Katrina lessons explored

By Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. – Hurricane Katrina sent a wake-up call to nonprofits about the need to play a more active role in policy change and to be more effective at engaging donors, five nonprofit leaders said at a workshop for North Carolina’s charitable sector.

Hosted by the Philanthropy Journal, the Oct. 26 luncheon workshop drew more than 100 people for a panel discussion at the Exploris museum in Raleigh.

Pre-existing conditions were as much to blame for the extent of the devastation as the storm itself, the panelists agreed.

“The haves got out – the have-nots were on their roofs,” said panelist Craig Chancellor, president and CEO of Triangle United Way.  “If anything became clear from Katrina, it’s that poverty is one of the most serious issues facing this country.”

Addressing the underlying conditions that exacerbated the effect of the storm should be one focus of the sector going forward, panelists said.

“As a sector, what is our role and our responsibility to address this situation,” asked Barbara Metelsky, director of the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University.

“One of the wakeup calls for me, and for the sector,” she said, “is how do we move beyond charity to really engage in systems change and do this in an inclusive way.”

Rather than simply responding to crises, foundations should be doing more to strengthen the public and voluntary sectors and address poverty, said Tom Ross, executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem.

“Our role should be up-front,” he said of organized philanthropy.  “We should invest in systems change that puts nonprofits and government in a better position to respond.  The simple, clear response to poverty is building wealth in those communities.”

He also said Americans had lost their sense of the common good, focusing instead on a culture of the self.

“Part of the role of philanthropy is to shift that culture in communities,” Ross said.  “The answer can’t be just about response; it has to be about turning the culture to one of common good.”

A similar crisis could happen here in North Carolina, panelists warned, and the nonprofit sector needs to prepare to respond.

“We need to build our capacity here to respond to crises like this,” said panelist Jane Kendall, president of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits, a statewide network of nonprofits.  “That could suggest investing in your own sustainability.”

To do that, nonprofits should remind their supporters of the critical role they play here at home, Kendall said.

“All nonprofits are here for the disasters in their own communities every day,” Kendall said, noting that disasters can be a “double-whammy” for nonprofits because demand for services grows at a time when less money is available to pay for those services.

Donors were generous in response to Katrina, donating $1 billion within three weeks of the storm, but fundraising consultant Karla Williams, principal of The Williams Group, said crisis donors are not necessarily repeat donors.

“There was a wonderful new outcry of donors and I’m worried they will not have their needs met,” she said, predicting that many of them will not be thanked properly or have their money stewarded well.

Volunteerism is down, which leads to a lack of understanding of the work of nonprofits, resulting in decreased giving, Williams said.

“Don’t apologize” for fundraising, she said.  “I think you need to do a better job of getting your donors involved.”

The event, the second in a series of “Lunch ‘n’ Learn” gatherings hosted by the Philanthropy Journal, was sponsored by the N.C. Center for Nonprofits, Triangle United Way and Exploris.

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