Armanino Blog

This Is Not a Drill: How Nonprofits Can Remain Resilient in the Face of Disaster

by Tom Schulte
September 21, 2018

When the next natural or manmade disaster strikes, will your nonprofit be prepared to weather the storm—and help your constituents do the same?

At the 2018 Armanino Nonprofit Symposium in Los Angeles, a panel of Southern California nonprofit leaders shared lessons learned during the recent wildfires and mudslides about how to remain resilient and respond to the needs of their communities.

Think Beyond the Curb

The Theodore Payne Foundation’s emergency plan was fresh on everyone’s mind in early September 2017. Since the 22-acre preserve for native plants sits in the scrub-covered La Tuna Canyon, a high-risk fire area, staff members review the emergency plan each autumn.

That plan, though, “was wholly theoretical,” said executive director Kitty Connolly. It had never been tested. So when the La Tuna fire broke out on the Friday before Labor Day—even though it was four miles away and there was little wind—she decided it was an ideal time to practice.

The plan worked, but it (literally) didn’t go far enough. “It took us right up to the curb,” Connolly said. “But once we got to the curb, we had no place to take our things off site.”

Staff members ended up storing artwork and other valuable materials in their living rooms and garages. To make matters worse, the staffer in charge of the foundation’s seed collection was on vacation and had to oversee the removal remotely. “She was on the phone saying, ‘These are the most important things. These are the rare things. Take them from this refrigerator. No, the third shelf,’” Connolly recounted.

Despite these challenges, the staff remained calm and completed the evacuation in less than two hours. They knew they had improvements to make, but figured they had some time to fix the plan.

Then in early December, the Creek fire broke out and put the foundation’s plan to the test again. This time, they were able to store the seeds and archives in a volunteer’s empty, air-conditioned apartment. The staff was more efficient this time around and completed the evacuation in roughly an hour.

In both instances, the only loss the foundation suffered was about 500 hours of labor, as the facility was inaccessible for several days. No artwork, papers, plants or seeds were damaged, but they easily could have been; the fire had burned right to the edge of the foundation’s property.

After these close calls, Connolly and her fellow leaders acted decisively and made these improvements to the disaster plan:

  • Store materials off-site. For the materials that needed to remain onsite, they sought out safe, off-site repositories. Materials that don’t need to remain on site are permanently stored in a facility in Los Angeles.
  • Donate nonessential assets. The priceless Theodore Payne archives have been donated to UCLA, so they are safe from fire and the organization never has to evacuate them again.
  • Prioritize materials for evacuation. For the materials that remain on site, the updated evacuation plan now takes the guesswork out of which items to move where, so their fate is not contingent on one person being available. For example, seeds are prioritized from most to least rare.

Be Self-Sufficient

Having the necessary supplies to remain self-sufficient for several days or weeks can be crucial for any nonprofit that provides housing, as administrators at the Cate School discovered last winter.

When they received a mandatory evacuation order in early January, just one day after students returned from winter break, “we thought it was a bad joke,” said Sandi Pierce, CFO and assistant head of the boarding and day school.

The school had already evacuated just weeks before when the Thomas fire broke out. “We’re up in the hills above Carpenteria, and we made the decision to evacuate our campus before we were asked to, out of an abundance of caution,” Pierce said. “We got in contact with our local families and friends of the school, and within about 90 minutes we had a place for every student, every faculty member, 28 dogs and about a dozen cats.”

But when they received a second evacuation order, because of mudslides, the administration decided to shelter in place. “We brought in geologists and hydrologists and search-and-rescue, and we decided—based on our proximity to the top of the hill—we were not going to evacuate,” Pierce said.

This was where the school’s disaster response plan became critical. “We took [stock of] our supplies, and we ramped them up,” Pierce said. “We made sure that we had additional backup generators, food, medical supplies and waste facilities to be self-sufficient for up to a week.”

Due to its hilltop location, the school remained safe, but it was cut off from town and lost electricity and communication for several days. The experience led Pierce and her team to update the disaster plan “to make sure that we’re essentially self-sufficient, at any point in time, for up to a week,” she said.

Mobilize to Support Disaster Victims

Many nonprofits have double duty during a disaster—providing support to disaster victims while recovering from their own personal losses. Leaders at Ventura County Community Foundation had to mobilize quickly to help the community recover from the Thomas fire, even while several of them were feeling the effects of the fire personally, said chief compliance officer Jim Rivera.

Foundation staff quickly began evaluating the designated funds, field-of-interest funds and donor-advised funds that were available to provide grants to area nonprofits that were actively providing disaster relief. Two existing funds proved invaluable. The Sudden and Urgent Need Fund was established nearly 20 years ago to help nonprofit organizations experiencing an unexpected expense and interruption of operations, and the Community Disaster Fund was established after 9/11 to respond to any national emergency. “Little did we know that we were going to need it in our own Ventura County,” Rivera said.

The board had to act quickly—and virtually—to shore up those funds and match them to the organizations that needed them most. They communicated by email and text to provide approval of critical decisions, such as moving discretionary funds and making grants.

The community foundation also had the positive challenge of handling a flood of interest from donors looking to help. During the first week, the few staff members who were in the office fielded nearly 1,000 calls. To facilitate the fundraising, they quickly added a donation page to their website and directed potential donors and area nonprofits to it through social media and email outreach.

Lessons Learned From Disaster

Nonprofit executives and board members are responsible for making sure their organizations have effective risk mitigation plans. Whether your organization is responsible for protecting students or historically significant artwork, you have a responsibility to be prepared when disaster strikes. Keep the following in mind as you review and improve or create your disaster plan.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Taking the time to practice emergency protocols helps the process run more smoothly in an actual emergency. Even practicing discrete parts of the evacuation plan can be beneficial. For example, Connolly moved one of the racks of archived Theodore Payne papers out of her office—just to make sure she could do it.
  • Lean on your neighbors. The Cate School already had informal agreements with neighboring schools to provide shelter for each other’s students and faculty if needed. After the back-to-back evacuation orders, the school administrators formalized those agreements.
  • Stick to your mission. If disaster relief isn’t your nonprofit’s primary purpose, find ways to support your constituents that do align with your mission. For example, the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project collaborated with other nonprofits to provide facemasks to migrant workers and children who were exposed to dangerous air quality. They also created the 805 UndocuFund, which provides one-time financial relief to farm workers and undocumented individuals impacted by the Thomas fire and Montecito mudslides.
  • Lead with your heart. For the Theodore Payne Foundation, a new purpose sprang up from the ashes. Within two weeks of the fire, the foundation launched a public education program on fire-resistant gardening, including a series of free lectures by fire safety experts. Foundation staff also planted native plants at the local fire station with funds raised by the community. Although it wasn’t the intent, those efforts also helped to raise community awareness about the nonprofit.

Another critical component of any disaster plan is flexibility, given the unpredictability of natural disasters. However, by going through the disaster planning process and making sure everyone understands and has a chance to practice those emergency protocols, you help ensure your organization will remain strong and resilient through any type of disaster—whether natural or manmade.

September 21, 2018

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