The Arts, the Money and the Flood

(3-31-2010) Last week I attended Katrina@5, a conference for funders sponsored by the Association of Small Foundations. Grantmakers in the Arts was one of the several association partners that helped plan and promote the conference. The goal was to share the successes and mistakes of the philanthropic response to the catastrophe that was hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the breaking of the levies.

We put together two sessions for participants (see my last blog for details.) Both were meaningful and successful. There are artists who started organizations that are now community centers, vital to the educational and mental health of their neighborhoods. I was once again impressed by the fact that artists and arts organizations are not separate from community well-being but an integral part of social, educational and economic recovery and stabilization.

I came away from the conference with three additional observations:

1. Preparedness planning is essential. Not only should our grantees have emergency plans in place, so should funders. Essential to the plan are contacts and data backups that are outside your office, city or region. Nationally, Grantmakers in the Arts can play a role in philanthropic coordination and communication for funders and individuals interested in helping artists and arts organizations after a disaster. We are working with a coalition of our members that have been meeting on this topic for a few years. We have begun this process by sharing resources on our website that have developed under the leadership of the Craft Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) and Cornelia Carey.

2. Private philanthropy may be the most effective responder in recovery. I don’t profess to be an expert on what happened after Katrina and Rita in New Orleans, but what I took away from my time talking to local residents and service providers was that local, state and federal governments were often arbitrary and ineffective in recovery. The red tape became, for many residents, an iron curtain preventing them from getting the help they needed to rebuild. The need for intermediary organizations to assist people in getting financial support was paramount. These organizations were best served by initial dollars from private philanthropy that helped them establish themselves in communities and begin the long winding process of guiding residents through the governmental system. Sometimes the generosity of those wanting to help is overwhelming and dollars flowed in that were wasted. This is probably not preventable. But the use of dollars without red tape was a lifeline for many in the recovery process.

3. The saints in New Orleans are not just football players. We met with two organizations, NENA and the St. Bernard Project. NENA was started by a woman whose family lived in the 9th Ward. A paralegal and oldest of 15 children, she began by helping her neighbors cut through paper work to get support. The organization continues to help residents build homes in the middle of the ravished neighborhood where for every new home there are at least 25-30 empty shells of houses. The 9th Ward was a thriving community that had the highest home ownership ratio in the city. Five years later, it is still noticeably a disaster area. A lawyer and his accountant wife from Washington DC came to New Orleans to build houses for one week. They decided to quit their jobs, sell their home in DC and came back to establish the St.Bernard Parish Project. Their team includes architects, contractors and an army of volunteers to build homes. They accept clients and guide them through the process to get government and private funding for their new homes. I was most impressed by the fact that they established a mental health clinic within the Project to give residents the moral and spiritual help needed even now, five years after the disaster. So many people are discouraged and frustrated. Post distress syndrome is common and this organization’s ability to address that issue is so smart and fundamental. There are many saints in New Orleans, and most of them don’t play football.