April 30, 2012

How Philanthropy Can Help During Crises

As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the riots that engulfed Los Angeles, grant makers say the biggest lesson the tragedy taught them about responding to catastrophe is that collaboration with governments, businesses, and other nonprofits matters more than anything else.

As 1,300 grant makers gathered in the city to start their annual meeting Sunday, they examined what foundations can do better as cities erupt in crises such natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the Gulf Coast or the damage the recession wracked on Detroit, or the racial tensions that inflamed this city.

In Los Angeles, one reason the city has grown stronger since the riots, said Manuel Pastor, a professor at University of Southern California, is that much of the Los Angeles philanthropy world joined together with local government, neighborhood, and business leaders to find ways to help blacks, Asians, and Latinos learn more about one another and grow more tolerant of their differences.

Another lesson is that change comes slowly and requires persistent efforts.

In New Orleans, foundations, civic leaders, and others shared information about efforts to bring entrepreneurs to the city and get local citizens involved in rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, said Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Although that work helped bring about change, such collaboration needs to continue, said Flozell Hathorn Daniels Jr., of the Foundation for Louisiana. Whites continue to earn more than blacks, housing is more scarce than it was before the hurricanes, and many of the city's residents are jobless, he said.

Grant makers in Detroit face similar challenges as the city grapples with a 38-percent poverty rate. Carol Goss, head of the Skillman Foundation, said foundations and governments realize they have no choice but to work closely together to rescue the city.

"Philanthropy has a lot of resources like influence and data, and we could come together to share these resources," said Ms. Goss. "And we as a sector can speak up and push for change."

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.