NPQ recently talked to two foundation executives in Puerto Rico about philanthropic investments on the island, especially post-Hurricane Maria, and found that while both are focused on strengthening the nonprofit sector, they have two very different approaches. These two stories offer a glimpse into how the framing of the problem shapes the solutions, and, in this case, investments, which have shifted since the storm. One is the community foundation, which has developed a rapid implementation approach to fund trusted community groups quickly. The other is Puerto Rico’s foundation network, which serves as an external liaison that seeks to increase the flow of funds to key Puerto Rican nonprofits from US mainland-based foundations.
Puerto Rico’s Community Foundation Leads on Local, Equitable Rebuilding
“The notion of systems, in terms of human development, is fairly new,” says Nelson I. Colon, president and CEO of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation (Fundacion Comunitaria de Puerto Rico). He describes the design of systems on the island—whether energy, education, or health—as “basically one of central systems that distribute into smaller units,” and sees this as part of the island’s colonial heritage. “Everything is centralized and connected.”
But, he notes, “Due to Maria, systems in Puerto Rico collapsed. People are managing the crisis in that smaller unit that we call a community. That is the surviving unit.”
Like many leaders I spoke with in Puerto Rico, Colon asserts that the nonprofit sector is the first responder to that small unit. He says, “When the government was still trying to figure it out, the Army was still trying to figure out, FEMA was still trying to figure out, the nonprofit organizations were there. That’s why I label them ‘community first responders.’” According to Colon, the Puerto Rican government is still functioning at very limited capacity, unable to provide basic services like water, food, health, and education.
Echoing a sentiment that I heard repeatedly in my visits to nonprofits in Puerto Rico, Colon notes that the US’s abandonment of Puerto Rico has awakened the island’s self-reliant capacities. He says, “One of the things that happened with colonialism is that your self-reliant capacity goes dormant.” Along with a focus on self-reliance, Colon centers equity in the foundation’s work. He says, “One of the aspects that I want to put on the table is the impact of structural inequalities and racism.…We really need to build equity from this experience.”
This intention—equitable rebuilding focused on self-reliance—shapes the foundation’s investments after the hurricane. “We decided that we’re going to use a grassroots approach because there is where people most need it. We decided to go to the base of the community.”
A few days after Maria, Colon was on the three major Puerto Rican radio stations calling on nonprofits to reactivate themselves to serve as community first responders. He invited them to apply for grants and committed the foundation to turning them around in less than 48 hours. This included filling the application, assessing the applications, making the grants, and writing the contracts. The one-page application simply asked the organization how it would serve as a first responder in its community, that is, meeting the basic needs of food, water, and shelter. This was critical because, though nonprofits were already struggling through the island’s long-term recession, they could not divert existing funds to meet the challenges of post-hurricane Puerto Rico—grants being contracts, after all.
The foundation also established a system of messengers that went throughout the island. They came from the Boy Scouts network, former scouts who were still engaged with the organization and had the skills to move through challenging terrain. They helped the foundation identify what was needed in each municipality and who were the nonprofits doing the work. What they learned shaped the core strategies.
Colon says the foundation could take this approach because it had been doing community work for 35 years. There is a level of trust between the foundation and community nonprofits. He says, “I could sign grants just by having a conversation with people. I don’t do that, but I could, just on the basis of their reputation. So why do I need to go through all these long routes, instead of using your reputational capital that has been established throughout the years and making this a sort of low-doubt, rapid grant. For us, that’s simple because we are immersed in communities.”
One strategy is making sure water and food are available and reliable. Another is creating sustainable access to the power grid, education, and health. Special initiatives make up the third strategy. These vary, but the foundation is homing in on comprehensive investments in particular towns. The pilot municipality is Loíza, which, according to Colon, is both the poorest and the blackest.
These strategies are overlaid with a community listening and adaptation approach that moved the foundation from humanitarian responses, to sustainable responses, to systemic responses. For example, in terms of water, at the beginning of the recovery effort the focus was on getting people bottled water. But that brings a host of challenges, including plastic waste. So, the foundation started to supply water purifiers to nonprofits, which, in turn, created water distribution systems for their constituency. Then, the municipality of Yauco suggested the foundation help the town build a well. The foundation evolved its strategy to build community aqueducts that serve 400 families each.
The foundation took the same approach with energy. It started with small electric generators, gasoline or diesel. Now it’s looking at providing alternative energy to all 93 community clinics, in this case solar. Colon says, “Basically, we said people can live without energy. It’s uncomfortable, but you can live without energy. But if you keep the community clinics open, then you will have access to health care.” Most clinics are still not fully functioning again, and those that are opened have limited hours. The foundation’s investment will increase clinic hours an average of four hours per clinic. So, the approach evolved from providing generators to more sustainable sources of energy, with a focus on the most equity-informed placement, local clinics.
To launch the first comprehensive, place-based investment in Loíza, Colon met with mayor Julia Nazario to learn about the municipality’s needs; one is housing. Ten percent of families in Loíza need housing. So, the foundation will support an initial initiative to rebuild or rehabilitate 28 houses. It is also looking at a community-based enterprise for either fish farming or shrimp farming. The foundation also supports alternative sources of food to the supermarket. Even though Puerto Rico has year-round agriculture, it imports 85 percent of its food from the US mainland. Colon says, “It’s looking at specific towns and thinking in terms of what are self-sustaining activities of economic development.”
In the short term, costs increased as the strategies evolved, but the foundation kept making the decision to fund the evolutions because the solutions were increasingly long-term. Nevertheless, Colon admits, this is hard work. “That strategy,” he says, pointing at a graphic in his office of the island, its 78 municipalities, and the foundation’s investments according to its core strategies, “is labor intensive, going town to town, but if I don’t do that, I will not break the inequity cycles.”
Overall, though, the foundation aims to activate and strengthen nonprofits on the island and help sustain networks amongst them. Even in its investments in nonprofits, the foundation started with domestic violence shelters, of which there are eight across Puerto Rico. Colon says, “As a foundation, you need to first recognize that there is a deep-rooted problem of domestic violence in Puerto Rico. That is an inequity of power issue.” Colon notes that the result of prioritizing shelters is that, “You could have your shelter open 24 hours. That’s a huge difference.”
Before Maria, the foundation gave out almost $2 million a year in grants. However, by the time of my visit last December, it had given out $8.9 million through its Community Recovery Fund. That’s almost $9 million in three months. The foundation raised this money from the US community foundation network, including a $4 million grant from San Francisco Foundation. Colon’s goal is for all 78 municipalities to be self-reliant in basic needs and to jumpstart equitable local development by investing in 10 comprehensive, place-based projects. He quickly adds up the numbers, “Money for powering all the clinics, that’s $2.5 million. If we were to have 10 Loízas at $1.5 million each, that would be $15 million.” So, making headway on those two strategies, the current focus of the foundation’s fundraising, would be just under $20 million.
If you pull equity to the side and say, ‘Let me just see the cost of damages.’ The cost of damages in San Juan are most likely going to be higher than in the rest of the island because in San Juan you have luxury condominiums that lost their penthouses and so on….So that is a fundamental difference: the grassroots approach versus the macro structural approach. When you do the macro structural approach, you sweep under the rug all these inequities, racism, gender issues, all that is swept into the huge rug of major damages to the island.
Puerto Rico Community Foundation’s local equity approach is significant and perhaps even unique. The last study of foundations by the Network of Foundations of Puerto Rico, in 2015, listed 106 foundations on the island. The foundation is the only community foundation in Puerto Rico and the first in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is one of the seven members of the Network of Foundations, described below.
Puerto Rico’s Foundation Network Invests in Large Service Nonprofits
Janice Petrovich, executive director and vice president of the Network of Foundations of Puerto Rico (La Red de Fundaciones de Puerto Rico), remembers when US foundations used to fund in Puerto Rico. When Petrovich was a program officer at Ford, where she worked until 2008, it had some investments on the island. She also remembers before that, when foundations were helping to create community foundations and the Puerto Rico Community Foundation was created through grants made by Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, among others.
I know for a fact there were leaders of Puerto Rican communities that would visit with US foundations and call them on there not being enough investment in Puerto Rican and Latino communities. This funding began in the ’70s and all of this, I think, had to do with the civil rights movement and the mobilization of Latinos arguing for their fair share. So, there were some investments in the diaspora and Puerto Rico in the late ’70s, ’80s, and up to probably ’90s. Then it began to wane.
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Petrovich notes that five years ago she could only point to a few foundations with investments in Puerto Rico. That’s when Annie E. Casey came into Puerto Rico as one of its Kids Counts sites through a grant to the Boys and Girls Club. Open Society Foundation (OSF) also began funding in Puerto Rico five years ago when it selected the island as one of its three place-based investment areas, Espacios Abiertos (Open Spaces). OSF hired Karina Claudio-Betancourt two years later as the lead Program Officer for Puerto Rico, as it sought to deepen its investments there, particularly in political participation and government transparency. Rockefeller Family Fund started funding El Puente’s energy work about six years ago. (See NPQ’s El Puente story in this Puerto Rico series.)
Petrovich says a significant part of the work of the network, which formed recently in response to the need for nonprofits to advocate for themselves in the midst of the island’s economic crisis, is visiting US foundations and making the case for investments in Puerto Rico. She recalls, “We’ve been told terrible things, like, ‘We don’t do disasters.’ Basically, no, it was out of the picture.” But, she says, that is beginning to change. Foundations are beginning to fund Puerto Rico again because of the humanitarian crisis. New funds have even been created by Puerto Ricans in the diaspora.
Although she is thankful for the turn on the part of US foundations, she is also concerned that Puerto Rico is on the map because of the disaster. She’s very aware of the trends of disaster philanthropy. She says, “You could look at data of disaster philanthropy, it declines a year later and continues to decline after that. There will be more disasters and those people drawn to humanitarian crisis will shift their focus from Puerto Rico.” She continues, “That’s why it’s good that Ford, OSF, and Rockefeller have given with a long-term focus.”
Before Hurricane Maria, the network had determined that Puerto Rico needs to do its best to attract donors. “The poverty levels, the joblessness, the low workforce participation rates, our statistics are worse than the poorest state in the union, Mississippi,” says Petrovich.
Of course, all of this is a bit more complicated in Puerto Rico because of its political status vis-à-vis the US, and the current catastrophe highlights the challenges. Petrovich says,
There are many layers of issues that are now being discussed that before were discussed only on the left. Now it’s an open discussion, the territorial status of Puerto Rico and what that implies; the fact that we have a fiscal control board, appointed by Congress, where Puerto Ricans have no say about who sits there.
The fiscal control board is financed by Puerto Rico, with tax money. We pay the costs of the PROMESA board. I haven’t seen their budget, but my understanding is that a lot of it goes to contracts with lawyers, law firms dealing with the debt. So it is certainly not a democratic institution. It is not democratically elected. It is appointed by Congress to oversee a territory, to be paid for by the territory.
According to a recent El Nuevo Dia article, which highlights the fiscal board’s lack of progress due to the complexity of the crisis and its lack of clarity about its role, last year its budget was $30 million and this year it’s $60 million.
This is the context for Puerto Rico’s nonprofits, which, in spite of the recent surge in giving, still has limited dollars in comparison to the dollars that are flowing through Puerto Rico, including the drain to the fiscal board. The network set a $5 million goal for its recovery fund, Forward Puerto Rico (Adelante Puerto Rico). To date, it has raised a little over $3 million. (Compare this to $30 million raised by the first lady, Beatriz Rosselló. Her announcement that the money would be used to restore the island’s recreational and sports parks was widely criticized.) Half of this money has come from the network’s members and the rest from national and international foundations. It expects to meet this goal with the aforementioned $1.5 million from Ford, Open Society, and Rockefeller at $500,000 each, and a few other grants. Since the storm in September, it has awarded $900,000 in emergency grants to 21 nonprofits.
Petrovich says, “We went through a process, before Maria, getting our members together to think about what are the key institutions. We said, ‘Think of your grantees. Who do you think are the key organizations, that if they weren’t there, there would be a hole in the field.’”
These key organizations were in a fragile state because they rely on government funding and that was declining because of the economic crisis. Every year the government contribution would decline and those who had contracts for programs were not being paid promptly, causing huge fiscal crises within the institutions. “We knew if we wanted them to exist, we needed to figure out how to strengthen them,” says Petrovich.
Petrovich has been looking at US cities that have gone through disasters, like New Orleans and Detroit, to see how philanthropy is aiding their efforts. She notes that in New Orleans, “There is a collaborative of donors that have distributed hundreds of millions. They’ve been in New Orleans for 12 years and it still isn’t over.”
She notes a recent study released by Estudios Técnicos, Puerto Rico’s leading consulting firm, which estimates that it will take at least 10 years before Puerto Rico begins to see a positive turn in its economy.
Petrovich thinks philanthropies in these US cities are setting positive examples of how to do long-term rebuilding. She concludes,
They’re working together. Nobody has enough money, but if you work together, learn collectively, then you’re in the position to collectively decide what is a good investment, what makes a difference. Align, coordinate, and jointly fund. That’s what makes for a strong response, and you do this for the long-term. Maybe you won’t see the results until year two, five, but if you think it’s a moral imperative, then you stay.”
Maria made the job easier and more difficult. Funding Puerto Rico in its immediacy isn’t a hard sell anymore. The harder sell is the long term. I should hope that US foundations see that Puerto Rico is a place they should be making investments, in the same way they worry about the South as a key place where you make investments, that they look at us. The poverty rates are even higher and the needs are multifaceted. Any field a foundation works in has fertile ground in Puerto Rico.
The network is finalizing its strategic planning for how to use the remaining $4 million dollars in the fund. It seeks new philanthropic partners for the long haul.
These two approaches beg the question: From where does one start when trying to strengthen a nonprofit sector in response to a devastating storm that, as many people I spoke with said, “pulled the veil to reveal extreme poverty and inequality” on the island?
The language used by the two leaders and the success of their fundraising efforts offer some data. The community foundation’s sustainability and equity approach is clear about its principles. It directly targets the social problem and sees its strategy as one that either contributes to the problem or interrupts it. It is a high leverage strategy because it focuses on where the help is most needed. It looks at power relationships and who is most likely to be excluded. Then it funds the community itself and the nonprofits that others are unlikely to fund. Put plainly, it funds community organizing and civil society. According to its website and leader, its focus is “the strengthening of community leadership.”
On the other hand, the foundation network’s approach focuses on accessing US foundations to strengthen established nonprofits. Those turn out to be the organizations that already have the best access to philanthropic money—for example, Puerto Rico Museum of Modern Art, SER de Puerto Rico (which serves children with disability and autism), La Fondita de Jesus (which serves the homeless), Centros Sor Isolina Ferre (a network of social service centers set up by a member one of Puerto Rico’s elite families), and Boys & Girls Club. I visited many of these organizations when I travelled to Puerto Rico last December and will be writing about them in related stories. They are quite impressive and likely very much need the money, especially after a long-term economic recession and environmental catastrophe. But they are very different organizations—service organizations that have emerged to provide the services the government increasingly cannot. The network’s purpose is “to enhance the ability of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations to improve the lives of vulnerable populations.”
These are very different approaches, one addresses power, access, and inequity, and the other is focused on strengthening large, established institutions that, although challenged like most everyone in Puerto Rico, are already doing relatively well in an environment of inequity. The community foundation is a member of the foundation network. One can assume that the network and its members are familiar with the community foundation’s equity approach but decided not to sign on. In fact, when I asked Petrovich about her thoughts about the community foundation’s approach and comparable success (they raised almost $9 million to the network’s $3 million), she responded that each member has its own priorities. This hints at a decidedly power- and equity-neutral approach, and we are moving beyond that as a sector. When it comes to how to prioritize money that finds its way to the island to address social problems that, at their roots, boil down to power inequality and access to resources, it is important to consider those factors in the solutions.
Correction: This article has been amended from its initial form. The foundation funding El Puente is the Rockefeller Family Foundation, not the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, and they started doing so six years ago, not three.