The American people have been remarkably generous, as they always are, in responding to the immediate relief needs of New Orleans and the Gulf, and in supporting the temporary relocation of evacuees in other parts of the country.
The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and countless other charities have performed heroically. Corporations such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot have provided a model of logistics efficiency that FEMA should learn from. Community foundations such as the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Foundation for the Mid-South have set up relief funds to help displaced residents (see the website of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, www.secf.org, for information.) Donors from the Lilly Endowment to the McCormick-Tribune Foundation to the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation have offered very substantial contributions and matching grants. Communities across America have opened up their homes, their schools, their workplaces, their houses of worship, and their wallets to welcome temporary (and in some cases permanent) settlers.
As the philanthropic challenge moves from emergency response to the longer-term reconstruction of the devastated region, donors who wish to participate in the rebuilding may want to consider supporting projects recommended by the most experienced philanthropic leaders already on the ground.
Baptist Community Ministries (BCM), the largest philanthropic foundation in New Orleans, is at the front lines in the rebuilding of the Katrina-devastated city and its surrounding parishes. Its first task in serving its grantees was to move rapidly to rebuild itself.
As Katrina roared up the Gulf, BCM’s staff scattered to stay with family and friends from Florida to Memphis to Houston. Many of their own homes were seriously damaged. Initially they couldn’t communicate with each other because New Orleans-based cell phones weren’t operating. It took two weeks to account for all staff members.
BCM president Byron Harrell went first to Houston, where he purchased a Texas-based cell phone and a Winnebago. Within 10 days of the storm, he and his wife had set up temporary quarters in an RV park in Amite, Louisiana, an hour north of New Orleans. Meanwhile, Harrell’s daughter, whom he had been scheduled to give away in marriage in New Orleans the weekend after the storm, drove to Tennessee where she wed without her father in a small chapel.
The offices of the $200 million foundation, in the central business district next to the Superdome, probably can’t be occupied for six months to a year. Within a week of the storm, COO Charles Beasley had signed a lease on unused retail space in the small city of Hammond, Louisiana, north of Lake Pontchartrain. The space needed furniture, phones, clean-up, and construction for the foundation to operate, but Beasley’s first office priority was information technology. Fortunately, the staff had taken backup computer disks off-site, as it does daily; so BCM had records on all its finances and grantees. On September 14, 16 days after the storm, when a reconnaissance crew was first allowed in downtown New Orleans to inspect the office, its top concern was retrieving computers and servers, so the foundation would have the right software for reading its data.
On September 12, Harrell met with the executive committee of his board by conference call. They agreed on three initial strategies for disaster response over the next three to six months, in each case building on long-established relationships with grantees in whom BCM has confidence.
The first strategy is to work with the New Orleans Police Foundation (NOPF) to provide assistance to police officers, firefighters, and other first responders. While an alarming number of officers abandoned their posts, many more have been working 20 hours a day, understaffed, under excruciating circumstances and in terrible personal danger, to save the city and rescue its inhabitants. Many of these first responders have lost their own homes, so some of the initial aid will go toward housing. As it learns more information about these heroes, BCM will explore other forms of aid. BCM has long worked closely with NOPF to improve law enforcement and reduce the city’s notorious police corruption. Together they helped New Orleans bring in as a police consultant the late Jack Maple, a protégé of William Bratton who introduced policing techniques in New York and elsewhere that sharply reduced crime during the last decade —though as the looting and terror after Katrina demonstrated, gangs remain a terrible threat.
The second strategy is to provide teachers and non-academic services for evacuee children housed in the 120 shelters in the New Orleans area. The initial thought is not to attempt a full curriculum for all subjects, but rather to provide children with a structured environment that includes some academic work. BCM will work here with the Red Cross and with Healthy Lifestyle Choices (HLC), an after-school program the foundation helped to establish in 70 mostly public schools in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. Its mission is to encourage pre-teens and younger teens to make wise choices about alcohol, tobacco, drugs, premarital sex, and conflict resolution. Through its experience in the schools, HLC knows who the dedicated teachers are, and already has relationships with many of the children.
The origins of BCM in the mid-1990s date to the sale of Mercy-Baptist Medical Center (itself the merger of a Catholic and a Baptist hospital) to a for-profit hospital chain. In keeping with its history, BCM has maintained an emphasis on health care ministries.
So its third strategy for rebuilding is to encourage neighborhood-based health and nursing care through churches. BCM will work here with one of its long-time grantees, the McFarland Institute, which has established a multi-denominational network of 100 mostly African-American churches that each has its own nursing staff. Harrell expects those churches that resume operations in the coming months to play a crucial distribution role for relief and healthcare delivery in low-income neighborhoods. BCM will be working with McFarland to determine which congregations are up and running and have medical needs the nursing network can address effectively.
As of this writing, Baptist Community Ministries does not yet have office phones or email service. However, any donor who would like to explore how to reinforce and help its work should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Byron Harrell will also be speaking at our annual meeting about how donors can help New Orleans rebuild, and philanthropists can talk with him there.
Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable.