Mobilizing Community Support When Disaster Strikes

By Nancy Withbroe, Vice President, Philanthropic Engagement and Chief of Staff

On this 16th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, I am heartbroken by the suffering of people in the devastating paths of recent natural disasters, as well as the horrific violence of war and terrorism. Yet, when disaster strikes we can count on the country’s network of community foundations to step in to help, as we are seeing in response to the current season of horrific hurricanes.

The Greater Washington Community Foundation has a longstanding track record of mobilizing philanthropic giving from individuals and organizations when disaster strikes. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, The Community Foundation administered the $25 million Survivors’ Fund, which used over 12,000 gifts to make grants to 1,051 people impacted by the attack on the Pentagon. More recently, we have helped our donors provide help to neighbors facing such local disasters as the Flower Branch Apartments Silver Spring gas explosion that killed seven low-income residents in August 2016 and displaced 100 others, or the emergency housing situation at the Lynnhill Condominiums in Temple Hills that left 77 families without power.

We’re keenly aware that those who struggle the most in natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are residents of low-income communities – and often communities of color. This recent opinion piece in The Washington Post summarizes painfully the compounding negative effect that poverty, housing, racism and other issues have in the immediate and longer-term wake of natural disasters.

As someone who has devoted her career to philanthropy, I take solace in moments like these by the opportunity – and the responsibility – we have to relieve the suffering of our most vulnerable neighbors and to address the systemic inequities and injustices that disproportionately exacerbate the suffering of people of color.

At the Greater Washington Community Foundation, we have been busy advising our donors and fundholders as they direct their contributions to nonprofits supporting those impacted by the hurricanes. We’re also collaborating with our corporate fundholders to raise money for their disaster relief funds held here – to date, processing more than a thousand gifts into their funds – and, most importantly, quickly mobilizing to make grants to help nonprofits and individuals in need. We are working with Capital One, Fannie Mae and Marriott International to disburse grants to over 3,000 employees of those companies, collectively, in the greater Houston area, and stand ready to assist for other disasters.

Somehow the scale of these events can distance us from the experiences of individual people and families whose homes are lost and lives disrupted. The following note, which accompanied an $8 contribution to one of the corporate funds held at The Community Foundation, moved me deeply and reminded me that any of us can take action through giving: “I am a Night Auditor at [a corporate site in Illinois].  I want to contribute to this fund because [my employer] has a 'Spirit to Serve' and I want to be a part of that.  God bless all the people who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area.”

While small in amount, this $8 contribution represented enormous heart, character and selflessness – giving what you can to those most in need. I’m grateful to all our donors, fundholders, nonprofit grantees, and colleagues who partner with us to create opportunities for others to help their colleagues, to feel connected to an employer in a meaningful way, and to make a difference, one dollar at a time.

Please reach out to me or any other staff member if you’d like guidance on how you can make a difference during these times.