Look to Your Community Foundation in Times of Crisis - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Look to Your Community Foundation in Times of Crisis

Everyone wants to help during a crisis, and, for many, that means giving money. But few understand what it takes to distribute funds to the people, businesses, or nonprofits that will create the greatest impact and fulfill the most need—especially if the money lives in different funds at different organizations.

Enter community foundations, which are inherently good at sharing information and resources. In fact, they do it all the time. Community foundations exist to help others do more with less and find ways to strengthen a community through common resources, ingenuity, and communication.

In the community foundation world, you should never have to ‘reinvent the wheel,’ especially with things like disaster preparedness and recovery. Our community of community foundations is amazing and collaborative.

—Bridget Wilkinson, Executive Director, Bozeman Area Community Foundation

When Disaster Strikes


On the evening of July 30, [2016] a severe thunderstorm moved into the area of Ellicott City where it dumped an estimated 6 inches (15 cm) of rain in two hours. The flash flood that resulted inflicted severe damage to the area primarily on Main Street. Many homes, businesses, sidewalks, and landmarks were damaged by the flooding, with the city’s landmark clock being one of those impacted. A state of emergency was declared… [read more]

The flooding in Ellicott City spurred a downtown business group to raise funds, but left them with the (not unusual) conundrum of how best to distribute the money. The dilemma is remembered by Foundant’s Client Success Manager Aaron Spevacek:

How do you gather the information and data necessary to make the best grants in the face of a tragedy where so many need support? How can you use data to coordinate support with other funders? How do you decide who is the ‘neediest’?

The Community Foundation of Howard County was in the process [at that time] of implementing an online grant management system. They hadn’t finished training on how to use the software, but they stepped in to provide the staff, experience, and due diligence required to make the best decisions in a tough situation.

We [Foundant] quickly created for the community foundation a live [Grant Lifecycle Manager] site and created forms and a workflow that would work for the foundation and its partners, got them trained, and they were off and running.

By deferring to the community foundation’s experience, professional staff, and understanding of what it means to give money in an impactful way, the business group was able to place the funds they raised in the right hands at the right time.


A major landslide occurred 4 miles (6.4 km) east of Oso, Washington, United States, on March 22, 2014, at 10:37 a.m. local time. A portion of the unstable hill collapsed, sending mud and debris to the south across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, engulfing a rural neighborhood, and covering an area of approximately 1 square mile… [read more]

Karri Matau with the Community Foundation of Snohomish County discussed her memories of the devastating mudslide that killed 43 people and destroyed both land and property.

Although the community foundation had not had the prior conversation with other community organizations of “what will we do if…,” it had built strong partnerships. Although it did not have online giving options at the time—the event was prior to the community foundation becoming a Foundant CommunitySuite client—the relationships they had built with neighboring organizations helped them. They were ultimately able to contact the Seattle Community Foundation, which put their fund online and created giving links for the public quickly.

But then the community foundation had to ask, “What is our role in this situation?”

People started opening funds for others to give to. We had to discuss, ‘Why would we open a fund that would put us in competition with others like United Way or Red Cross?’ Our mission became a long-term community building fund—not used for immediate recovery but for long-term needs.

—Karri Matau, VP of Grantmaking & Partnerships, Community Foundation of Snohomish County

Approximately $9 million was raised in their community across various funds. Because they had prior relationships in place, they were able to comfortably ask themselves, Can someone else do this better and faster?


The 2014 Washington wildfires were a series of 1,480 wildfires that burned 386,972 acres (1,566 km) over the course of 2014. The fires burned private land, state land, and within the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests… [read more]

The Community Foundation of North Central Washington (CFNCW) had been a Foundant CommunitySuite client for five months when it established an online Fire Relief Fund to support families and individuals affected by the fires in Chelan, Douglas, and Okanogan counties. The foundation also worked with other relief funders along with regional nonprofit partners to direct donors to give to the Fire Relief Fund so emergency grants could be issued to those in need.

Disaster recovery can take months, even years. The CFNCW fund was established to ensure resources would be available for the long haul, and that people could get the help they needed to get back on their feet.

There are all sorts of additional things that happen – even if your business wasn’t destroyed, the power might have been out for two weeks. Through our relationship with the Red Cross, we were able to balance what we need ‘now’ versus what we’d need in six months versus three years.

Our immediate priorities were water, shelter, sewer, and getting people back to work as quickly as possible. By directing more people toward our unrestricted relief fund, we were able to direct the money where it would have the most impact, without having to wade through a lot of red tape.

—Beth Stipe, Executive Director, Community Foundation of North Central Washington

Connections and Conversations

Through our discussions with the Foundant clients mentioned above, a common theme and vein of advice emerged: have conversations early and establish roles.

It’s up to each individual community foundation to decide what resources are available but have the conversation early about what role you’re going to play. —Beth Stipe, Community Foundation of North Central Washington

All organizations should talk ahead of time about what you will do with fees associated with donations. —Karri Matau, Community Foundation of Snohomish County

In the aftermath of the 2014 Washington wildfires, as communities rebuilt and began to define their new normal, Philanthropy Northwest hosted a conversation with a group of their members, nonprofit leaders, and state and local government employees. Philanthropy Northwest’s Kristen Holway recapped the learnings in the September 4, 2014 blog post We’re All in the Business of Disaster Philanthropy, which echoes similar themes of being prepared before disaster strikes:

  • Your grantees will likely be called on to serve the community during a disaster – and they are likely ill-prepared.
  • Your foundation can play an important role in building resiliency.
  • If you don’t know your foundation’s disaster philanthropy strategy, ask.
  • Understand the general disaster response-recovery-preparedness-mitigation framework.
  • Use your foundation’s influence to figure out who you need to know.
  • Build relationships early.
  • Taking risks (or even losses) can lead to greater impact.
  • Be nimble if funding long-term recovery.
  • Be transparent and manage expectations.

Learning from others (not reinventing the wheel) will always save time and resources. If you would like to reach out to one of our contributing clients, please contact Kristin Laird, Foundant Communications Manager, at kristin.laird@foundant.com.

Foundant Technologies provides intuitive, integrated solutions to help maximize the impact of the philanthropic community. Through a company-wide dedication to honest, lasting relationships, Foundant strives to ensure client success above all else.

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