Fall 2017 – Briefly Noted

Veterans and chefs help in Houston. Broken instrument symphony. Ronald McDonald House marathons. Midwest wildlife preservation.

Who You Gonna Call?

It was hurricane season, and Team Rubicon was on high alert. This group brings veterans to disaster areas, allowing them to employ the range of technical and leadership skills they gained through their military service. They are usually some of the very first responders to hit a turbulent scene.


More than 3,000 highly skilled vets signed up to help after 50 inches of water descended on Texas.


Sure enough, when Hurricane Harvey smashed into the Texas coast, Team Rubicon’s swift-water rescue vets from the Navy were fishing people from the floodwaters within 48 hours.

Veterans “are naturally very good at bringing order to chaos,” says Jake Wood,  the nonprofit’s co-founder and CEO. And chaos is what they found during and after the wettest storm ever to hit the United States. Cars were submerged; rivers ran where streets used to be. In Rockport, Texas, where Harvey made landfall, the wreckage was still largely untouched a week after the storm. The power was out, and the windblown debris had “blocked everything,” says Dan Huvane, incident commander for Team Rubicon in Rockport.

Team Rubicon’s rescue teams in Texas, including ten boats and 28 rescue specialists, worked in coordination with other groups and local authorities to save lives, but the group’s work didn’t stop there. While the swift-boat teams were at work in Houston hauling people out of submerged houses, small groups of veterans had deployed throughout the region to assess the damage and prepare the way for more volunteers to come.

These recon and assessment teams used “smartphones and tablets and some geo-spatial mapping and big-data software from our partner Palantir,” notes Wood, in order to direct aid efforts more efficiently. Palantir, which also offered 50 volunteers to help on the tech side, was joined by many other corporate donors: FedEx contributed shipping for supplies, Southwest and American Airlines provided transportation, Microsoft furnished devices, and more.

And other partners provided that most fungible asset: cash. Immediately after the storm, USAA, the veteran-focused financial-services provider based in San Antonio, pledged to give $1 million to three relief groups, including Team Rubicon. It also matched donations from its employees to those organizations, ultimately meaning hundreds of thousands of dollars were flowing to Team Rubicon within a few days.

USAA has stepped up its support of Team Rubicon over the last three years, contributing funds as well as in-kind donations of capacities and expertise. “When we have these significant alliances, we want it to be more than just money,” said Milby Hartwell, director of corporate responsibility for USAA. “We want to be able to engage our employees and engage our skills.”

Team Rubicon expects to remain in Houston beyond the initial recovery to participate in rebuilding work. The team in Rockport has been the advance guard on the non-rescue side. It built an effective command post in a Walmart parking lot there.

“If you have some experience in a military operations center, then a lot of this stuff just makes sense automatically,” Huvane says. While the processes are not exactly the same, “command and control is much easier to absorb when you’ve had that background.”

Deeply motivated volunteers like Huvane have the skills to help in situations like the Harvey recovery. Over 3,000 Team Rubicon volunteers signed up to respond in Texas—which, even for the largest operation in Team Rubicon’s history, was more than it could initially deploy. But in the weeks and months ahead, their talents will be called upon as Houston puts itself back together.

With the benefit of Team Rubicon’s work in recovering from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the group is now formulating a long-term recovery plan for Texas. Meanwhile, it deployed volunteers to Irma-flooded Florida, having already staged boats and water nearby even before the storm hit.

In keeping with its military connection, Team Rubicon names each of its missions. The recovery mission to muck out flooded houses and clear debris in Houston was given an apt name: Operation Hard Hustle. “It always hits me to be surrounded by so many veterans,” says Huvane, “who are lending a hand to a community without hesitation.”  —Andrew Evans


Restaurant Volunteers to the Rescue

It was the morning of August 26, and like many other Good Samaritan boat owners in Houston, Richard Knight was canoeing down the streets looking for people who needed to be rescued from their flooded homes. The rains that Hurricane Harvey had started dumping on Houston the night before would ultimately total 51 inches in some places. After a day and a half of paddling victims to higher ground, as well as checking flooded cars and houses full of water (some to the point where mattresses were bumping up against the ceiling) Knight decided it was time to get back to his paid profession.


Houston’s independent restaurant owners came together to keep Harvey survivors fed for weeks until other help could arrive.

Knight is a chef. And one of several in Houston who set up rescue kitchens. These men and women recruited other volunteers and then made tens of thousands of meals for refugees and first responders.

Rescue kitchens are useful in many ways. Loss of electricity is typical after a hurricane, and restaurants without power will soon see their perishables and frozen foods wasted. “Restaurants were not going to open for three to ten days,” says Knight, so “the food was just going to be thrown away. And we had a lot of hungry people who needed their bellies filled.”

A Brit who moved to Houston in 1998, Knight and his wife and business partner Carrie set up shop in a central commissary called Midtown Kitchen Collective. For over two weeks, they led an army of volunteers who cranked out hot meals, cold sandwiches, tacos, and more. The storm hit on August 25. By the time the group ceased operations on September 10, it had served an estimated 250,000 meals.

Volunteers also created a matchmaking website: IHaveFoodINeedFood.com. It was simple, with just a home page and two basic forms. “I Have Food” was for professional kitchens that wanted to donate meals, and “I Need Food” was for groups that needed help. In this way, the “haves” were paired with the “needs.”

Four blocks away from Midtown Kitchen Collective, chefs and managers from the restaurant Reef mobilized their own independent operation, despite damage to their own property. “The staff didn’t flinch,” says owner Jennifer Caswell. “When setting up a kitchen in triage mode, having a cool head and being able to organize and run efficiently is a big part of it.” With the help of volunteers, Reef sent out meals and supplies by the truckload, despite many obstacles. Days started around 8 a.m. for the restaurant owners, and ended in the wee hours of the following morning—sometimes as late as 5 a.m.

Meanwhile, about 30 miles outside town, chef Veronica Rademacher of the prepared-meals company Vital Kitchen set up a network of small volunteer kitchens that sprang into action as soon as it was safe to travel. The greater Houston area covers approximately 1,660 square miles and is home to nearly 5 million people. After Hurricane Harvey, Houston looked like a poorly planned Venice where no one thought to raise the buildings—its spider-web of freeways becoming bayous, and streets and parking lots looking like lakes. Rademacher worked around this. “We started with six places throughout the city,” she says. “Because of the high water, I didn’t want volunteers to have to commute very far. For our kitchen in the Montrose neighborhood, for example, all of our volunteers were within walking distance.”

Farther north, in the suburbs, members of Nick Rama’s Facebook group, “Nick’s Local Eats & Foodie News,” were mobilizing in much the same way, organizing four kitchens “where people were bringing ingredients and helping to put together and send out food.” All of this was in addition to countless independent restaurants also preparing meals to feed their local community.


The first few days, while the flooding was at its worst, the volunteer rescue kitchens were “islands,” sending meals to groups and shelters reachable by tall trucks. As the water receded, the ability of these rescue kitchens to send meals by truck grew, eventually allowing prepared food to reach hard-hit areas of southeast Texas like Beaumont and Port Arthur.

Once the flood levels went down, some of the groups were able to cooperate, sending over any excess ingredients that the others lacked. After the first few days, perishables like bread and produce started running short. Tortillas took the place of bread and tacos dominated menus.

Eventually, the food supply trucks started showing up. Midtown Kitchen Collective received a large donation of goods from distributors Martin Foods and Marble Ranch. Volunteer Cat Nguyen started a “chef’s pantry” next door. Volunteers at other rescue kitchens could simply come by to pick up what they needed. While the selection was limited, everyone made do. 

It took about ten days for the need for meals to start to fade. By then, many Houstonians had been able to leave the shelters or were relocated to larger ones where big corporations, such as grocery chain H-E-B, took care of the food.

In those first dark days, however, it was the small, spontaneously created rescue kitchens that met immediate needs. There was no red tape or bureaucracy to hold them back, and lots of grassroots action and Texan can-do. Their sustenance got Houston’s recovery off to a good start.   —Phaedra Cook


Make a Joyful Noise

These instruments had seen better days. A Jupiter trumpet with a bent second valve. A Safran violin with a dislocated soundboard. A Bundy clarinet missing corks. They’d been living in basements and closets of various Philadelphia public schools, waiting for repair or spring cleaning.


An inventive charitable effort turns broken musical instruments into something beautiful, and then into repaired instruments usable by schoolchildren.

Then people got creative. Dozens of instruments were pulled out for use on stage in Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a brand-new composition by Pulitzer-prize-winning composer David Lang. Challenged to create beautiful music out of broken vessels, Lang studied the sounds of various malformed tools and crafted a composition for performance by a colorful mix of Philadelphians: students, classical impresarios from the Curtis Institute of Music and Philadelphia Orchestra, hip-hop artists, musicians from the traditional “Mummers” parade, and people completely new to music. Each instrument used in the endeavor will be ushered afterward to a repair shop and returned to public schools in good shape to further music-education programs.

It all started in 2015, when Rob Blackson at Temple Contemporary (a Temple University art gallery) found out that there were well over 1,000 broken instruments owned by the Philadelphia school district, with no plan or funds to repair them. He approached several musical groups—the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute, Orchestra 2001—and asked if they would be interested in a scheme to fix the instruments. With partners in hand, including the school district, Blackson went looking for funding. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and the Barra Foundation gave cornerstone grants, and the project was off and running.

With a budget of $480,000, Temple Contemporary will host two performances in early December, repair 800 or more instruments, pay for repair kits that will go to schools for future fixes, and train teachers on how to use them. Training sessions will be recorded and uploaded to TeacherTube, so instructors can replace that pesky saxophone pad years down the road when the in-person training has perished from memory.

Temple Contemporary has set up a website, SymphonyForABrokenOrchestra.org, where individual donors can adopt an instrument and pay for its repair. These givers will receive a free ticket to the concert, and a note from the student who will use the revived instrument during the school year. A portion of all money raised will also go into a legacy fund at the school district for future instrument repair.


Running for a Cause

Lynda Radman always remembered the generosity of Ronald McDonald House Charities. In 2006, she and her young daughter lived at a Ronald McDonald House for three months while her toddler son, Liam, received treatment for a tumor on his brain stem at the University of Chicago’s medical center. Amid the scary hospital stress, “the house gave us a chance to be together as a family, to eat a well-rounded meal, and to be with Liam every moment possible.”


The Chicago Marathon is not only a physical but a fundraising feat.


Even after Liam’s passing in 2008, Radman remained grateful to the charity, so in 2015 she started running Chicago marathons to raise money and awareness for the Ronald McDonald House. Last year she and 800 other runners for the House collected nearly $1.1 million, and Radman will return to the starting line this October to run her third fundraiser for the organization.

The $6 million that runners in Chicago alone have raised for their Ronald McDonald House over the last decade has supported more than 18,000 families with sick children. That funds the main house, in-hospital family rooms, and a mobile-care unit. “What Ronald McDonald House provided for me,” says Radman, “was a true blessing,” and why she finds it satisfying to boost the organization now.

Ronald McDonald House is one of more than 170 nonprofit organizations involved in the Chicago Marathon’s official Charity Program, which saw participating runners raise $17 million for various causes in 2016.


Across the country, charity marathons have emerged as a major source of money and attention for nonprofits big and small, national and local, fueling everything from medical research and humanitarian initiatives to educational causes and animal welfare. For example, a Chicago-based nonprofit called Imerman Angels that provides one-on-one support to cancer patients and caregivers raised nearly $750,000 in 2015 and 2016 at the Chicago Marathon. Through its well-established Team in Training program, which helps runners raise money through a variety of charitable athletic events, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society supports 300 research investigations, pushing more than $1 billion into research, and helping more than 55,000 patients with the cost of treatments. 
Daniel P. Smith


Where Is the SPLC’s Money Going?

Following the deadly white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville this summer, giving to the Southern Poverty Law Center surged. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, announced a company donation of $1 million and said Apple would match employee contributions to the group two-to-one. J. P. Morgan Chase made a $500,000 gift. Actor George Clooney donated $1 million.

It’s unlikely most of its donors know that the SPLC actually spends very little of its funds today on the civil-rights activities it was founded for—as Philanthropy noted in our Spring 2017 issue. In fact, only a fraction of its $353 million in assets go toward any charitable activity at all, with the vast majority parked in investment funds—many of them overseas investment havens that provide tax benefits and secrecy.

Recent reporting in the Washington Free Beacon revealed the nonprofit has millions of dollars of “financial interests” in the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, and Bermuda. While little is publicly available on the full extent of the SPLC’s foreign business interests, the Weekly Standard later found $69 million worth of “non-U.S. equity funds” in the SPLC’s 2016 annual report. 

“It’s unusual for an organization other than a university to have an endowment that large,” says Alan Dye, a partner at Webster, Chamberlain & Bean, a law firm that provides legal services to nonprofits. “Usually you advise clients to have a rainy-day fund but normally we’re talking about two times the annual budget at the maximum end. Here, you’ve got one that’s over seven times more than the annual budget of the organization. That’s more than a rainy-day fund. It’s hard to understand what that’s necessary for.”


Though many people are giving money to the organization, “the funds are not being spent for charitable purposes, they’re being hoarded,” Dye continues. “The other thing that is most unusual about it is the fact that so much of it is invested in tax havens.” As a nonprofit, the SPLC is not subject to most of the same taxes that make those havens attractive to other wealthy entities. But it is exposed to “unrelated business income tax” on certain investments—the details of which may be hidden by the use of offshore accounts. No information was acknowledged on the SPLC’s unrelated business income-tax returns other than the mere mention of the offshore interests. 

Other experts familiar with the workings of nonprofits have also commented that, although it is legal, it is unusual for a civil-rights organization located in the United States to be using offshore entities. The SPLC has maintained that its usage of offshore entities is normal, although, as the Weekly Standard noted, the American Civil Liberties Union and its related ACLU Foundation, another large civil-rights organization, has more than $250 million in combined assets but reported no foreign investments on its tax forms.   —Joe Schoffstall


A Trust Built on Love

Earlier this year I explored the extreme northwestern part of Michigan—a beautiful and fairly wild area. The snow and ice had only retreated a few weeks prior and the trilliums and cowslips and trout lilies were in the midst of their brief wildflower glory.


Of course, spring in wilderness regions produces another natural sensation: courtship rituals among big birds. Out in the swamps and lakes I got pretty close to lots of them. Like some sandhill cranes. These birds are around five feet tall, with scarlet heads, long dagger-like beaks, and draping tail feathers. The pairs I saw weren’t doing any of the dancing they’re famous for. But they were bugling and rattling away at each other, and at me. That’s one of the most distinctive sounds of wide-open spaces in America. Sandhill cranes have long windpipes that coil into their breasts—which, much like the tubes of a French horn, give them a deep, rich voice that can sometimes be heard miles away.

While creeping up on those birds I flushed a fat ruffed grouse, and encountered a pair of coyotes running at high speed—whether toward or away from something, I couldn’t tell. I also bushwhacked across some of the astonishing sand dunes that rise up hundreds of feet along Lake Michigan. In one section I came upon a fragile trout stream that cut right through one of these towering heaps of sand, a deep slash whose steep sides seemed to threaten to cave in at any moment, but which has apparently always been able to carve its way through any sand that avalanches into its streambed.

I discovered a group of wild mute swans, and got to watch a couple of males battling each other for access to a female. These swans are huge, heavy birds and it’s quite a sight to see them flying at each other, wings pounding and beaks ripping.

Several of these rambles took me over land bearing small signs announcing that the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy had taken responsibility for keeping the wild area I was exploring well cared-for and open to the public. After I got home I learned that through 25 years of private donations, that nonprofit is now the custodian of 40,000 acres of wild lands, forests, or historic farm plots, and 124 miles of shoreline. Its $11 million endowment, plus $3 million of cash donated in a typical year by more than 3,000 area supporters, plus thousands of donated volunteer hours, allows the group to operate 34 different local nature preserves, maintain 65 miles of hiking trails, and oversee 200 conservation easements. Donations in the latest year increased its caretaking by an extra 800 acres of land, and three additional miles of shoreline.

Like many similar land-conserving charities scattered all across our country, the mission of this trust is to work with private landowners to protect private land. One major technique is to help owners establish voluntary conservation easements on territory they possess. Another method is for the conservancy itself to acquire high-value natural property, either through donation or by buying it with cash gifted by the public.

All of the resulting preserves are opened to public access so residents can enjoy hiking, canoeing, birding, biking, fishing, hunting, and other outdoor activities. In addition to these recreational uses,  trusts sometimes permit intelligent timbering, farming, and even mining, or gas and oil extraction. The resources are managed with creative flexibility to produce the best long-run outcome. Land trusts do all this with full respect for private-property rights, and a strong interest in making sure local economies remain healthy, since stewardship of nature thrives most when communities and residents are prospering.

Private charitable land trusts like this one are now one of the top ways we Americans conserve forests, prairies, shorelines, and other natural land, along with wildlife and scenic agricultural land. Land conservancies are a unique American charitable invention dating back to 1890, when the first one was created in Massachusetts. In the last few decades they’ve become the fastest growing and most effective tool of nature conservation in the U.S.

There are now about 2,000 local land trusts. Together, they manage and open to the public 56 million acres of natural space. The territory under their protection jumped 20 percent just in the last five years. In 2015, 6.3 million people took a recreational visit to these lands. And 5 million Americans are now dues-paying members of a land trust in their area.

Most land trusts are locally rooted and controlled, but there are also a few national organizations. These include groups that specialize in certain kinds of locales—like the American Farmland Trust. Or the Wetlands America Trust, which was created by the hunters behind Ducks Unlimited to keep wildfowl habitat healthy. Another national group is the Civil War Trust, with the very specialized mission of saving sacred battlefields. The single biggest land trust today is the Nature Conservancy, which now takes care of 5 million acres, in all 50 U.S. states, that have been donated, or purchased with funds provided by the conservancy’s one million contributors, or protected with easements created by the private owners of the property.

The reason land trusts have become such popular charities is because they are practical, non-confrontational, and apolitical. They rely on partnerships and voluntary transactions by willing landowners. They don’t take anything away from anyone, or try to control private owners through regulations or litigation. They start with respect for the existing guardians of a special piece of land. As conservationist Michael Fischer has put it, instead of channeling anger, or outrage, or a desire to tell others what to do with their possessions, land trusts use love as their principal motivating force—love of land, love of nature, love of outdoor beauty.

It’s a philanthropic formula that has won the heart of lots of Americans. —Karl Zinsmeister

(For more stories like this, subscribe to the Sweet Charity podcast at SweetCharityPodcast.org)

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