Friday, November 1, 2013

Nonprofits and Long Term Recovery

Volunteers and nonprofit organizations have an undeniable impact on expediting a community's recovery in a post-disaster timeframe. The depth of experience and resource brought to bear by voluntary organizations can have a significant impact on the speed at which recovery progresses in communities on the mend. Volunteers and the nonprofit organizations that exist to support their activities are cornerstones of recovery efforts; from cooking and distributing meals and doing the physical work of mucking, gutting, and debris removal, to disaster case management and repair and rebuild work, nonprofit resources provide continuity as a community transitions from response into long-term recovery (LTR). Key to leveraging those resources however, comes with better understanding the types of challenges nonprofits face in sustaining LTR efforts.

Before looking at these unique challenges, one needs to understand the role nonprofits have as recovery plays out. To put it simply, they are the one's who provide the resource: human, material, financial, and experiential that guide and drive the long-term recovery process. In partnership with residents and local officials, nonprofits can be a wealth of insight to help steer Long Term Recovery Committees. And yet, even with all the responsibility that falls to local and national nonprofits to advocate and move the needle in a positive direction day after day, there are challenges. Because nonprofits rely on the goodwill of the communities they serve, after a point in time as a community tries to re-establish a new normal, some of that goodwill can be eroded.
  1. Progress is powered by people. Response is dominated by the spontaneity of volunteers proactively addressing unmet community needs. What usually starts as an overwhelming crush of interest quickly dwindles. Because nonprofits rely on a volunteers, their ability to sustain operations 6-12 months down the road can be compromised when the flow of volunteers has been reduced to a trickle. The changing seasons, competition for people's time, and a lack of media attention highlighting the needs can make generating interest a challenge. When nonprofits don't have a consistent workforce it causes delays in returning people to their homes.
  2. You've gotta have skills. One of the reasons so many people get involved in early recovery activities is because many of the problems that need solving require hands--lots of hands. However, when it comes to replacing floor joists, installing subfloors, hanging sheetrock, or mudding and taping, the number of hands needed drops drastically, and the hands you do need have to know what they're doing. Given that getting general volunteers is challenging, getting one's who could conceivably be getting paid for doing the same thing is even more difficult. Nonprofits need skills, the more volunteers with construction-related skills means helping more people on a shorter timeline.
  3. Vetting the need. One of the biggest departures from early recovery work that is central to long term recovery is being able to vet need. With so many pots of money that homeowners can apply for in addition to Federal dollars and any insurance money they may have received, doing the homework to understand a homeowners financial situation is key. Ensuring that those who are being helped with voluntary resources aren't able to afford a contractor is central to maintaining the integrity of long term recovery and to keeping the peace within the community. Communities with high concentrations of people who work in the trades (contractors, etc) raise concerns that nonprofits can "steal" potential work. Being able to confidently say that the homes nonprofits work on don't have the financial means to afford a professional contractor is important, however collecting the necessary information to say that takes time.
  4. Housing. While nonprofits work to put roofs back over the heads of individuals and families who lost them, there is a concern that they themselves may not have a place to live. As normalcy returns, one of the costs that becomes less palatable is having an organization reside your basement or annex building. During the response phase, civic organizations and the faith-based community are all too happy to help bring resources in, but what worked in the weeks following the event can create challenges when host sites want their space back to resume their full scope of programming months down the road.
In our society of instant gratification where faster and more efficient are the order of the day things, even as complex and involved as rebuilding neighborhoods, take "too" long because they operate on a timeline and scale outside everyday expectations. Unless a community has had the unfortunate luck of suffering through multiple events in a short period of time, residents have no frame of reference to create a shared understanding of what recovery means for them beyond what is reported in the media. Given the challenges associated with getting the public to take initial steps in personal preparedness, trying to educate them about the nuance of long-term recovery would be time wasted. However, I believe that city officials and cadres of local civic leaders should be educated on timelines and long term recovery expectations because they are the one's who will ultimately be leading these efforts when the time comes.

In 2012 there were 112 federally declared disasters, in 2013 there have been 90 so far. Each of those events encompasses multiple communities, communities going through the same process and experiencing the same frustrations as those recovering from Sandy. One would think that given how often the model of Long Term Recovery is employed that it would be perfected, and you would be incorrect. While there are commonalities in recovery that apply to all communities and disasters, because each community has different needs, priorities, people, and a vision for how they want to rebuild, means that each recovery will be different. Like everything about disasters, nothing is easy, but thankfully there are nonprofits who continue to work in partnership with communities to ensure that those who need help can get it. 

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