”

He said Mr. McInnis managed the day-to-day operations to ensure that money went where it was supposed to go.

“The key is taking a very complicated situation and simplifying it,” Mr. McInnis said. “The key beach bars and businesses that everyone loves will be up and going within the first six to 12 months. The beaches will be clean. There will be houses for people to rent and stay in.”

He added that larger rebuilding of homes and resorts that were leveled is the second phase and will take several years. Yet Mr. Chesney, like the people behind the Houston Consortium, said his goal was to help rebuild the island in a way that made the infrastructure stronger. One of his goals was greater use of solar energy to bolster the electrical grid.

“I’m going to do my best through music and through my platform to raise as much awareness as I can and alleviate the stress and anxiety they’re living under,” Mr. Chesney said of the people on St. John. “The challenge is to keep having it in the psyche of people who really care about it.”

That kind of thinking helps elevate the response to one disaster from charity to a more robust philanthropic project.

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