Like a lot of smaller funders, the 20-year-old McCarthy Family Foundation operated out of Treasurer Tim McCarthy’s home office. He learned a lot of important lessons about disasters the hard way after his home was among the hundreds of properties destroyed in the October 2007 San Diego wildfires.

The foundation had no disaster evacuation or recovery plan. And it is in good company, according to Kris Putnam-Walkerly, president of Putnam Community Investment Consulting, who has helped San Francisco Bay Area funders develop a plan to prepare for a major local disaster. Many organizations large and small have no plan. She said the barrier to disaster preparedness is summed up in a quote from Michael Selves, a director of emergency management in Kansas:

“Our job is to tell you things you don’t want to hear, asking you to spend money you don’t have for something you don’t believe will ever happen.”

On the National Center’s September teleconference, Putnam-Walkerly outlined basic measures any funder can take to “get your foundation up and running in the event of a disaster.” And it’s not just about protecting records but also about how to be able to continue to support grantees at a time when they may be suffering from the same emergency and have more demand for their services.

In McCarthy’s case, he and his wife were awakened by police at 4 a.m. and given five minutes to evacuate. His immediate plan was “save the four ‘C’s.” They left with the clothes on their backs, grabbed two of their three computers and their cat, and jumped in their car. The 20 years of foundation records stored in the attic were left behind. They first went to a daughter’s home five miles away, and then, because of the spreading fire, had to evacuate to a friend’s house, then another friend’s and finally spent that first night on a high school gym floor. Meanwhile, a fire fighter who was a family friend sent an email with a photo of McCarthy’s home, “at that point just a couple of chimneys standing with a debris pile under them,” he recalled.

Putnam-Walkerly stressed why it’s critical to have a disaster plan. “There’s a lot of ownership that we need to take on as individuals and as organizations to be prepared. We have the assumption that somebody’s going to come save us, but that’s not always the case. It could take days.”

PREPARING A PLAN TO SAFEGUARD YOUR FAMILY AND FOUNDATION

Putnam-Walkerly suggested thinking about the four stages of a disaster as you prepare your plan:

  1. Preparedness: activities undertaken in advance to so you’ll be ready to deal with a disaster.
  2. Response: Activities undertaken during the emergency “so you can make yourselves safe and then respond to community needs.”
  3. Recovery: activities that help an area return to pre-disaster conditions
  4. Mitigation/Reform: activities to help reduce the impact of future disasters

A key component of preparedness is having a communication plan, Putnam-Walkerly stressed. “Have a print out of the cell phone numbers of all of your family and your board members and grantees, and keep copies offsite. Also, have a plan in place to communicate with key grantees and others in your community to know what’s happened to whom, and how you are going to respond collectively.” Here are other considerations she suggests in developing your plan:

Have an evacuation plan including how to get out of the building and what to take with you. Consider likely risks where you’re located. Maybe it’s tornadoes or floods. If you’re in a major big city, a terrorist attack is a possible scenario. Then, think through possible levels of disruption. “What do you need to do to prepare if your office loses electricity for two days? What if you can’t access your office for two weeks or two months?

Identify the vital documents you’ll need access to such as insurance policies, corporate records, general ledger, and grant database, and have an offsite backup system. Low cost services are available online. If you had to be out of your office for a week, where could you set up an emergency office?

Once you have a plan, don’t put it on a shelf and forget about it. Revisit it regularly to make adjustments and ensure that everyone remembers what needs to happen.

UNIQUE ROLES FOR FOUNDATIONS IN A DISASTER

“Funders have relationships with other funders and with nonprofit organizations and also know the community,” Putnam-Walkerly said. “Their knowledge and relationships can be very useful when community-wide people are trying to understand what’s happening and where to direct people for help.” Foundations bring a long-term perspective, too. “Immediate needs are certainly important, but it’s also important to think what’s going to be needed six months from now or two years from now,” she explained.

Because foundations are often seen as a neutral party within a community, they are also uniquely positioned to promote cross-sector collaboration between nonprofits, businesses and government agencies, either in advance of a disaster or afterwards to help coordinate resources. Foundations’ flexibility is also helpful. Even though they have certain policies and procedures, those can changed or suspended if necessary. Some foundations’ disaster preparedness includes plans for streamlined grant request processes or ways to make grant decisions even if the whole board can’t be located.

Putnam-Walkerly said many foundations are putting in place memoranda of understanding, MOUs, with organizations they’ve identified as being trusted grantees that will be called on in the event of disaster, such as a homeless shelter, a health clinic, or mental health services provider. “They are authorized in advance to spend an amount, say up to $10,000 or $25,000 however they see fit, and the foundation promises to reimburse them quickly.”

Streamlined grantmaking is helpful for other grantseekers too during disasters. “Some nonprofits who apply for funds, for example, might not have access to their most recent audited financial statements because records were destroyed,” Putnam-Walkerly pointed out. Some foundations create their designated disaster funds in advance so they can quickly respond to disasters at home or abroad. Some funders go together to create pooled skeletal funds in their communities, deciding in advance where it will be housed, who will be authorized to make decisions and in what circumstances in can be activated. Then they can add money to an already existing structure when it’s needed.

THE MCCARTHY FAMILY, POST DISASTER

After the fires died down, McCarthy and his wife moved into their daughter’s house for a few months and began to piece together their lives and their foundation. Even though the family had some online data back-up, and their law firm and accountant had some important records, the loss of documents was a huge hurdle. “We have a semiannual funding cycle, and the proposals for our second half of 2007 had already been received,” McCarthy recalled. “We were at that stage of putting together our site visit notes and preparing for our distributions board meeting. All of those documents were burned up,” McCarthy said. He and his neighbors also learned that “fire-resistant” safe does not mean “fireproof” in a raging inferno. Contents were reduced to ashes.

Today, the foundation has dedicated space (in a commercial building) and separate computers “which is safer, but it added to the cost and is less convenient,” McCarthy said. He’s also switched from a homeowner’s policy to a business insurance policy. His computer files are now backed up hourly by an online service.

As a family, coping with the loss and dealing with new living arrangements at the same time they were trying keep the foundation running wasn’t always easy. “But I think that since we just lost ‘stuff,’ we all came to realize that we needed to come together as a team,” McCarthy reflected. “San Diego learned a lot from the disaster too, and we came together as a community.”