As a daughter of the Gulf Coast, some of my earliest memories are tied to large, named storms. I was not quite four years old when Hurricane Frederick struck our home town of Mobile, Alabama, and not quite ten when Hurricane Elena followed a similar path. Other storms followed, but nothing after Frederick equaled Ivan in 2004, and nothing else in my life comes remotely close to Katrina in 2005.
Then, last year on Thursday, August 11 following my commute from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, a colleague at the LSU Foundation asked me if I intended to leave early to beat the rain. Frankly, I hadn’t been paying attention. My husband and I were new parents, and with him beginning a Ph.D. program at Tulane, and with me facing a sleep-deprived daily three-hour commute, it was easy to miss.
We all left a little early that day. I thought a few hours would be time enough, but it almost wasn’t. When I passed through Ascension Parish, the streams and culverts were already full and rising above the shoulder and flooding I-10.
The rest is not my story to tell.
We were blessedly safe and dry in New Orleans, but so many of our friends and colleagues were not. In the days and weeks that followed we would learn more than we ever wanted to know about thousand-year flood events.
Our colleagues and friends were amazing, taking the time to muck out houses, welcoming devastated families into their homes, cooking for displaced communities and collecting supplies for those in need.
Those of us who didn’t flood returned to the office at the first opportunity to emails and phone calls asking how best to direct financial support to those in need. It was daunting, frankly. With so much still unknown we had no way of knowing all that was needed. We were still calling roll to make sure everyone was accounted for.
Donors were wonderful, asking what our community needed and how best they could help, where they should designate gifts for maximum impact and how could they volunteer. Some of them were flood victims, themselves, but still, they found ways to give to those in more dire circumstances.
It took days to get organized behind the scenes. After all, as a higher-education non-profit organization, we were relatively unpracticed in managing under these circumstances. I’m still in awe of my former colleagues at LSU, the leadership taken by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the cooler heads, and the community resilience.
After witnessing the work in action, I took away a few lessons, and I hope this information will prove useful to our fellow non-profit professionals personally and professionally affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the fires plaguing the western U.S.
Your Team, Your Self
This is the time to take time. If you are personally affected by recent events, if your family needs you, if your friends and your colleagues need you, the best use of your hands and heart is in supporting them the very best way you know how. For some of us, that means fearlessly getting in the muck together, busying the mind with the act of recovery and comprehending the loss as it comes.
Others of us will have escaped immediate impact. We can help by getting back to the business of doing business and standing in the gaps so that our affected co-workers can be present with their families. We can stretch and take on work that isn’t typically ours. We can find ways to piece it together and keep it together, accepting that the work we produce under these circumstances might not be our best. We’ll be operating in a unique state of grace. It will be okay.
If you see someone struggling, offer them a life jacket, a safe place where they can process, with or without the company of others. If you can donate any accrued leave, do it. The next several months are going to entail taking uncomfortable amounts of work time to handle personal matters. For those in transition, the work that needs doing to set their world back in order can only happen from sun up to sun down. Offer them a private space to take calls and negotiate with contractors.
Finally, if you have an Employee Assistance Program you can use, encourage your colleagues to take advantage of it. They will be overwhelmed and behind with work and may not feel they can justify taking additional time away from the office. Make sure they have the time and make sure they know they can take the time.
Communication and Transparency
Donors want access, information, and experiences. In this circumstance, information is most important. Donor communication under these circumstances doesn’t have to be prize-worthy. Just keep it as timely as possible.
In the early days, information is going to be hard to come by. You can keep it simple. If you don’t know, don’t sweat filling the space. Share what you do know and if there isn’t more to share it is perfectly okay to say that. Your primary audience is very likely living this reality just like you are. They don’t expect you to have all the answers before there are answers to have.
Acknowledgments are going to take on a whole new meaning. The letter of acknowledgment and appreciation is fine, but not urgent. Keep it short to keep it authentic. In the coming weeks and months, stories of misplaced trust are going to make headlines. Your donors need to know you received and processed their gift. Prioritize getting the receipt out the door as soon as possible and go from there.
Maximize everything you have. If it is written for print, use it for web. There is no better time to be creative. If you have the room to be creative, and permission to be fearless, consider creating online opportunities for locals to share their stories and their appreciation. Take yourself out of the middle by writing less and editing more with a magazine-style microsite featuring user-driven content. Create to connect.
Chaos and Collaboration
Immediately following disasters of this magnitude, it can be incredibly difficult to know who is in charge. People are literally and figuratively trying to keep their heads and lives above water. Unless you have had time to prepare beforehand, it’s likely people around you are straining to see who will take the lead. Someone will take the lead.
Things are going to move in fits and starts as everyone gets their bearing. You are going to work with some people you’ve never worked with before. You will have conversations with leaders who support other leaders who can’t tell you that what they are doing is what you should do. You will have meetings where you think you came to a decision on something but were too emotionally depleted to give anyone the order to execute. And you’ll have to meet again.
You will become ridiculously frustrated, and it’s okay. It’s part of the process. Everyone will have a turn. You will have the opportunity to exhibit grace in the same way others will extend it to you. It will be okay. It might not feel like it at first.
When the next big national news story steals the headlines, the visibility around these matters will fade, and things will get harder for those affected. They may begin to feel they have become invisible. Today, national coverage of regional disasters has a longer-than average media shelf-life but nothing comparable to the actual length of the recovery. Recovery will take years.
What Can You Say? What Can You Do?
You are going to hear a lot about what you should and shouldn’t say. That’s okay. Words can’t touch this. What you can do is be there. Don’t hesitate to act.
People need food, shelter, and comfort. If you have work gloves and boots and you’d rather wield a chainsaw than talk, show up. Someone will point you in the right direction. If your gift is kitchen work, think about stocking pantries and creating or participating in a meal train.
Money and gift cards go a long way. If that isn’t appropriate in your situation, you can help create an Amazon wish list for those who prefer to shop over making gifts of cash. You can replace favorite toys and small appliances. You can show up and take laundry and dishes home for cleaning.
If your colleague is living with another family or friend, think about the thing that makes being together in a tight space uncomfortable. People are going to need a break from one another. Any opportunity you may have to facilitate that could be very welcome. Host the family for a while. Host the family pet, or arrange entertainment and activities for the kids. Anything you can do to help them feel normal again is worth doing.
Beyond the personal is the professional.
Anything you can offer regarding resources can help. In the immediate aftermath, our peers in affected areas are going to need a plan. Anything we may have can be helpful, particularly if you work in an area or in an organization that has weathered something similar. I’m talking about copies of communication plans, stewardship strategies, talking points – any example that can give our friends and peers in these areas something to work from. Examples of how you did it – successful or not, can be informative. If you don’t have anything, you can make calls to people who might. Benchmarking is exhausting on a good day. You can cut that corner for them by offering it up without their needing to ask.
In closing, I’ll share something I witnessed last week.
I get a lot of traffic by my desk these days. Morning coffee conversations, even a year later, are still about the victories of seeing parents, and extended family move out of shared homes and into their own spaces again. I hear about churches returning to worship spaces, and cars finally being replaced. These things are signs of progress, and we celebrate them all.
Last week a colleague stopped by my desk, and flood recovery came up. She talked about how fortunate she was that her home was one of the few in her neighborhood that was high enough to avoid flood waters. She said she felt tremendous guilt over seeing her neighbors struggle and she made it her job to provide food and assistance throughout the rebuilding process.
One afternoon, while speaking with one of those neighbors, my colleague shared those feelings of guilt, expressing that aside from luck and providence, there was really no reason she should have been spared. To her surprise, her neighbor didn’t see it that way at all. In fact, her neighbor told her that those fortunate few were a gift, that in sharing her blessings and resources, her neighbor’s journey to rebuilding their homes and lives was made that much easier. Her good fortune was their gift.
In much the same way, we can let our good fortune be our neighbors’ gift. Beyond material support, anything we can offer — advice, plans, templates, resources, access; and/or encouragement – the knowledge that we are there for our friends in Houston, Florida, and the West, is the quickest path forward to getting us all back to good.