News and analysis
October 06, 2014

Disaster Response Needs More Cooperation Between Nonprofits, Regulators

Charity regulators and the nonprofit world should work together to bring more coordination to fundraising for disasters and get more information to the public about how the money is spent, speakers at a charity-regulators conference said today.

Forty-four disasters worldwide caused at least $1-billion in damage last year, said Bob Ottenhoff, chief executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, adding that both the number and intensity of the events were growing.

"I hope you’ll begin to think about what your state and what your office needs to be doing because if you haven’t had a disaster, you’ll soon have one in your state," he told the annual meeting of the National Association of State Charity Officials.

Mr. Ottenhoff invited the regulators to work with his center to develop guidelines about "effective disaster philanthropy," including educating donors about the need for long-term spending on recovery. They could also help discourage "pop-up organizations" that are taking advantage of disasters and "get more support for those who are doing good and effective work."

He said regulators should think about ways to ensure that special funds set up to aid disaster victims are transparent about their purpose and their decision-making. "Is there an advisory committee? Who beyond the creator of the fund has some responsibility in how this money is distributed?"

Better Planning

Katherine Durante, executive director of OceanFirst Foundation, a grant maker in the Jersey Shore area, said her region was unprepared to respond to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. "The idea is to have a plan in advance, not after the disaster occurs," she said. "We didn’t. You should." She said coordination should involve entities like their state Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and regional associations of grant makers.

Ms. Durante said relations between the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, a grantee that is helping the shore to rebuild, and the American Red Cross, which awarded the group $1.8-million, have been strained. She said it’s not clear exactly how the Red Cross is spending the more than $300-million that it raised. "We’re scratching our heads, asking where did it all go?"

Anne Marie Borrego, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said the charity details how it is spending Sandy money on its website. But the group has come under pressure from New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and a ProPublica investigation to provide more information.

Ms. Durante urged regulators to do more to educate donors about fraudulent charities. She said one homeowner in her region was promised aid by a charity that never came through, and the homeowner then missed deadlines to apply for aid from legitimate organizations.

Send an e-mail to Suzanne Perry.