In 2019, Philanthropy California — an alliance of Northern California, Southern California, and San Diego Grantmakers — underwent a statewide planning and training process to enhance our individual and collective capacities to respond to disasters. This approach reflects the increasing frequency and severity of California’s natural hazard events, which have disproportionately impacted our most vulnerable communities.
Over the past two years, we responded to several wildfires up and down the state and received multiple inquiries about philanthropic responses to disasters from foundations across the country. Our coalition realized that as a philanthropy-serving organization, our role is to convene our philanthropic members and serve as purveyors of evidence-based best practices that promote community resilience centered around equity and justice.
To best serve as a liaison between funders, government agencies, and communities, Philanthropy California sought to achieve two organizational preparedness goals.
First, we ensured that every staff member within Philanthropy California understands our organizational responsibilities to our members and the broader philanthropic community when a disaster occurs in our state.
Second, our team could meaningfully contribute to our disaster response efforts by using a new statewide emergency communications platform by drawing upon their personal and professional expertise.
To achieve these two goals, we enlisted disaster preparedness expert Ana-Marie Jones to reframe our thinking and integrate our existing and new organizational tools into a more effective for every individual in our team. Through our work with Ana-Marie, we realized that the same practices could help many of our members and the agencies they support. To capture these insights, Alan Kwok, Philanthropy California’s Director of Disaster Resilience, spoke to Ana-Marie about how philanthropy can best strengthen organizational resilience to advance equity and justice in our most vulnerable communities.
Why is it essential to build the resilience of organizational operations?
Foundations and their grantees play a critical role in our country. In many ways, the philanthropic and nonprofit sector is an extended family structure for civil society, as they provide the necessary services and life-affirming support that families traditionally address. Nonprofit organizations are critical to our economic prosperity and are a significant source of advancement opportunities for women, people of color, and under-represented communities.
If we genuinely want to create an equitable, just, and resilient society where all people can survive, thrive, and prosper -- the nonprofit sector and its champions must be thoroughly and sustainably engaged in this conversation. I highly recommend reading CalNonprofit's annual report "Causes Count: The Economic Power of California's Nonprofit Sector" to learn more about these issues.
How does our current approach to disaster resilience impact our most vulnerable communities?
The disaster-centric, fear-driven, standard approach to readiness, response, and resilience alienate our most vulnerable residents. Rather than empowering and harnessing the indigenous wisdom and natural resilience of our diverse communities, the standard approach virtually ensures these communities will continue to fall between the ever-growing cracks in our emergency readiness and response systems. For many of our most vulnerable communities who have little choice but to focus on the immediacy of today, it would be a luxury to worry about an earthquake that "could happen" in the next 30 years. Long-term, volitional behavior change will never be accomplished using short-term generic threats.
How can we build more resilient organizations in the nonprofit sector?
Any funder can help build nonprofit resilience by ensuring nonprofits have access to the unique materials, conversations, and programs they need to embrace real nonprofit readiness and resilience. In the spirit of “do unto others,” — if funders engaged in genuine and effective readiness and resilience efforts inside their organizations, they’d undoubtedly become more savvy, strategic, and nuanced in their funding of nonprofit resilience.
Funders can move away from the drama and politically constricted disaster framework and instead embrace building the sector’s capacity to protect millions of people and billions of dollars of investment. Nonprofit resilience should be mission-centric, culturally inclusive, and filled with practical skills that help businesses function better and directly support staff, consumers, and the greater community. Without the toxic cloud of "disaster" hanging over it, resilience is a brilliant, generative, and energizing conversation.
What would you like to say to our members if they are looking to build organizational resilience as part of their funding areas?
I'd say, "Awesome! Welcome!" We've long needed funders to make this topic an actionable pursuit for their grantees. I'd show them how some small and easy changes can reap huge rewards. I'd point them to how Philanthropy California went from barely-touched disaster binders to broad-based buy-in, user-friendly customized tools, and a new understanding of how they can support the resilience and brilliance of their members. I'd share some useful nonprofit response and resilience success stories that will leave them stunned by the difference they can make with their grant recipients. Even just a few funders aligning with nonprofit resilience can change our future in California.
Finally, what is your superpower?
My nickname for the last 30 years has been “Ms. DuctTape.” It stuck because of my weird passion (obsession), and superpower is being able to MacGyver absolutely anything to find a solution.