Disasters strain tri-county donors and nonprofits

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Generosity during a series of recent disasters has turned into a long recovery period for the region’s nonprofits.

Working closely with state and national agencies gave rise to deeper ties between charitable organizations and a framework for how to manage during emergencies, nonprofit leaders said.

But two years of crisis response has put a strain on both wealthy donors and organizations stretching to meet the needs of entirely new constituencies.

That strain – and lessons learned – are evident as the region contemplates a third consecutive year of high fire danger with utility blackouts added to the disaster response equation.

“No one knew. We didn’t have any playbook to go by,” said Clare Briglio, director of communications with the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County. “It was a really good lesson to kind of rebuild the foundation between our agencies, and that work continues today.”

Briglio joined the EDC in the aftermath of the Thomas fire and quickly found herself working with state agencies to extend little-known unemployment benefits to business owners during the Montecito mudslides. The experience revived partnerships across the organization’s territory, she said, such as the Small Business Development Center, Women’s Economic Ventures, SCORE and other groups that served to connect businesses with needed resources.

But the impacts from the disasters on the nonprofit community can still be seen years later with the ongoing closure of Santa Barbara provider Unity Shoppe.

With the onset of the fires, the organization saw its year-end fundraising efforts derailed, even as it shifted gears to provide essential goods like diapers, clothing, food and blankets to residents displaced by the fires and mudslides.

An annual fundraising breakfast that could ordinarily be counted on to raise some $70,000 for the organization was one of four events Unity Shoppe was forced to cancel due to smoke and evacuations. Meanwhile, a telethon that normally makes up the bulk of its holiday donations came up short by $150,000 as donors funneled cash toward more visible relief efforts like the Red Cross, said Executive Director Thomas Reed.

By the time the nonprofit saw a $130,000 reimbursement check from the United Way, it had already expended more than $600,000 to meet the increased demand, including hiring three case managers to help disaster victims navigate the recovery process.

“No one knew what to do with this case management function. It was all new ground,” Reed said. “You end up doing things that are outside what you’d normally do and you’re figuring it out on the fly.”

In the days since, “there is a little bit of this post-disaster fatigue,” he added. “It’s not that (donors) don’t have the heart for it. They just don’t have the energy or the surplus.”

That’s meant laying off Unity Shoppe’s 15 employees as it tries to rally resources to reopen ahead of the holiday season.

As the former president of the Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD, Reed said he also sees the need for further coordination between state and local agencies when things are calm.

Memoranda of understanding would help direct donations to service providers, he said, “so that the funding mechanism is established and understood before the next disaster. If you try to do it in the middle of the disaster it doesn’t work at all, and after a disaster it’s said and done.”

The disasters underscored the need for nonprofits to cultivate a strong base of reserves, said Vanessa Bechtel, president and CEO of the Ventura County Community Foundation.

The strain on nonprofit resources dates back to the 2008 recession, she said, and was exacerbated further by disasters like the Hill and Woolsey fires in 2018, which followed closely on the heels of the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks.

“It leaves a lot of nonprofits with very little bandwidth to absorb even greater disasters,” Bechtel said. “They don’t have the free cash flow to be able to pay those increased salary costs or the overtime costs, or having the case managers that can handle more clients.”

Knowing donors’ priorities helped leverage funds more effectively, she said. During the disasters, the VCCF worked to help individuals with a passion for animals support displaced search and rescue dogs or donors who support seniors fund evacuations for elderly residents.

But many residents already on the margins struggled to connect with aid, including renters in nontraditional housing or undocumented workers.

“In communities like ours where housing is so expensive, what you see is this lack of safety net for people who are already in the most vulnerable positions,” Bechtel said.

Longtime community donors were themselves impacted by the disasters, including many who lost homes, said Roberto Martinez, CEO of Boys and Girls Club of Camarillo. The club also saw demand for its services spike during the fires, as heavy smoke triggered last-minute school closures.

And the region hasn’t been alone in making headlines, Martinez said.

“We’re able to share information so quickly nowadays that people’s philanthropy has gone a little bit beyond their immediate community, which is a great thing,” Martinez said. “That does create a little bit of a challenge for local organizations such as our own.”

Fatigue is also a factor for nonprofit employees responding to back-to-back disasters, Briglio said. Having been evacuated herself during the Thomas fire, she saw firsthand the emotional and physical toll it took on the people she was working with.

“It hasn’t let go of me,” she said.

In the months since, the EDC has compiled a disaster toolkit for businesses, as well as a guide distilling its role in the recovery efforts for other economic development groups.

“We weren’t ready. Now we are prepared,” Briglio said. “Unless you go through it, you don’t know what you don’t know.”


This article was originally published on Pacific Coast Business Times.

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