Chances are you have already given to at least one of the disasters that have rocked the United States and Caribbean over the past few months: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria; the Las Vegas shooting; and now Hurricane Nate. Americans are notoriously generous in responding to disaster and tragedy. We have tracked disaster giving since September 11, 2001 and we estimate that three-quarters of Americans gave in some way in response to 9/11. Half of Americans responded to Hurricane Katrina. And just as we know that giving to religion remains the largest philanthropic sector each year, individual faith motivations and the efforts of faith-based organizations are essential in disaster relief.
According to a recent USA Today story, faith-based organizations provide the bulk of disaster recovery. By sheer numbers, there are thousands of individual organizations eager to help. At the same time, many religious traditions have communities already on the ground in the area needing help. In Texas or Louisiana, the old adage that there is a church on every corner may serve as a great benefit when opening shelters, distributing goods, and coordinating volunteers. Likewise, these local religious communities are part of extensive networks. Denominations and other institutions link these local communities around the country (and around the world).
Sheer numbers, networks, and diverse local communities make religious institutions vital in responding to disasters. Religious leaders are also often the gatekeepers and connectors within communities.
Many also come with deep experience and expertise. Coordinating with FEMA as well as state and local agencies, groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), or Islamic Relief are veterans in disaster response. According to the USA Today story noted above, 75% of the members of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, the alliance of volunteer organizations that are helping FEMA channel disaster assistance into the affected areas, are faith-based.
Beyond noting the tremendous impact of faith-based organizations, however, another essential aspect of this topic is equipping individuals to consider how best to respond when making a donation or volunteering their time. My wise predecessor at Lake Institute, Dr. Bill Enright, recently reminded individuals to reflect on issues of readiness, timeliness, and effectiveness. I walked through two large congregations in the last week who started drives collecting items to ship to storm victims that are piling up over the collection bins. What are the next steps for these items? Is there a plan to get these items to an area in need? Is there a partner in the affected area that is ready to accept them? By the time they arrive, will the local area be overwhelmed with similar items from around the country? What are the costs of time and money to transport, store, and disperse such goods? It is important for institutions to ask if they are sufficiently prepared to act on their members’ generosity; if not, they might be better off engaging with others who are. It’s easy and natural to want to give tangible items like food, clothing, and diapers, but many experts and practitioners agree the most efficient and effective gift in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is a financial donation that can be used where needed the most.
Aside from readiness, donors and faith-based organizations need to think about timeliness. At the beginning of a disaster, emergency responders may be best equipped for search and rescue. Only then can NGOs and other nonprofits move in to assist in coordinating food, safety, and shelter. Perhaps only after short-term needs are met, is it fitting for rebuilding and recovery teams to arrive. There is a time for service trips and volunteers, but that may not be until weeks or months after a disaster. Too often after the news cycle has moved on, so does the bulk of our ongoing financial and volunteer support. Faith-based organizations may be best equipped to make long-term commitments to stay and rebuild communities long after the emergency response has moved on.
Finally, individual donors and organizations must attend to questions of effectiveness. One of the largest disaster response charities, the American Red Cross has faced mounting criticism for reported inefficiencies in what percent of donations actually make it to those in need. Religious charities are not immune from the same criticism, but because of the extensive local networks that we mentioned earlier, they are often quite effective. Most often staff and donors are motivated by their faith to respond. That does not mean that religious agencies should do everything. I am struck by those religious NGOs I have spoken with in recent weeks who know their limitations as well as their strengths. They may not have the capacity or skills to do major rescue or communications, but they could deploy shower trailers or mobile kitchens to local partners. They can set up volunteers to go through flooded neighborhoods to assist with filing essential FEMA paperwork. They can commit to remaining in a particular neighborhood rebuilding homes or faith communities for many years.
While the multiple disasters we have experienced in the past few months have been devastating, the immediate charitable response has been extraordinary. Along with these responses of faith communities opening their doors and hearts to rebuild, there are also stories of building new partnerships: white and black churches coming together in Houston where they never have before, Christians stepping foot in a local mosque thanking their Muslim neighbors for support, and chaplains from all traditions stepping in to help those traumatized by the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Faith is a powerful force in individual giving and volunteering. It defines the identity of so many of the organizations at the heart of providing support during disasters as well as ongoing need. But it also serves as the glue within the social fabric that might just enable us to move beyond our increasing political and cultural polarities to unite around common purpose.