Thursday, September 28, 2017

Harvey, Irma and the Nonprofit Spirit

The terrible hurricanes of late summer 2017 - first Harvey that swamped Houston, and later Irma that took an awful toll on Florida and the Caribbean – produced images in every media that won’t leave our memories soon. The damage to property, the loss of power, and the scarcity of water, fuel and food that affected millions was heartbreaking to observe.

For my family, there was a direct impact. Our daughter Lucy, her husband Aaron and their Springer Spaniel Bobo on September 7 obeyed the mandatory evacuation order leaving their rented home in Little Torch Key, in the lower Florida Keys near where Irma made landfall.  After a grueling 36 hour drive they arrived safely to harbor with us in Maryland. As of this writing they have just been able to return and inspect the damage. With no roof or walls,  the contents of the house are in ruin. Lucy is a veteran evacuee, having fled New Orleans and Katrina in 2005 but that is small solace.

The other memorable impression from the coverage of those storms is that of people volunteering to help others, many complete strangers. These images ranged from dramatic rescues of people and pets to the drudgery of hour after hour filling sandbags or manning bucket brigades delivering bottled water. And who can easily forget the “Cajun Navy” - folks from southeast Louisiana who left their jobs, hooked up boats to their pickups and drove miles to Houston to help those stranded by the floods?

The heroics too of first responders - police, firemen, the National Guard and EMTs - were notable, as they should be. Everyone, amateur and professional, was aided by the modern technology, cellphones, GPS and social media, which served to connect and guide victims and saviors.

There would have been much greater loss of life and property were it not for the unhesitating work of volunteers. Undoubtedly, if you were to interview some of them, you would discover they belonged to a nonprofit organization - a church or civic group or even a softball league, where they learned through firsthand experience the value of volunteerism.

Alexis de Toqueville, a French diplomat and historian, visited the U.S. in 1831 and a year later published what was to become the famous Democracy in America. In it he states: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite… if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States…I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.”

So it was when the call went out for help, the response was sometimes overwhelming. Credit too goes to the nonprofits whose mission is disaster aid, such as the American Red Cross, which, along with government agencies, not only provided aid but helped coordinate the work of the thousands of unaffiliated volunteers.  

Response to disasters can bring out the best in people, as with these hurricanes. But once the waters have receded and the debris cleared, keeping that civic spirit alive is a task for all of us.  That spark can be kept alight by nonprofits that understand that fulfillment of their missions would be in peril without the dedicated work of volunteers. They may include board members, docents, grounds workers, or hospitality attendants. You can name them from your own experience.   

The heightened attention given to volunteers by virtue of these natural disasters should remind everyone of their daily value in calmer times. Volunteers should never be taken for granted. They should be recognized and celebrated.  If that is ingrained in a nonprofit’s culture, then there is a cadre ready to be called out for work to cope with future crises, wherever and whenever they occur.

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