#114 When Disaster Relief Becomes Personal, with Sybil & Fred Ackerman-MunsonJan 30, 2023
Sybil and Fred wrap up January’s series on disaster relief with personal stories. The power of community and helping hands is a beautiful thing, and the hope that is found after a devastating disaster. They discuss the many key elements of funding in a disaster and also how it hit home, literally. Sybil and Fred talk about how there is a place for both large and small organizations, and also how people in local communities can really come forward and help their neighbors.
- Personal stories about the Oregon Wildfires of 2020 and the Ice Storm of 2021
- How to effectively work with organizations that are experienced at funding during a time of immediate disasters.
- Seven key takeaways to effectively fund disasters as a donor or philanthropist.
Sybil Ackerman-Munson Bio:
With over 20 years of experience as a nonprofit professional and foundation advisor, I work with philanthropic institutions and foundations interested in successful, high-impact grant making, so you can make a true and lasting positive contribution to the world on your terms.
If you enjoyed this episode, listen to these as well:
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In this new course, you'll gain access to beautifully animated and engaging videos, along with many other resources.
- Link for the waitlist for the Philanthropy Accelerator
- Link to the nonprofit email sign-up to connect
- Check out her website with all the latest opportunities to learn from Sybil at www.doyourgood.com
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Would you like to talk with Sybil directly?
Hi, my love.
I love you
Oh, I love you to
I'm really happy to talk to you today, and it's really funny because these days I usually do my interviews on Zoom. I think I've said this before, but it's funny to talk to you because you're giving me such loving eyes right now, and I'm trying to talk to you about disaster philanthropy.
That shows how much I love you, honey.
I'll talk to you about anything.
I know, but this is an important topic
This whole month of January, I've focused on disaster philanthropy, and I know you've talked to me about what you're like… You don't really fund this area, as if you're not completely an expert, but I don't mind.
I think it's because I always appreciate talking about these ideas with you. After all, you always ask good questions and bring stuff out that I may not think about it on my own.
You know, we've lived through some disasters, and there are some things that I've thought about just from my own personal experience living out here in Damascus, Oregon. And so before we get into facts and figures and the like… all of the people that I've interviewed are the experts who can sort of think through what this means, how to fund well when disaster strikes a community, and how to show up as a really good philanthropist. I want to talk to you about a little bit more of a personal feeling I have about all this. You may recall the wildfires that occurred in 2020.
Yeah, and I actually happened to be out of town that one week when that happened. And when I was out of town, that is when I was getting my horse trailer fixed. And because we have an old, rusted horse trailer, that horse trailer wasn't there, and who would have guessed that the wildfires would strike during that one week?
And so we were lucky that our house wasn't in the line of fire, so to speak, but we had to evacuate the horses. You had to come down from Seattle because, at the time, we were trying to take care of our kids in Seattle as well as here. We have a joint custody schedule where we live in two cities. It was crazy. Our own experience with that and then with the ice storm that was right after that in early 2021, which, in a way, was even more challenging for us. There are some things that surfaced for me. I want to bring up the personal level of experiencing those pieces, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.
One was when the wildfires happened and I was back east seeing my family or my parents. I didn't know where our animals were. I was calling and trying to talk to everybody from afar, and you weren't there either yet. And it was that feeling of helplessness, even though I'm so used to being in a position of Control.
And we were so lucky with all these wonderful people that helped us and the people that were taking care of our horses made sure that they were evacuated. Being evacuated twice meant there were times when we had no idea where they were. The family taking care of our horses, lost their homes, so they were living at Our house for a long time, about six weeks after the event. And I estimate that the ice storm caused up to $10,000 in damage. And the insurance companies didn't give us funds right away, you know. Luckily, we're insured. So, we did get reimbursed, but not till months later.
And you didn't even spend half of what you did.
Oh yeah, exactly, exactly, and then also, because we were in such a state of emergency, the person that came in to help during the ice storm, was very intent on overcharging us at times. We really didn't… At least it didn't feel like I had that normal situation where, when you're doing something, you can get a couple of bids and you can try to really make sure you're getting a good price, which is what we were in emergency mode.
The other thing that made me really feel deeply about all this is disaster philanthropy in general. By living through some of these pieces, I mean, you and I come from a place right now where we do have savings. We have the ability to navigate this. You know, when the emergency happened, we could use our savings to pay for it, and even though the insurance couldn't cover everything, we're fine now.
When that gentleman tried to overcharge us and do all those things. I had the wherewithal to tell him, "No, you know." We could then find someone else to assist us over time. It just really hit me that, you know, not everybody is in that same position. How do we go about it? Perhaps, as philanthropists believe, through those emergencies.
OH, and we forgot about the things I forgot to talk about, like how you know our neighbors. We live in a fairly rural part of Oregon, and some of our neighbors reacted differently. Some folks were sure that they would be looting. When people had to evacuate the house at our house during the fires, for example. So, one of our neighbors was out there with a sawed-off shotgun, ready to shoot people, and we were like, "Wait a minute." We might need folks to come and, you know, take more of the stuff out of our house, but don't shoot our friends, you know. It was; it was.
Yes, I literally told him that.
You did Fred yes exactly. I have a lot of personal thoughts that are tumbling out, and then I want to talk about more facts. And there's just so much research on this too. But, well, that's the thing.
I would add to what you were saying about all the personal. The stuff for me that was really hard, particularly about the fires, was not just the fires but the smoke, because it felt like the end of the world.
Oh yeah. And you were there. So, just to be clear, you came down from Seattle.
Yeah, it took me a day or two to get down from Seattle, but once I was here and evacuating the house and dealing with the horses, It was apocalyptic; now they don't. I mean, at least as far as I know, it didn't impact me necessarily physically, but mentally, it did.
It was almost as if the whole thing came together, and then, just as I was about to park our tractor in the middle of the lawn, hoping it wouldn't get caught in the fire, and we could save that by taking the cars to Safeway so they wouldn't be in the fire if It came through and took our house and everything.
The mental anguish of not knowing and simply knowing that your entire life may be upended, even if only in the end it really wasn't; that takes a toll, and so do the people who really do have those impacts as example, suppose you see a hurricane coming and it destroys your house. It’s not just about the house; do you have a place to stay, and if so, where do you stay, a warm blanket? It's about how your entire life has been snatched away from you, and there's a mental element to it if you know what I mean. I'm sure people who deal with this regularly understand this. They get that. but this was the first time that I was ever confronted with basically losing almost everything we had.
Right, although to be clear, we have a safety net, and we're, you know, that's the thing I'm really worried about.
I really want to be sensitive to the fact that I mean it; it just opened my eyes to really wanting to support people and help people who may not have the same buffer as we’re fortunate enough to have it, so, you know, it's real, you know.
Yeah, I want to add to that too. Are you familiar with that feeling? I'm also going to address something else. I’m just remembering the ice storm when we were there and that was all it was. It was really intense. And there were trees flying down into the ground like spears. We were also wearing ice helmets at the time.
We were wearing our helmets while we were out chain-sawing the trees. Try to get out of the driveway?
There is no power, and of course, there is no water, so much
So, but the thing I was thinking about, and I've thought about this a few times, is those two gentlemen, who out of nowhere spent the whole afternoon with us. They were our neighbors' friends. And they really were. They knew how to really cut wood. They were really good at it.
And I remember them just coming out of nowhere and just helping us. And they sat downright next to us and saw sod, sod, sod. Sod helped us think through the strategies because they were really, really complicated. Yeah, of how to make sure you weren't sawing those limbs and they didn't kill you.
Right, and there were trees piled on top of each other, and all of this was on our driveway so, we could get out.
Yeah, and it's not just the driveway; it's all over the place. And then there were all the other little roads that led in different directions, all of which were extremely helpful and wonderful. And then he did it selflessly. I haven't seen them since. It's so interesting that way, and I also think about that like that. As you know, I hope we can show up for others in this way.
Tell them that our neighbors and friends are visiting, but he's ultimately from Louisiana, and so his friends were from Louisiana up there visiting two younger guys, and so on.
At some point, I just know.
They were just like, "Ah, we do this all the time." Hurricanes happen. You know what I mean; you just go and cut yourself. It just happens.
You clear the trees, and you help you, and you help you.
Yeah, they were. So great, yeah.
and so that's a really cool part of humanity.
Yeah, yeah. And now for an ad, but don't go anywhere because Fred and I still have a lot more to talk about. related to disaster philanthropy.
Yeah, so in a disaster, it can show you the hardest parts and also the best. Yes, parts are in People, yeah.
So, for example, we were completely fine during the recent windstorm, but our neighbors below were not. They lost power, and there was It was sort of dramatic, but not in our area, but like, right next to us, right?
And I could hear all the trees, like serious trees, just cracking and everything. I know, but it was funny because I was thinking, "Oh yeah, they're cracking." But we aren't as affected because all those trees that had cracks have cracked, like from the ice storm we experienced. But, in any case, our neighbors don't have power, so I was just checking. And I texted them, asking them how they were doing. They were doing well at what they were doing fine at that point. It's really interesting to think that the people who showed up were your neighbors, your people whom you'd never meet. Maybe you didn't even know before.
And how does it? And, sorry, keep going.
Yeah, yeah, so.
When I think about that and then I think about really big disasters that you see on TV, like Hurricane Sandy or any number of hurricanes in the Gulf region, and that sort of thing, I think about the people who show up. I mean, yeah, you have all your neighbors, but You could all be your neighbors could be evacuated, and at that point, society starts depending on the government and nonprofit organizations to come in immediately.
Yeah, but I wanted to talk more about the community before we went because I was thinking about our other neighbor who was emailing. Because he had a connection with somebody, like his cousin, who was in the first responder unit, he was emailing all of us neighbors before the public announcements about whether we were going to have to evacuate and what the timing would be.
And so, all of us were sort of talking. There was this network of texts connecting all of us as neighbors, I just wanted to bring that up, and I appreciate you going to the government, but like in our neighborhood, a lot of folks here don't really trust the government, so I feel like it was actually important that our first line of communication and strategy was within our neighbors and that we had that communication.
And then the next place Government resources and assistance are on the way. And I also feel like, because of my experience, this is a really personal experience. With this talk about how important neighbors and people, even just our neighbors, are, non-profits and government both have a place in the mix.
I sort of saw in our experience, it was neighbors first, followed by the government. It was something like 1 to the Other, and that's all well and good, but at the same time, there definitely could be even more of a place for non-profits to fill that niche that's needed when people are under serious stress. when disaster strikes in their community.
Yes, and there are a lot, obviously. The thing that was different. I just want to be clear. Like our brushes with disaster. We didn't lose our house in the storm, and we had 40 trees fall, but none of them fell on our house. One fell on the old barn, but you know, it was lucky.
We were lucky, and it wasn't that. Bad, right? like we did not lose our home.
That is exactly what we should emphasize there as well, and
It just helped us think about it.
And the reason I went to the government and larger nonprofits like the Red Cross and other similar organizations. When I look at the disasters, they are massive, with hundreds or even thousands of homes destroyed.
At that point, I'm sure the neighbors are going to kick in, but there's only so much they can do,
right? And it was for this reason that I went to like OK, there are places with a lot of resources, and it's amazing to me. They line themselves up in order to be ready to go to whatever community and region it may be. to be there within a day or two and be handing out food, blankets, clothing, and shelter, and then you've got the government, which hopefully if they're doing their job, they're starting to like the process. Getting people places to live and…
Yes, I thought so as well. I appreciate you saying all that, and I've been digging sort of deeply into all of those pieces because some of my clients have asked me to think through, for example, philanthropic strategies on wildfire.
And also, other clients have asked me to think about issues related to drought or other things that are really challenging for communities. And I've been struck when I've interviewed folks about the immediate response. How quick response is directly related to how good it is, and how well it works directly correlates to how tight that local community is and how well it is planned. It’s not really an institution that has been through a disaster that can walk into a community and simply say, "OK, let's get started," and you're not saying this necessarily.
What appears to happen more frequently than not in a community with a history of difficult disasters? Maybe their place is where they have lots of hurricanes. Or are there any other situations, they've worked with their nonprofit ahead of time to devise a strategy. And many times, it is the local community foundations that are impacted because people all over the world are suddenly affected. Maybe if it's a major disaster, they'll notice it and want to give a large sum of money right away. And so those community foundations are both volunteering their time because they know everybody knows that all the nonprofits are working hundreds of hours. But they're not necessarily trained in disaster philanthropy, but they're the ones that know everybody.
And then all this money is coming in very quickly. And what ends up happening is that the Community Foundation is sometimes the one that takes that money. The Red Cross and other vital United Way organizations, including many excellent ones, consider it, but it's in those local groups that the rubber meets the road. A lot of times, it's those big groups—bigger and bigger groups—that work on disasters all around the world or in the country. They are really relying on the locals.
But a lot of times, the Red Cross and others ask these folks on the ground. OK, who should we be funding? How should we provide support? So that's really important. And the other thing that I noticed when I started interviewing folks around wildfire issues, hurricane issues, and other things are that they say, "Okay, we get a huge influx of funding, but the recovery takes years and people only really give money." They'll be more like in the long run. Here’s some money. And so what a lot of these community foundations have done I shouldn't say a lot because I'm not doing this scientifically yet. We'll talk about citations and all that later, but I just wanted to talk a little more about feelings.
It seems to me, from the people I've talked to around this who have really been in the eye of whatever storm it is, that's what they do and what community foundations are. And do in this matter is hold those funds over a four- to six-year period, and then they are very careful about offering funds to help with recovery over a longer period. And they can track it to ensure that there is no malfeasance with funding or other things because they know everyone. I mean, I don't think community foundations are the only place to go.
There are lots of other great examples of local groups, but that's just something I wanted to hover over because that's the question, and sometimes I just don't feel like it's as fleshed out as it could be in the community. Like where we are… we're not in an "extreme" or "high" wildfire danger area at all yet; our community had to deal with it.
I know you probably have thoughts about where this conversation is going to go, but the thing that really interests me in this conversation, How we prepare for disasters and how we don't because I read somewhere, and it was in one of the things you sent me, that 90% of disaster philanthropy occurs after the disaster.
One level that makes sense People are paying attention, and, oh my God, it's on the news, and everyone feels bad and is that what you want to help. And we do have institutions, the government, and nonprofit that prepare. But I don't feel like philanthropy, at least not the part of it that is interested in this. I don't feel like it. We prepare for that.
Well, we don't do it enough.
Yes, that's what I mean, like. And I understand.
And we should.
Yeah, and I get the challenges behind that too because disasters are episodic both in time and in location.
Please pardon these.
And how do you prepare and all that? So I get the challenges, but that seemed like a glaring thing for me. I was like, "Oh, hmm, 90%." After that,
Yeah, and that's also what resilience is all about in terms of preparation. So if you're supporting a community to prepare, let's say you're working on wildfire resilience, you could end up supporting a community to be so prepared that the disaster doesn't strike the community anymore, or because you could be doing some really good proactive work that helps.
Right, so the wildfire goes through, doesn't kill everybody's home
Everyone's homes have been hardened, and you have a good evacuation.
Plan first, and then execute
Right, people get out, they come back, and they go about their lives. And it barely makes the news right,
And then people don't fund it because they don't know it. The general population doesn't fund it because they don't notice it as much which, simultaneously, but
Wow, that's really interesting. Wow, yeah.
But see, let me be clear: I don't. I don't want disasters to happen in a community, right? So that would be a great situation. I wouldn't want a disaster to occur just to get funding. It's not what we want, but it's interesting to learn about the human psyche, as it sort of is, is this? Uh, it's frustrating because…
There, but that's the cool thing, though the cool thing is. We can think ahead of time for philanthropic donors. I mean, we can think ahead of the curve. Yes, and after a disaster, people want to help, and 90% of them come in later. We some of who are. Worrying about this and seeing that natural disasters are becoming more common in places where we haven't necessarily seen them before means we're not as prepared for things like wildfires and other disasters.
There have been some really disturbing studies that have come out. One of them is a New York Times article that talks about it, and when I interviewed the folks from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which is focused on this kind of work, they wanted to emphasize this with me.
There's an article from June 2021 titled, "Why does disaster aid often favor White people?” Christopher Flavelle wrote this for the New York Times, and I have a link to it in my show notes, but it it's concerning because some have observed that wealthy people end up better off. They are either doing even better after a disaster or doing just fine, but people or communities who lack resources end up far worse off as a result of the cycle.
You're losing your house. You're not able to access the best support. Maybe there are experiences like what we had, where people were trying to sort of rip people off and that the community network is strong, but it's not financed in the way that it could be, and there's maybe a lot of skepticism about the federal government or any of the regulatory agencies coming in. That means there's a big role for philanthropy because they can support nonprofit that the community supports and cares about.
Well, so we do have a hard time in disasters, looking ahead, planning, and especially spending resources to protect yourself from future threats is especially important. Disasters are low-probability, high-impact events.
So, one thing that we created as humans is insurance. And it approaches the problem as if you are unlikely to have a car accident, but if you do and you are insured, at least you have money for hospital bills and for your car. Communities that don't have those advantages are going to be stuck. Any help that is designed to help those communities is going to have to be greater than a community that already has resources of its own.
But it also has to be designed and implemented by people in the community.
That's a good point.
And really focused on how to serve those in need by going out into the community and talking to people, rather than just saying, "OK, let's give some organization that has no real connection to that community go in and do talking sessions.“ It’s more. Go to the community. "OK, what are your needs?" say the vibrant communities right there. Where are we now? And when you talk about insurance as well, that's a whole thing because insurers are starting to pull out of some of those key places.
And if they pull out, then it's really, really hard. It's a whole slew of issues for people to sell their homes, or if they're renters because the people who own the facilities have all of those issues. And they could make life really rough for the renters who are there.
And, like, there's just a whole bunch of stuff there. And so, then the state needs to think about the state, and a lot of times we'll think about how we can do that state-pooled Insurance Fund, but then that's a whole thing. So There's a cascade list of things that happen around that.
Right, right, and so we're talking about being prepared, right? So, if you're really thinking about a community, let's say wildfire. It is in the potential path of a disaster. It could be in the Gulf or from hurricanes or whatever, and their community has fewer resources. Part of the preparation has got to be going in there and talking to people. As you said, talk to them in their language, right? Having individuals who can literally translate say, "Here are some things we can offer." That can help you be prepared.
And find out what they need it, yeah. It's not just telling them what we infer.
Well, right? So yeah, I guess I was skipping an important step there. You're absolutely right about that.
Let's just circle back now and just talk about these seven things that I've learned from the research that I've done with my clients and all the interviews I've done with people around disaster philanthropy. These are just my personal takeaways, and I'd love to tell you the first seven right now because I already have them and delve into them in depth In my "Civil Speaks" episode, But I'd love to get your take on them and what I'm thinking about.
So the first of the seven takeaways is that it takes time. So, if you're a funder, here are seven takeaways for them to consider if they're considering funding in this space.
It takes time. Be patient; a disaster may only take days or weeks to wreak havoc on a community, but full recovery can take a lot of years to accomplish.
Two: be nimble and open to change in an emergency that is new and unanticipated needs will surface.
Three, seek out under-resourced communities and truly seek out those people. Even the communities that might not already be in the news. Think about how to support them. Listen and learn even though it might feel urgent to you. Before making any donation, take the time to learn about the situation from experts.
Local funders know best. Seek out local funders who know the landscape in the community you want to support and ask them about the grant, the nonprofits, and the community. And national organizations can also help, so check in with those national organizations or international ones, depending on what you're looking at, that have a good read on the overall strategy in times of disaster. Just because they can talk to you about, like, what phase of the disaster do you want to fund?
The 7th one is, you know, the hard truth about racism. We're actively looking for solutions that support equity, diversity, and inclusion in the response and recovery efforts, and we talked a little bit about that. It exists; it is a real challenge, and I think we need to think through those pieces. So those are my seven takeaways. I don't know; you might have some to add. What are those things you might have? What does? It stands. You're out of luck with that well.
The one that is interesting to me is being nimble and open to change. I got to say, I've been in philanthropy for 20 years now.
Nimble is not always a word that describes us.
Sometimes, yeah, it's true. Sometimes we are nimble, though, compared to the federal government.
Oh my God, how do I know?
We sometimes feel energized in comparison to our discernible federal counterparts.
Oh my God.
Right now, sometimes the federal government says, "Oh, can you help us go quickly?" It's—I know that's sort of funny.
So, people, I admire people who think things through and want to be proactive and reactive in disaster relief, philanthropy, and everything else you mentioned. Being nimble, learning, talking to the experts and seeing things the best way you can help because it's a very different mindset than, say, looking forward to a multi-year campaign to try to save a certain species from extinction or to try to do science around climate change. I mean, that stuff is not necessarily always about being nimble, this is one of those cases where disaster strikes, and you've got to be ready to go.
That means you have to have planned and figured all this stuff out that you just laid out first.
When a disaster hasn't yet struck, there are a lot of other things and pressures on people and things they need to get done.
I mean, look at us. We're trying to create our own plan for our finances, just like if one of us gets hit by a bus and we realize that the other one doesn't have signing privileges for our bank accounts. And we're like, "Oh, dear, we've got to—actually, we really found that."
Want to tell people that?
We're getting them now, but still, that's the kind of thing, like, you know, you don't have those plans. And then you're just like, "It could take you zillions of hours if you haven't planned ahead." Yeah, so yeah.
For all you people out there that are thinking about how to be prepared for a disaster and be a philanthropist, that can be effective in that space.
I love the seven things that you thought were important so well, and, geez, I mean preparing for. It seems like the key to me.
because you can do responses once you're in response mode. Either well or poorly. But if you prepare, you’re going to do better.
So as a funder, if we are concerned about a specific potential disaster that could strike a community, we care a lot about, asking questions of that community to see if they're prepared if they have any needs. To support them in creating that preparation and maybe. Adding funds or donations to allow them to do some planning might be a good thing to do ahead of time proactively.
Especially the other thing to think about is maybe not being clear. If you want to support a community and a nonprofit to be more resilient with the, you know against the particular disaster you're worried about that could hit that community.
And also try trying to think about how the nonprofit’s talking about it in a way that the nonprofit doesn't feel like the donations you're giving to them now for whatever project it is they're working on now that any conversation around this kind of preparation won't necessarily take away from the work that you're already funding them to do.
Let's say that nonprofits working on homelessness, food insecurity, or other very important issues. That is the day-to-day systemic issue that they want to work on. Maybe this is an additive thing like OK.
Also, you know you live in an area that's at extreme risk for wildfire, and maybe they've already thought it through, but maybe they want to work on it, but they just don't have that additional resource.
Maybe you, as a funder, could work with some other funders in that community. And say, hey, I've talked to these three or four nonprofits that working on houselessness, and foster youth, and all these different things and they're all doing great work. And if a wildfire strikes, they haven't been... They can't... They are so preoccupied with daily tasks that they are unable to grasp it. Prepare the next plan.
Maybe, as philanthropists, we can give them some additive funds to support them in a conversation there or something like that.
If you're really involved, that could take a lot of planning, and then once the disaster strikes. Hopefully, it won't, but if it does, then they could then ask a whole lot of other people to put up funds, which would end up supporting that community even more because it'd been planned ahead of time.
So there you have it. Guess which is the biggest message: yeah, philanthropy. If we care about disaster philanthropy, then what we really need to think about is supporting the communities we care about ahead of time, by supporting nonprofits in those communities that are already in operation. And the vulnerable communities that could really get hit but may not have the buffer to be able to just bounce back.
So, really, being able to ensure that the funds we provide allow and support those groups while also bouncing back, So I gave those seven points. But now I'm just thinking about the emphasis.
The homeless are a prime example. I mean, talk about a vulnerable community, right? They already have a lot going on in their lives, whether it's drug addiction, mental illness, or simply losing their job; they don't have resources for whatever reason they are homeless.
Imagine throwing a hurricane on top of their heads, right? That is if you are a donor that cares about houseless people in your community, and you know that disasters happen in your area, whatever type they might be, like wildfires or hurricanes. Give to your local non-profit that works with the homeless to say, "Hey!" Let's think through a plan, just in case. Like, what's the plan? Yeah, I mean.
Well, so this is a really fun conversation, Fred. Thanks so much to all the listeners out there.
You're only getting a taste of what Fred and I talk about all the time over dinner. Not just disaster philanthropy, but philanthropy in general. It's the thing we like to geek out about, but thanks so much, honey, for talking this through with me.
Always a pleasure, my darling.