Tuesday, June 25, 2013

So where exactly did all of the Sandy money go?

Yesterday I posted about the massive $1.4 Million grant that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance received and the questions I have surrounding the award and how the public can measure the return on that investment. This morning I came across an article from Mother Jones covering similar issues, specifically: "What Happened To The Money Occupy Sandy Raised?"

The article examines a growing discontent over how some organizations, specifically Occupy Sandy, have, through a perceived lack of transparency and community inclusion, not been honest about how the remainder of Sandy donations are going to be dispersed, when, and to whom on the Rockaway Peninsula. 

A Train service restored to Rockaway Peninsula (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The article also points out that there is no clear picture of how the money that has been raised by Occupy Sandy has been spent; this is due to a lack of tracking and documentation, an oversight that almost every spontaneous group succumbs to in the craziness of response and something that needs to addressed as a part of community preparedness moving forward.

What’s happening in the mid-Atlantic region is a shift from response to recovery, and with that the recognition that the coffers that were once brimming with an unprecedented number of donations from individuals, groups, and foundations, are now beginning to run low. Coupled with this dip is the understanding that beyond federal funding for beach restoration and mitigation projects, remains a list of projects that need time, attention, and most of all…money.

What this is creating is a catch-22 situation that centers on the idea of fiduciary stewardship. Throwing money off the back of the proverbial truck just because you have it and are being pressured to spend it, isn't the right approach...those who get it will be happy, those who don't will vilify you for not doing your due diligence in identifying the best way to stretch the limited dollars that are left. Yet the longer you hold onto the funds to identify innovative ways to stretch the remaining cash to impact as many people as possible, the more people scream about secrecy and exclusionary practices.

This catch 22 is fueled by the idea that your mission and operational focus is the most important and as such, you should be given the money to continue your work--given this rationale, satisfying everyone isn't possible. So in that regard, I can see why Occupy is taking their time, because once that money is gone…it’s gone, so why not take the time needed to ensure that it goes as far as possible and advances the recovery of as many as possible. Occupy Sandy's actions to this point give me no reason to believe that they will do anything other than what they’ve stated, which is transition the funding to local groups in the best, most responsible way possible (that’s me paraphrasing).

However, Occupy Sandy doesn’t get off scot-free. I believe those individuals and organizations that are dissatisfied with the lack of transparency and communication around how the remaining funds are to be spent and when, have every right to be vocal about their discontent. Saying inflammatory statements however is counter-productive and discredits the work that has been accomplished because you disagree with how long its taking to disperse money: 
“ If Occupy Sandy doesn't tell the Rockaways community how it plans to spend the rest of the money, I personally believe they have outstayed their welcome.” (see linked article for context) 
What many fail to recognize is that before the storm made landfall, Occupy Sandy didn’t exist; just like the other hundred or so groups that came about to solve community problems caused/exacerbated by the storm. While I appreciate the scrutiny being applied to Occupy in an effort to "keep them honest," lets not forget about the army of established non-profit organizations that came to the area and received significant donations as well. I haven't seen one article asking for an accounting of where/how those groups spent their donations and their the ones who are supposed to be model for how groups like Occupy Sandy learn to do response better. It would be interesting to put the same resources and scrutiny applied to Occupy Sandy to some of the more established disaster response non-profits who responded and compare and contrast findings.

All that to say, Occupy Sandy, get a plan for how you intend to spend the remaining money and publish an accounting of what you've spent and where thus far…if you don’t know, then tell us…you're not the first Spontaneous organization to be overwhelmed and not put the effort needed into tracking and documenting donations, and you won't be the last. And for those who are demanding answers, good for you…but remember that there are other organizations out there with track records of disaster response who also received copious amounts of donor dollars flying under the radar, why not ask for an accounting of their donations received vs. dollars spent on community programming...you might be surprised by what you find. 

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