Good intentions aren't enough
The damage caused by natural disasters such as the Haitian earthquake makes us want to help. But researcher Carol J. De Vita cautions congregations and other faith-based groups to think through the steps needed to make their help practical and effective.
Faith-based organizations are good at providing immediate relief, but have less capacity to support sustained recovery in areas devastated by natural disasters, said Carol J. De Vita, senior research associate with the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, a branch of the Urban Institute, which is a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Washington, D.C.
Planning ahead, working with large, established organizations and connecting with local people are keys to successful relief efforts, De Vita said. In 2007, she served as a principal investigator for an Institute study conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the role of faith-based and community organizations in relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
She recently spoke with Faith & Leadership about the Katrina study, lessons for relief in Haiti and the role of church and faith-based organizations in disaster relief.
Q: Can you give us an overview of how disaster relief typically works and where churches and faith-based organizations fit into that process?
We often think, after a disaster, of immediate recovery, the immediate response effort -- making sure people affected by the disaster have food and water and shelter. But we really need to think along a continuum. The immediate relief effort is just the beginning of what needs to be done. After a while -- and it depends on the size of the disaster what timeframe we’re talking about -- you move into more of a recovery effort and these can take months and even years depending on the size and the severity of the disaster.
What we have found is that congregations and the faith-based community are most likely to respond at the front end, or immediate impact after a disaster. Many churches and congregations are very quick to set up shelters and to provide food and water. Obviously, it depends on how close they are to the actual location of the disaster as to what they can do. But we found in our work after Katrina that all kinds of congregations and faith-based groups emphasized the immediate relief efforts, making sure that people were sheltered and fed and clothed. Over time, when you moved into the recovery stage, many faith-based organizations did not have the capacity to continue.
Q: What percentage of disaster relief is provided by churches and faith-based organizations?
I’m not sure anybody knows. Getting hard numbers is very, very difficult. After Katrina, we did a large survey within Louisiana and Mississippi, the two states most directly affected. We asked respondents how much money, how many resources, how many volunteers they had, and more than a third of the organizations said they couldn’t even begin to tell us. When a disaster happens, people jump in. The last thing on their mind is keeping records. And often a lot of collaborations occur, so the lines between what was a secular group and what was a faith group get blurred and difficult to distinguish one from the other in terms of who was providing what.
Q: I understand that a wide range of faith-based organizations play a role in disaster relief, from individual congregations to large relief organizations such as World Vision.
Exactly. A lot of individual congregations will respond after a disaster, whether it was 9/11 or Katrina or now, Haiti. Often the congregation is miles away or many states away from the disaster. They will take up a donation or send a group of volunteers to the affected area to help in the relief or recovery efforts. So the number of responses can be quite substantial but are intended to be very short term. After the first month or so, some of that enthusiasm dies out because the longer term recovery is harder to sustain and to coordinate.
For many organizations and congregations in particular, they may figure out a way to affiliate with a larger group such as Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran Social Services, or other denominational relief organizations or inter-faith organizations like World Vision or Habitat for Humanity. If you can direct resources to some of these larger groups, they have more sustainability in the recovery effort than do the individual congregations.
Q: You’ve mentioned your study. You did a major study for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of post-Katrina relief efforts by faith-based and community organizations. Tell us about that.
Health and Human Services was interested in learning some lessons from the Katrina experience to better coordinate relief services in the future. We had more than 200 groups respond to our survey. More than half self-identified as faith-based organizations, mostly congregations, and the rest were secular non-profits. We also did some case studies with about eight different organizations to go more in depth about what they did.
One of the major lessons learned was that a lot more thinking and planning needs to done before an emergency hits to better understand the capabilities of the faith-based community and where they can be best plugged in to disaster relief and recovery work. One of those capabilities is the ability to get volunteers, although there are difficulties sometimes in getting volunteers to the right places or doing helpful things.
Another lesson we learned is the importance of connecting outside volunteers with people locally who understand the lay of the land, who know where resources may be available, who know what areas may be hardest hit. Those in the disaster zone that are still functioning can be very helpful for directing groups like FEMA or the Red Cross to resources in the local area.
Knowing the local culture is incredibly important and only people locally have a good hands-on sense of how things are done and who you need to talk to to get X, Y and Z accomplished. So connecting to those local resources is very important. But that was something that was not done as well as it could have been and should have been in the Gulf Coast region. Lack of coordination was one of the major lessons that came out of Katrina.
Q: What were the strengths and weaknesses of church and faith-based groups in the Katrina relief effort? What did they do well and what not?
What they did well, at least those that were local, were the immediate relief efforts. Churches that were 50 or 100 miles away from the disaster area quickly mobilized to set up temporary shelters and feeding sites and things of that sort so as evacuees were brought out of the disaster areas, these faith-based groups could assist the people in need.
What was not done as well -- again it’s more a capacity issue -- was the sustained recovery. About half of faith-based groups were not providing Katrina-related services two or three months after the disaster struck. They were there at the initial startup but unable to sustain that effort because of their own inability to continue a recovery effort.
After the dust settles, people need to find jobs. If families have been split up, they need to be reunited. This type of work was logistically difficult for individual congregations to take on. They didn’t have the kinds of resources -- Internet access or the ability to plug into the Red Cross or welfare assistance agencies -- to make the connections. Some of the secular groups that typically work in welfare-related programs were better able to do that type of work.
But if these two groups can communicate and work with each other, you can draw on the strengths of both the faith community and the secular, non-profit and governmental structures.
Another important lesson is about having standards and oversight, balancing the need for accountability with the need for flexibility. Often after a disaster there are very few guidelines on how to use the donations that come in, how help gets distributed, who gets help. Creating protocols or understanding existing ones can ensure that people aren’t working in an uncoordinated fashion. Groups may also want to think ahead of time about how they want to tackle a situation -- whether to work with major responders like Red Cross or World Vision, for example.
Q: One of the key lessons from the study was that major disasters generate major responses. People are moved to respond with the best intentions but often have uneven capabilities. Could you tell us about that?
Anytime we hear about a disaster, our hearts are touched for the people who have suffered. People want to reach out and do something, but sometimes they don’t know what is the right thing to do. For example, people may send winter clothing to a place like Haiti that doesn’t need warm parkas. Money can be a better contribution so people locally can figure out whether they need to purchase food or clothing or some other kind of service that’s needed.
After Katrina, there were stories of people who rushed down with a truckload of food and supplies and yet once they reached the disaster site, they had nothing to sustain themselves, and they became a burden on the local responders because they didn’t bring enough food or water for themselves, much less to help the people in need. So while people are well-intentioned, they don’t always think through all the steps that are involved in making their offer of help practical and effective.
In our Katrina study, we found that two-thirds of the organizations we surveyed said they had never done any disaster relief before. That figure surprised me. We only surveyed within Louisiana and Mississippi and those two states pretty regularly have hurricanes, though, thank goodness, not the size of a Katrina. So the organizations were really novices in terms of what it was going to take to be of assistance, and that’s when people can get in over their heads.
Q: Do you think that same phenomenon -- good intentions but uneven capabilities -- may apply to the situation in Haiti?
Obviously, a number of things are different about Haiti than Katrina. But I think some of it does apply. Haiti is another country, governed by different laws and different cultures. People in the U.S. who want to respond need to take into account that they may need to function differently because they are helping in a different nation and need to be aware of what the protocols might be in international relief efforts.
Q: What could churches, denominational agencies and other faith-based groups be doing better in disaster relief?
A lot can be done just with some planning. Even if you’re not in a geographic area that is prone to natural disasters, it might be helpful for people within the congregation to talk about what would happen if something did happen here? Who can we link to? What do we know? Do we have a list of members of our congregation with all the names and addresses and contact information that we would want to have? Can we link to other churches and faith-based groups and secular groups within our own community so that we’re not doing this alone? Who would we want to be in touch with should a disaster happen locally or in some distant place?
Making those connections ahead of time, having lists of local volunteers and resources, can be incredibly helpful. Having an inventory of places around the community that have kitchens so you could prepare meals or places that might turned into temporary shelters can be very important during a disaster because then you’re not wondering “What do we do?” or “Where do we go?” You already have a list of people and places and know some of the capacity of these groups – information that would be helpful during an emergency situation.
Q: What about distant disasters such as Haiti? What can they do there? And a related question: In a world with great need, what advice do you have for a church or denominational leader to help think through where they should put their resources, their money and gifts?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. Many congregations do look for a role that they might be able to play, and sometimes that simply is taking up a special collection on a Sunday or having a special drive for canned goods that can be sent to a disaster area. That can be very important. I’d recommend first checking with your denomination to see what structures it may have and how an individual congregation can link to that structure for relief efforts either now or in the future. You may also want to have one or two members of your congregation join an existing group that is working either locally or internationally to better learn about disaster planning and what is best needed at the time of a disaster.
Q: You had some interesting findings in your study about the importance of leadership in relief efforts after Katrina.
A lot of leaders really stepped forward. They were people with a lot of compassion, a lot of energy and a lot of commitment. They saw a need and they were determined to do something to help solve a problem. Some of that came about in a very serendipitous manner; a chance meeting on a street that might start a conversation and then people joining forces to do something.
So leadership can certainly come from within the community or from outside. Some people will be naturally adept at figuring out how to set up systems and put them in place. We often want disaster relief efforts to work with the precision of a Navy SEAL team, to go in and get the job done, but we also want people who are compassionate and understand what the victims of the disaster are going through. Sometimes you can get that rolled into a single leader. Sometimes that comes from a team of leaders who help one another understand the full magnitude of what happens during a disaster.