How Your Association Can Help in Disaster Relief

By: Lauren Kelley

In times of crisis or disaster, your members have a unique skill set to contribute to relief efforts. Is your association prepared to coordinate that response? Learn from four associations that are ready to mobilize their members at a moment's notice. (Titled "Ready to Help" in the print edition.)

By all accounts, the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, killing approximately 250,000 people, was an epic disaster. Haiti's already-fragile infrastructure and its status as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere made a bad situation even worse. The vast majority of citizens had few safety nets, and relief efforts were hampered by a slow-moving government.

But if there is one heartening lesson from the ordeal, it is this: The global community responded to the crisis swiftly and robustly. In particular, Americans and American organizations (for profit and nonprofit alike) gave generously of their money, time, and supplies. Within only three days of the quake, the Red Cross alone had raised $37 million for relief efforts, some $8 million of that in individual $10 text messages.

U.S. associations were key contributors to the response. The National Business Aviation Association, for instance, leveraged the unique knowledge and capabilities of its members to deliver aid workers and supplies to areas of the country that other modes of transportation couldn't reach. Because of Haiti's proximity to the United States, NBAA and its members—an eclectic group of businesses that share the common thread of utilizing specialized business aircraft—were quickly able to mobilize a hundreds-strong response effort.

"Many people in our industry realized that, as has been the case in a lot of situations previously, these airplanes and the people who operate them could be put to use helping access the victims of the earthquake," says Dan Hubbard, NBAA senior vice president. "When that realization hit, we had hundreds and hundreds of people all across the business-aviation community contacting NBAA, raising their hands to ask one question: 'How can I help?'"

There are, without a doubt, dozens of stories out there like NBAA's, of associations rising to the challenge in a time of extraordinary need. But experienced associations (including NBAA) will tell you that a quality disaster-response program is about more than just rapid response; it's about having an infrastructure in place that enables a group to immediately coordinate humanitarian response efforts within its industry when the need arises.

What follows are stories, lessons, and best practices from a handful of local and national associations that run successful disaster-response programs, which can help your association do the same.

Plan for Response Before There's a Disaster to Respond To

The number-one piece of advice from associations with disaster-relief programs is to put in place mechanisms for responding to disasters before they arise. While organizations are capable of coordinating recovery efforts on a moment's notice (don't be discouraged from starting from zero, of course, if a disaster strikes tomorrow), it's always better to be prepared.

The American Institute of Architects Kansas, a chapter of the national AIA, saw that lesson pay off in a significant way after a major tornado tore through the rural town of Greensburg, Kansas, on May 4, 2007, destroying 95 percent of the city. Seventeen years earlier, AIA Kansas started forming a disaster-relief effort in partnership with the Kansas Division of Emergency Management that eventually became the state's official disaster-assessment program. AIA Kansas provides training courses through which its members can become certified by the state to assess the structural integrity of buildings after tornadoes, high winds, floods, and other disasters.

When the devastating tornado ripped through Greensburg, AIA Kansas had a database of some 300 certified member volunteers and the processes in place to get the word out to them. Though there were few buildings left in Greensburg to assess that day in 2007, AIA Kansas and its members were able to work with the city council to help rebuild the town. Today, Greensburg is a prime example of sustainable design—all city buildings have been rebuilt to the U.S. Green Building Council's Platinum standard of Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design—with a thriving main street and burgeoning ecotourism industry, none of which would have been possible without AIA Kansas' help.

"You have to be prepared. That's the whole thing," says Trudy Aron, executive director of AIA Kansas. "If we hadn't taken those steps in 1990, there is no way we could have done anything like this for Greensburg. We wouldn't have been organized. We wouldn't have had any idea how to go about it. We wouldn't have had the contacts."

No Huge Budget or Large Staff Necessary

AIA Kansas is able to respond to multiple disasters throughout the state each year with merely two people on staff. Likewise, the National Association of Realtors' (NAR) Realtors Relief Foundation has raised approximately $22 million to provide rent and mortgage payments for victims of crises around the country, and it has done so with no staff members entirely devoted to the effort. It's the same story at the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants (NJSCPA), whose Help Center provides a wide range of financial and tax assistance to disaster victims, with no full-time program staff.

You already know your members are highly capable, and you do everything you can to serve them well. Chances are, your members are also more than willing to help others in need. You don't need massive internal resources; with a little administrative help from your existing staff members to coordinate efforts, you can channel the goodwill of your members and create a program with significant impact.

"No matter what we're trying to do, we have never had any issue finding volunteers to step forward and provide service to the public," says NJSCPA Associate Executive Director Ellen McSherry. "It's been remarkable how willing our members have been to give up their time to assist the public in the areas where they're considered experts. We've sometimes needed 40 or 50 volunteers, and we've gotten them immediately. Members usually are willing to step up."

Tap Into Your Industry's Unique Knowledge

In addition to your members being generous, they're also experts, often in very specialized ways. Who better to fly into a disaster area than NBAA's business-aviation specialists, who deal with complicated logistics and unorthodox landing situations on a daily basis? And in the midst of a catastrophe, who besides AIA Kansas' architects and engineers would know if a home had shifted one inch off its foundation and was no longer safe to live in?

Be creative about how the industry leaders you represent could help in a disaster, because uncommon areas of expertise are ones that could fill a void. First responders may be relatively easy to come by, but what about communications professionals or brickworkers or environmental scientists? Experts in those fields—and likely yours, too—could play an important role in helping a community put itself back together after a disaster.

Also, look for ways that the day-to-day professional activities of your members could benefit larger disaster-response plans, like NBAA has done with its program. "The flexibility required of humanitarian missions is part of how [our members] normally do business," says Hubbard.

Prepare a Response Structure, But Be Flexible

A disaster-relief effort can be set up in a number of ways. You could follow in NAR's footsteps and establish a 501(c)(3), and you could assemble a board of experts to be in charge of major decisions. Your fundraising, staffing, and volunteer needs will help you determine how you want to structure your program.

Whatever you do, be sure that any manuals, bylaws, or grant applications are inclusive enough that no gray areas exist about how you dole out assistance and to whom, but also flexible enough that you'll be able to quickly adapt to the unique needs of any given disaster.

For instance, NAR's Realtors Relief Foundation was launched within 48 hours of September 11, 2001, and started making payments as soon as October 1 of that year. In addition to establishing a 501(c)(3), NAR put mechanisms in place to ensure that 100 percent of the money it raises and distributes for housing relief goes to victims in need, without an administrative fee being taken out.

"That's probably the most important thing we've been able to do since day one: Make sure that all the collected funds—not 85 percent or 95 percent, but 100 percent—go to the victims themselves," says Martin Edwards, former president of NAR. Over the past nine years, the foundation has continued to develop and improve its program materials, but since its inception, it has had an infrastructure in place that allows it to raise many millions of dollars very quickly. Now, whenever a disaster strikes, NAR sends out a call to action to raise funds and then distributes them as the situation warrants.

Your association should also take advantage of the internet and social networks, building up a dedicated list of members, Twitter followers, and Facebook friends now, so an online community will be in place when disaster strikes. As was demonstrated in Haiti, mobile technologies such as text messaging and crowdsourcing tools like Ushahidi have become important for both gathering and distributing information quickly after a disaster. If your association isn't already using online tools to communicate with your members, a disaster-relief program may be a place to start.

"NBAA has several communications platforms and social networks that we use to get the word out quickly and widely: a dedicated Twitter feed, an email [mailing list], and a weekly email newsletter," says Hubbard. "[In Haiti,] it was a somewhat informal, but highly effective, setup for helping people match resources with need and deliver assistance to a population that was in crisis."

Consider Partnerships With Relief Organizations

If starting a disaster-relief program sounds intimidating, the good news is that you don't have do it alone. In fact, working with government or nonprofit entities is often a great way to expand the capabilities of both parties. The genesis of AIA Kansas' program was a simple conversation with the state's Emergency Management Division, says Aron. Today, its building assessment reports are funneled to the state and accepted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Even if it doesn't make sense to establish a formal partnership with another group, your association can and should still contact government agencies like FEMA and your local Red Cross or Salvation Army to learn how they can help get the word out about your efforts, and how you can best work together when a disaster occurs. Especially in large-scale disasters, these full-time relief agencies will be best able to coordinate your association's assistance with that coming from other organizations and individuals.

Whatever your industry could provide after a disaster—whether it's construction equipment or medical devices or childcare workers—you can be sure that the experience of helping others in need will be rewarding for both you and your members. As much as no one likes to think about life-shattering events, by planning ahead as much as possible, you might be surprised at the good you can do. As AIA Kansas' Trudy Aron notes, "It's a program you hope will never be used, but you have to have it in place." 

Lauren Kelley is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Associations With Disaster-Relief Programs

National Business Aviation Association
Form of Assistance: After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, NBAA coordinated members wishing to provide flights for relief personnel and supplies. The effort evolved into Corporate Aviation Responding in Emergencies, which is currently applying for 501(c)(3) status and establishing practices for future relief efforts.

National Association of Realtors
Form of Assistance: The Realtors Relief Foundation focuses on fundraising, directing 100 percent of donations to assisting disaster victims with mortgage and rent payments. Initially established immediately after 9/11, the program has distributed $22 million in funds during various crises since.

American Institute of Architects Kansas
Form of Assistance: AIA Kansas trains member volunteers to be certified by the state in assessing structural integrity of buildings after disasters. In 2007, AIA Kansas members helped the city of Greensburg recover after an EF5 tornado destroyed most of the town; today, nearly every building there has been rebuilt to green-building standards.

New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants
Form of Assistance: NJSCPA's Help Center connects qualified crisis victims with member accountants who provide pro bono financial advice. Formed initially after 9/11, the program continues to help new crisis victims today.

Get tools now: View the volunteer manuals for the New Jersey Society of CPAs' Help Center and for the American Institute of Architects Kansas' disaster-assessment program.

Lauren Kelley