LIVE BLOG: Disaster Philanthropy

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In the wake of the devastating ProPublica/NPR investigation of the American Red Cross’s less than stellar, to put it mildly, performance in responding to Superstorm Sandy, one of the small funders highlighted at the Exponent Philanthropy annual meeting’s “Hall of Outsized Impact” was the Breezy Point Disaster Relief Fund. There are many possible explanations for the Red Cross’s unfortunately repeated problems in disaster relief, despite the many highly motivated and dedicated Red Cross volunteers in local chapters, including but not limited to the response to Sandy, but the indications were already there when residents of the Far Rockaways were much more vocally cognizant and appreciative of the efforts of “Occupy Sandy” than the ARC in delivering assistance quickly and sensitively.

Breezy Point is on the western end of the Rockaways, a historic community of 2,837 individual homes established a century ago. When one thinks of Superstorm Sandy, the image is one of flooding, and that certainly happened in Breezy Point, with 170 homes flooded. But the storm led to a raging fire as well, a six-alarm fire that destroyed at least 100 homes, spreading quickly because of the very tight spacing among the houses. As one resident told the Register-Star, the devastation was shocking: “The only way I could describe it is that it looked like a bomb went off, almost as if you were in Iraq. All of the houses were black to the foundation, you couldn’t make out where one house ended and another began.”

Six residents came together to form the Breezy Point Disaster Relief Fund to help residents rebuild their homes and to repair and construct recreational areas for kids. According to the “Hall of Outsized Impact” poster describing the fund, the effort has raised $2.5 million to date, from which $2.175 million has been distributed in grants of $500 to $7,500 to 735 homeowners. The additional funding appears to have supported work on the neighborhood’s gym, playground, and activity center.

There is a distinctive quality to the Disaster Relief Fund operations. Homeowners in need of help submit an application for grant assistance that is reviewed by a committee of five other residents who make the determination of a grant approval and how large the grant should be. If that is as successful as the “Hall” display suggested, it might have been because of a strong sense of community within Breezy Point. The community, if we read the history correctly, was governed by a cooperative, long with a strong Irish flavor—the area was once thought of as “the playground of the chic Brooklyn Irish on the stylish Queens peninsula” and “the Irish Riviera”, and is still one of the most Irish communities in the U.S. As a result, Ireland has taken a special interest in rebuilding Breezy Point, with donations from Irish corporations, sports stars, and rock musicians.

However, Breezy Point has had a racial history of some difficulty over the years, as the white Breezy Point enclave has been seen by African-Americans as hostile to the largely black Rockaways. Though still over 60 percent Irish, the community has seen other white ethnic groups move into the community’s bungalows and other homes, but generally not blacks. The memory of protests led by the Rev. Al Sharpton against the perception of Breezy Point’s racial exclusivity still causes reactions from supporters and critics of the community.

Breezy Point still prides itself on its privacy and aversion to publicity, but mammoth disasters like Superstorm Sandy change that. Raising millions from sources ranging from the Irish government to retired third baseman Kevin Youkilis, privacy is hard to maintain. The community likes to think of itself as self-reliant, handling its own municipal-like functions of garbage collection, street maintenance, and fire protection, but the storm and the fires undermined the ability of the community to make a go of responding to the devastation on its own. It has had to turn to outsiders, even to Habitat for Humanity, to rebuild homes. But it still values its exclusivity. According to USA Today, when the city proposed a double dune to protect the Breezy Point seashore—and requested public access as the condition for assistance—Breezy Point declined, with the community’s assistance manager quoted as saying, “Would you want people walking through your backyard?”

Breezy Point is no longer nearly as demographically exclusive as it once was, but the challenge of modern society—and of small philanthropic organizations serving limited populations—is that diversity, transparency, and change are hard to resist. For its part, the Breezy Point community has not appeared to resist the efforts of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to make all Sandy-related disaster relief accountable, with Breezy Point community representatives appearing with the AG last year when he committed that the state’s Charities Bureau would ensure that Sandy donations reached people in need. Unless the statistics on the “Hall” poster are incorrect, the Breezy Point Disaster Relief Fund has been getting its money onto the street in comparison with other Sandy-related disaster groups such as Samaritan’s Purse, the Salvation Army, World Vision, and the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island holding millions yet to be disbursed as of early 2014, over 60 percent of their Sandy fundraising according to an October 2014 report from the AG.

“Outsized impact” stories always have context. Thinking hard about what leads to successful small grantmaker programs and dealing with some of the consequences of philanthropy regarding openness, transparency, and inclusivity are issues for some small-scale funders.