How Nonprofits Can Improve Disaster Response and Preparedness with Jim White
“Not everybody has to create a new nonprofit to do something… This is not about the ego of one individual and their mission to help people. It’s about how an organization can be structured to support these people who’ve been hurt.” -Jim White
Nonprofits are often the first on the ground in times of disaster. And often, they are composed of everyday citizens who do not hesitate to help those affected by any means available, and it has led to some of the most heartwarming stories in history.
But of course, no organization is perfect. As disasters evolve in intensity and frequency, the nonprofit sector ought to keep evolving as well in how they can serve better because the best nonprofits practice continuous improvement. Considering their work is so important and since their impact can be so wide-reaching, the sector cannot afford to be complacent or content.
Disaster response and preparedness are important things to consider when it comes to the safety of those they hope to help through their organization or volunteer works. So what are nonprofits doing right? What room for improvement do they have? How does the level of disaster declaration limit the services they can offer? How can they work in collaboration with government agencies and private citizens to provide better services? And why is it necessary to think long-term with regards to managing funds? Tune in as Jennifer and Jim White, the Executive Director of The Nonprofit Association of Oregon discuss how nonprofits can improve disaster response in terms of preparedness, recovery, and collaboration.
- 03:07: Community Leads
- 10:49: Meeting Certain Standards of Care
- 17:58: Mega Fires and Fire Responses
- 26:04: The Implications of Disaster Declaration
- 31:54: Nonprofits and Human Services
- 40:05: Addressing the Community’s Lack of Capacity
- 45:29: The Inequity in Disaster Relief Response
- 49:14: Think Long-Term Funding
- 54:27: The Misconceptions Around Charitable Works and Compensation
Nonprofits are often the first to respond in the wake of an emergency, and their hands-on approach helps those in need quickly get back on their feet. But given their limited resources, how can nonprofits, government funders, and individual citizens improve their disaster response and preparedness? Tune in as @JenGrayThompson and Jim White, the Executive Director of @ nonprofitoregon.org answer these questions in this week’s episode! #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season3 #HowToDisaster #nonprofit #privatefoundations #citizens #governmentagencies #funds #voluteers #disasterpreparedness #disasterresponse #disasterdeclaration #humanservices
06:18: “It’s personally very rewarding to help people, but it is also incredibly taxing on you emotionally and physically. It’s a type of work where you have to make sure you prioritize your own mental health and breaks because people can get emotionally destroyed by seeing how humans can treat other humans.” -Jim White
09:02: “Nonprofits are closer to the community than the government is, and they have less barriers on how they can immediately show their care.” -Jim White
11:40: “The way in which you determine your standard of care is incredibly important.” -Jim White
27:57: “How the nonprofits begin to respond is much more ‘come as you are’, and that’s where some standard-setting would be useful.” -Jim White
33:48: “These organizations that didn’t exist before, organizations that didn’t have a responsibility to do a particular thing, stretched beyond their work and agreed to do things that they didn’t really have to.” -Jim White
38:51: “It was important to us that our style is ‘how do we support?’, not supplant.” -Jennifer Thompson
39:56: “Rural communities are particularly vulnerable because of the lack have the capacity, not a lack of talent.” -Jennifer Thompson
50:38: “From a coordination standpoint, they [government funders and private foundations] need to do a much better job of coming together and deciding how they can either pull their funds or very closely collaborate so that they’re not putting these local organizations and local communities in the in the space of having to compete to receive these funds.” -Jim White
52:25: “People should think about how they want their donated funds to be used and remember these disasters last for years.” -Jim White
56:26: “Not everybody has to create a new nonprofit to do something… This is not about the ego of one individual and their mission to help people. It’s about how an organization can be structured to support these people who’ve been hurt.” -Jim White
57:43: “Community mobilization, like democracy, is a little messy. But it’s the purest feeling of the community about themselves because ultimately, these nonprofits are all governed by all-volunteer boards, who are made up of people from the community.” -Jim White
59:04: “Once you end up chasing the funding solely, then that’s what all of your programs become and what people are willing to fund as opposed to what needs to be funded.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jim White is the Executive Director of The Nonprofit Association of Oregon (NAO). NAO stands as the representative of all nonprofits in the state. Prior to serving at NAO, Jim has also served as VP of Operations at Mercy Corps, an international organization that seeks to address today’s biggest crises and provide humanitarian aid. Jim is an expert on building relationships that allow communities and organizations to have a voice in the issues that concern them.
Connect with The Nonprofit Organization of Oregon:
- Website: https://nonprofitoregon.org/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NonprofitOregon
- Twitter: https://nonprofitoregon.org/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/nonprofit-association-of-oregon
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/naoadmin
Learn More About Mercy Corps:
- Website: https://www.mercycorps.org
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/mercycorps
- Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mercycorps
- Instagram: http://instagram.com/mercycorps
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Hi, my name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I am the CEO of After the Fire. Welcome to the podcast, How to Disaster, recover, rebuild and reimagine. In this podcast, we bring you the very best practices, best hearts and great ideas from other disaster affected communities. Thank you for joining us.
Welcome once again to the podcast, How to Disaster, where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. Today’s guest is Jim White. Jim White is the Executive Director of Oregon Nonprofit Association. Jim is actually based in Oregon as you can tell by his title, but he has a global background, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted him on the podcast today. I really enjoy working with Jim since 2020 when Oregon experienced their worst wildfire season on record. It was that time that I also came in contact with sort of a different way of doing things. In Oregon, it’s actually a little bit easier because they have a flattened higher, for how to actually speak to people all the way to fire survivors to the government office.
Jim White is a big part of that equation. He advises nonprofits on where the best place is to actually park your money, to do the greatest good. But also, he has this global understanding because he has so many decades of previous experience with working for Mercy which is a global relief nonprofit. He’s a whiz of understanding the intersection of the government, philanthropy, fire survivors and public safety. So I’ve asked him today to talk to us not only about his experience in the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon, but also to talk to us about what he brings for larger lands for how to actually deal with disaster. Because what a lot of people don’t know is how we deal with it globally and outside of the states, not the same we do inside of the United States. It’s not that common to find somebody who has this much experience in both arena.
So once again, please join me in welcoming Jim White to the podcast.
Jim White, I’m so excited to have you on the podcast today. Welcome.
Jim White: It’s great to be here, Jennifer. Thanks for having me.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I would love it if we could start off today, if you would tell our listeners a little bit about your current position in the State of Oregon.
Jim White: Yeah, sure. So my name is Jim White. I’m the Executive Director of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. We are the membership association, support organization that supports the charitable benefit nonprofit sector in our state. There’s a number of us across the whole country. Very proud to be connected with those folks along certainly in the west coast here. We have very deep relationships with our friends at Cal nonprofits down in California with Washington nonprofits, up in Washington, and Idaho, and Montana. So yeah, that’s what we do.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So before we get into the 2020 wildfire season and how that really changed your workflow and your work plan, can you talk to our listeners a little bit about your background? It’s fascinating, especially with Mercy.
Jim White: Right. So I’ve been with the Nonprofit Association Oregon for almost 10 years now. And I love nonprofits. I love what we do in community and for community because we’re led by community. I grew into this work from being predominantly in the international relief and development space. I worked for most of my career, actually, in international relief in development in a number of different organizations. The last organization I worked for in that regard was Mercy Corps, which happened to be based here in Oregon, but works in over 40 countries around the world. And a lot of that work has to do with responding and helping people at a moment when they’re dealing with some of the worst days of their lives. It is the time when people are experiencing disasters, natural or manmade. And so I spent a number of years overseas working in particular parts of the world. And then I eventually was asked and came back to the Mercy Corps headquarters, which happens to be in Portland, Oregon. So that’s how I actually wound up in Oregon.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So you aren’t from Oregon? Where are you from?
Jim White: I’m from just outside of Philadelphia originally.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, okay. Because I just want to dive a little bit deeper into this. So somebody’s listening to this who has not undergone a disaster, but they’re just curious, how does one actually get into a job where you can do global relief? I think with the issue with the war in Ukraine right now, a lot of people are looking at it and saying, how do people even get those jobs at all? So would you mind doing a little bit of personal background before we keep moving on?
“It’s personally very rewarding to help people, but it is also incredibly taxing on you emotionally and physically. It’s a type of work where you have to make sure you prioritize your own mental health and breaks because people can get emotionally destroyed by seeing how humans can treat other humans.” -Jim White
Jim White: No, fine. Yeah. Actually, when I first got into international relief work, I was getting my graduate degree at Indiana University at the time. And like all poor graduate students, I needed some work over the summer. I have an engineering background, and so I signed up to do water sanitation and housing engineering support for an organization responding to the people who had been displaced as refugees from the war in Chechnya. So this was in 1995. And so I worked directly in a war zone where the Russians were bombing, and sieging, and destroying civilian populations, right, left and center. It’s very terrible what’s happening in Ukraine, very uncalled for. And so that was sort of where I kind of got my first sense of, oh, there’s this other whole interesting possible world out there.
So I actually didn’t go back to graduate school that year. I stayed and worked the rest of that whole year in Chechnya, in the neighboring republics right nearby. And of course, that war got worse and worse, and then it stopped for a little while, and then Putin restarted it later. And it’s personally very rewarding as you can imagine to help people, but it is also incredibly taxing on you emotionally and physically. And oftentimes, it’s a type of work where you have to make sure you prioritize your own mental health and breaks because people can get really, really jaded, or just really emotionally destroyed by seeing how humans can treat other humans. In that case, as I said, unfortunately, my entry into this space was in a war zone. But I’ve been in a number of natural disaster responses where it’s nobody’s fault. Let’s say, there are usually big missing pieces in the space of how government has allowed the buildings to be permitted that can either raise the level of the disaster by how much falls down or gets washed away, versus those countries where they’ve been able to keep really good standards of building, or that they’ve practiced their responses to disasters and they’ve been able to ready the people for there being a disaster. So in a lot of the places that I work, these were, unfortunately, more in the developing world. And so these were places where people did not have as much of that background support at the governmental level or through other international bodies to keep the disaster response capabilities robust.
“Nonprofits are closer to the community than the government is, and they have less barriers on how they can immediately show their care.” -Jim White
So in some of the places I worked, I specifically worked with these ministries of emergency situations or ministries of departments of governments for how they could build their capacity internally. A big part of what I think any nonprofit should be doing is replacing ourselves with those people on the ground who live in that community who can be there for their community. They know their community best, and they can help the people most directly. And so I’ve worked in, as I said, a number of places around the world where we’ve worked specifically and directly with Ministries of emergency situations or those organizations that are responsible. What’s fascinating, I think, with the governmental response as compared with the non governmental or nonprofit response, as we call it in the United States, is oftentimes, the nonprofits are closer to the community than the government is. And they have less, less barriers. Frankly, less restrictions on how they can immediately show their care. I mean, that’s what’s so amazing. I think about the nonprofit sector is that we are private corporations, but we do public good. So there’s a lot of organizations who’ve built real capacities, and I’m very happy to see the growth of After the Fire and what you’ve been doing in helping people. Particularly in the west to understand these climate driven fires that are driving so many people into displacement on a scale that was the kind of stuff that I used to see in developing countries around the world.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I think there’s one really interesting thing that you brought up many interesting things, but one of them is like what happens with Ad Hoc Housing. And we see that often in, I know that it happens in other countries, and certainly in the inner territory of Puerto Rico, for sure. But we’re seeing that in rural communities, we’re seeing Ad Hoc housing that had already, maybe had never been permitted because maybe somebody’s great grandfather had built it, or maybe it was just built. Because in the rural areas or housing, so many of our vulnerable populations have been pushed out of suburban and urban areas, but also may just have a lot of just generational ties to the land. So for them, if they can live on about 25,000 a year, if they don’t have a mortgage, and if they don’t have a mortgage, they often don’t have any insurance. And so we’re seeing this great disparity in the ability to overcome and build back after a disaster. Can you speak to some of the things that you have seen just from your work in the United States, though, that remind you of some of the challenges globally.
“The way in which you determine your standard of care is incredibly important.” -Jim White
Jim White: Yeah. I’m actually going to start with International peace and come back to the US. So what’s interesting that I’ve noticed is that because we have states rights in the United States, there’s no specific joint agreement across municipalities, or counties, or certainly states on what level of humanitarian response the government would then hold themselves accountable to. So all states have some form of an Office of Emergency Management. And most counties and most states have something similar, a mirrored, kind of local, more local response. Not every town, city can have those. But certainly major cities have similar response bodies. What’s interesting to me is that the way in which you determine your standard of care is incredibly important. And so internationally, it’s true that basically, anybody in a country, let’s say, let’s take the Ukraine, a country where the rules have basically been suspended because of manmade disaster, in this case, a war. The level of care in the immediate term is whatever you can get to those people to help relieve some of the stress and strain of what they’re dealing with.
So food, basic food, water, non food items, some type of a shelter. But once they become refugees, which has an international definition, or when people are displaced but displaced with certain criteria, certain definitions around what are called IDPs, Internally Displaced Peoples, they’re protected under international covenants governed by the United Nations. In some cases, supported by other international treaties and laws. And it’s always interesting to me that given the fact that we don’t have any agreed standard of care in the US, but we do for international NGOs responding internationally because we come under, and we support the responses of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or Another World Health Organization, or one of these international bodies of which the United States in this case is a signature too. So when you talk about this sort of, you didn’t use the word makeshift, what was the exact term?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I use the word Ad Hoc, because I learned that out of Puerto Rico. That’s like 52% of the homes or something that were destroyed were ad hoc. And so FEMA had to figure out how to unblue tarp them. They’re called blue tarps, because that’s how they do an immediate fix ad hoc.
Jim White: There’s the pre-disaster permitting or lack of permitting that causes potentially even more people to suffer because the level of engineering standard, the code literally is just not high enough for the danger that’s in that area. And on the other side, you have the post disaster response. The agreed level of care that you’re asking the international actors who would be coming in to support these people to adhere to. I just wanted to mention in the international space, if you’re an international NGO and you’re working in Poland, or Hungary, or on the border right now, it would be expected that you would adhere to what are called Sphere Standards. That if you’re taking the responsibility for these refugees in a particular camp, you’re going to meet certain standards of care. You can’t say, well, all we do is food. So you don’t give them any water or sanitation. So this is why it forces international NGOs in some ways to work together. There are specialist organizations who may only do water and sanitation because they have water and sanitation expert engineers and such. There may be another group who only does medical care, and triage care, or psychosocial care.
I mean, imagine what’s going on after a disaster, whether it’s manmade or natural. The incredible mental health issues that come out or physical ailment,if you’re not in a place where health care can be immediately rendered to people, or it has to be rendered long term in a chronic situation like a displacement. Wildfires are displacing and incredibly displacing force in America, but we don’t treat them the way and with the same level of care that an international NGO would expect, as you’re responding to a crisis in Ethiopia, or in the Congo, or in Indonesia. So to me, it’s very interesting that while the US, in general, and I think America first off, I would say is extremely generous. Americans are extremely generous. I’m so proud of the nonprofit philanthropic sector in the way that people in America give to their communities through groups like nonprofits. The standard governmentally that we require locally is ad hoc. So your term ad hoc to me really rang true. You could literally have a totally different standard of care in two towns that were affected by the same fire because they may be across county borders. But that could be sort of twin towns, if you will, right down the road from each other, but a totally different level of care is being given. And that’s a real problem.
And American, I think we really need to figure out in the long term, what standards of care do we expect in something like the disasters that are, these climate driven wildfires in the West in particular, that displaced people for 3, 4, 5 years. We’re not talking about temporary displacement, and then they get to go back. We’re talking these people will not be probably in their homes for, kids are going to miss their entire high school, they will be displaced and in a totally different high school for their entire high school experience. And so their standards then, and I think we need to start adhering to, and if the government is not going to create them, I would encourage the nonprofit sector to create them directly and start adhering to them ourselves. And I would, again, offer that sphere standard was actually created by nonprofits. It was created by international NGOs. It was supported by the United Nations, but it was created by these other organizations. And so I do worry about the adhocism of the responses.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Same. I do too. And I think that, I try to be super generous in the sense that I understand that the air of magnifiers is new, and that we are on a learning curve. We kind of knew in 2015 when we saw the valley fire in Lake County, just north of us, like we were like, that looks horrible. But even that was really not my, it was a blip compared to what happened then here in the North Bay in 2017, then we thought we were going to be the Kardashians of wildfire. And then quickly, within 13 months, that was completely untrue. And in between there, we had the Thomas Fire and some other major disasters in Ventura County and in Montecito. Very startling that entire 13 month period was incredibly instructive, and we figured we were there.
But then when the 2020 wildfire season came, it really confirmed it. Because in our case in Sonoma Valley, that also brought our, we had 11 fires in 2017 all at once. And then we had the Glass Fire in 2020, which would come after. It was the third mega fire post 2017 in our county alone. And it was like, well, okay, I guess we’re sort of here. And it’s real. One of the things that I really noted was the coordination with all of the first responders that was tight, like they upped their game seriously in our state, for sure, between 2017 and 20. Every year, it got better, and better, and better, and better. So we didn’t even have federally declared disasters for a lot of it. State for sure. We were like, oh, only 600 homes. Felt like a win to us. Which is sad, but true. Because it was 10th of what we lost just in Sonoma County in 2017. So I kind of felt like I still feel this way, which is that we in the nonprofit sector are sort of lagging behind the first responder sector who’ve got their coordination down, we were just talking about.
The thing is like, how does a, I would be interested from an After the Fire point of view, for sure. But getting everyone to play in the pool, like in synchronized swimming is a bit of an interesting undertaking. For us, it has been anyway because I think with the VOAD or there certain groups that have been doing this volunteer organizations after disaster that are funded by FEMA, they don’t really say anything to FEMA if they don’t like how it’s going, because they’re also dependent on FEMA to pay their bills. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, I’m not saying that FEMA is so delicate that they can’t take it. Of course, they can take it. They can take it all day, but you’re just less likely to do it, which is why it sort of kept us out of the VOAD. So I think the VOAD is their attempt at that coordination, but that’s very different from long term recovery. Can you talk about what you’ve witnessed? And also, was this your first big wildfire that you had seen in 2020? So take us through your fire story, I guess, is where we’re gonna start with that, and then get into the organization.
Jim White: We had some fires here in Oregon, some fires that didn’t burn very many structures. So oftentimes, those don’t quite get classified as mega fires until you start burning people out of homes, but they burned thousands of acres, square miles and miles of acreage going back, well, before certainly white culture was here in North America, they were fires. So there’s long traditions of indigenous populations.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But they did it so often that did they getting these hot, fast 500 foot walls of flame just really wasn’t what was happening when the land was actually managed.
Jim White: That’s what’s interesting. We’re dealing now with climate driven different types of fires happening. I’m not a fire scientist, so I’m really gonna try to claim the differences and what all the different pieces mean. But certainly here in Oregon, the Labor Day fires, as they’re called the Labor Day Fires of 2020, had this unfortunate situation where not only we had a super dry, super hot summer, but there were also very heavy shear winds that happened over that Labor Day weekend. That once fire started, or in some cases, the winds actually knocked down electrical lines that generated a few of the fires, and that’s still under contention as to how some of these were even started. And then the wall of fire just ran down some of these terrain features. They tend to run along canyons, they tend to run watersheds, hops of trees, and run along watersheds and such, and those are often the places where people habitat. That’s where your fly fishing people are and people who’ve maybe been there because they were part of the lumber industry for years, and the small hamlets in some of these areas. We had one particularly interesting, or not interesting, but unfortunate. The fire that actually ran right down the main streets of some of the towns in Southern Oregon, Talent and Phoenix.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Jim, I’m so sorry to interrupt you. I just have to do a quick commercial break and we will be right back once again. I’m sitting with Jim White.
And we are back. Thank you for staying with us. We have Jim White on the podcast. He’s the Executive Director of the Association of Nonprofits for the state of Oregon. Jim, you were just talking about what happened in Southern Oregon in the towns of Talent and Phoenix, go ahead.
Jim White: In the towns of Talent and Phoenix, we had the fire go right down the main street 99. Which interesting is sort of I-5, before I-5 existed. It was the main Northwest corridor up and down between Washington and California, obviously right through the state of Oregon. So in that case, we had an urban fire racing right down the street. And in most of the other cases in the Labor Day Fires, they were following up along terrain features or going along riverbeds and canyons, the Santiam Canyon Fire. So in those fires, that was certainly my first experience to answer your question directly to an expert. My first experience of a mass event of a fire in Oregon where so many people were now displaced where the authorities had to now do something in a very significantly different way than they’d ever had to do before.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And talking about the housing feature is really interesting too, because we were, and this is a little bit of a side note. But one of the things like in the Southern Oregon Fire is actually very different from the Santiam Canyon Fire, for example, because it was so urban. They lost 18 mobile home parks, a very vulnerable community, and it took out their downtown’s as well, which was very startling, and actually moved up the Greenway, and they think it was arson. I haven’t heard anything more about that, but it was really sort of was started in a, unfortunately, in a wealthier area, and then just displaced a ton of workforce housing, and very startling thing to come back from, but it was also, I have witnessed FEMA tried to take that as a little bit of an opportunity to do some innovation with the totem mobile home park, which they’ve agreed to actually leave the infrastructure in the ground instead of taking it out. And that is post disaster housing for people. But it’s not as simple when you get into a super rural area like the Santiam Canyon. Can you talk about just what you’ve learned a little bit since over the past nearly two years of watching this unfold?
“How the nonprofits begin to respond is much more ‘come as you are’, and that’s where some standard-setting would be useful.” -Jim White
Jim White: Yeah. The rules, the bureaucracy, the level of bureaucracy is just out the roof. It might be useful here. You may have done this on this podcast before, but to just kind of refresh people on how a disaster gets declared. So the Feds can’t come into a state without the governor inviting them. And so a disaster declaration is requested of the president, and they have different levels of disaster declaration. But a presidential disaster declaration is usually the highest level and it comes with both the first response capacity so they can borrow over hotshot teams from people who fight these fires in California, and Oregon, to Washington who are from Montana or Nevada, or vice versa. I know your folks came up here and we’re helping to fight our fires, our firefighters, our wildland firefighters go down and help fight fires in California. So paying for all of that service doesn’t come out of either county or fire district funds when they send their team of 20 firefighters down to California from Oregon. It takes a long time for that money to go through the system. I know that. I’ve heard that from some of the fire captains. But at least, like you said earlier, there’s a tighter, more coordinated structure there that seems to work. I’ve been positive before that I think the reason is that fire companies and that whole apparatus are built much more on a militarized system. You’ve got captains and you’ve got structures.
Nonprofits are not that. They’re people from the community responding locally. And so in the case of how the nonprofit’s then begin to respond in these, it’s much more ad hoc, it’s much more come as you are. And that’s where I think some standard setting would be useful. But when disaster declarations get declared in these areas, you have to meet certain thresholds. The state has to fill in certain paperwork for doing an assessment. They feed that up to FEMA, and then FEMA can begin to do what FEMA does. But a lot of what FEMA has done, in my opinion, for wildfires is based on an experience of South East hurricanes and Midwest tornadoes. It’s not wildfire specific. And so there’s a different way. And maybe Jennifer, you want to talk about some of the work of After the Fire in trying to help instead, but I think we’ve got both downstream how to better coordinate at the ground level. Because local community organizations don’t use a militarized system at all to think about how they work with the community. And on the upstream level around the policy, around how do you change the way that we respond to wildfires differently than how we might respond to floods, or hurricanes, or tornadoes.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It actually goes back and speaks to the displacement issue, which is something that is not as much of an issue. We’re not saying it isn’t a massive issue, but you have to have something like the level of Sandy or Katrina in order for it to have that degree of displacement. So FEMA is traditionally FEMA. All the agencies are traditionally set up for wind and rain events. And we’re not upset with them for not instantly knowing what to do for wildfires. We always say to them, hey, you know what? We are your partners and learning our way through this, which is why we do advocacy, which is why we connect with lawmakers and heads of the agencies. And they’re always very grateful for us coming in with not just one county or cities perspective, not just one fire perspective, but instead of a more global perspective and to say, here’s what we see on repeat. And one of the first things we are looking at right now on our federal platform is, how do we change the way that wildfire declarations are made? Because as soon as the fire weather comes out, all those fire departments start to pre position themselves. But none of that is followed by how the nonprofit sector, or really, the care and feeding of the community is not pre positioned, and the threshold for wildfires to be declared is wrong. In our mind, it’s ineffective like Dixie Fire in California.
And last summer was 750,000 acres, two months before it was declared a federal disaster. So air quality has to become like one of the triggers for it, and we’re really pleased because Senator Perdue actually has the fire Act, which was in the omnibus the other day. I just haven’t any time to check on it. But we know that he’s taken that up as we accomplish one thing. We’re looking towards the next thing. And one of the things that we see is the type of housing that’s provided. If it’s provided, it’s often not provided. Like in the caliber of fire and Eldorado County that saved Lake Tahoe, those people are not eligible for individual assistance or housing missions because of the wealth of everybody else in the county. Most of those are second homes, which we see a lot in rural areas. And so what else has surprised you in serving wildfire? Or what lessons have you taken from your previous experience that you think should be implemented?
“These organizations that didn’t exist before, organizations that didn’t have a responsibility to do a particular thing, stretched beyond their work and agreed to do things that they didn’t really have to.” -Jim White
Jim White: Well, I do think what I can say specifically, and again, I should remind that my organization, Nonprofit Association Oregon, does not do direct service delivery. We serve the nonprofits to do that work directly, so we’re trying to help them with how they can manage their organization effectively and efficiently to be able to do their services as well as they can. It was certainly the case that we learned quickly, that the understanding that the FEMA folks had around how these long term recovery groups would be formulated in the community was borrowed from their experiences. Because they have the experience they have. It was borrowed from their experiences of working in other states, mostly in those hurricane and tornado alley type situations. But there was both the specificity of not only how long term recovery for a wildfire should look, but also just even understanding that you can’t transfer Fiscal Sponsorship agreements from one state to a different one. Because states have different laws and rules.
And after we did some education with the FEMA folks a couple of times, we committed to our organization incorporate paid for the incorporation of all the LTR G’s in Oregon, because we just wanted to make sure they did it right. And we hired an attorney to work with each one of them individually to get them set up properly so that they wouldn’t run into problems later on when FEMA tried to give them assistance, or somebody else tried to a funding organization, and private charitable organization tried to give them support, they wouldn’t get caught in, you were never properly registered. But some of the documentation and the counsel they were getting was actually incorrect. And that’s not helpful to have. The other thing we learned certainly was the power that the community has to give to self heal to support themselves. I was blown away by how quickly some of these organizations that didn’t exist before, or organizations that didn’t really have a responsibility to do a particular thing stretched beyond their work, and agreed to do things that they didn’t really have to. And I want to give you the example of like the Santiam Hospital, which is in–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Sidenote, sorry, so glad you brought that up, because that’s exactly where I was gonna steer you. I am just blown away by them, go, love it, highlight.
Jim White: So the Santiam hospital is Regional Hospital, a rural hospital in a town right at the mouth of the Santiam Canyon. Just a little bit, maybe 15 miles east of Salem, our capitol, Oregon. And they had for years created, or they created and were running what was called a Service Integration Team, SIT. Because the people in the Santiam Canyon, which stretches for miles and miles and miles sort of east to west across the Cascade Range. So this is the main river drainage system. So terrain feature that then leads to a path that would take you over to bend basically to the cities of Sisters and Bend. And then on the other side of the Cascade Range, the Santiam Canyon. Historically an area that has a large number of small towns, some of them incorporated, some of them not, that are logging and milling towns. And so this area has its own particular needs that might be different from some of the flat plain areas of the Willamette Valley, the mid-sort of section of the main I-5 corridor that comes north to south through Oregon.
And so the Santiam Hospital has created this Service Integration Team not only to help people with their health care, but they expanded into what I would call beyond health services to human services. So they were doing prenatal care for women checking in their clinics in these towns, or they were doing addiction counseling and services around mental health. So they were going beyond, let’s say the traditional, maybe you bring your injured self to our hospital and we treat you here to work up and down this with the community, folks who are from these communities and know the populations well. So when the wildfire happened, a group of some of these advisors, to board members and the CEO of the Santiam Hospital all gathered together and they agreed to set up the Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund, which would be fiscally sponsored by the hospital and work together with the SIT to help support these people of their area.
I should also mention that the Santiam Canyon stretches across two counties, which again, comes into these jurisdictional issues. The difference in the response in those two is palpable. You can really see it, the SIT and the Santiam Canyon one for relief fund, blend out that palpable difference, if you will. They don’t have that same difference of care, if you will, across the counties. And so it was pretty impressive how quickly they not only could raise money, but started right away helping people and putting money out the door long before anybody from FEMA, or the Oregon Emergency Management, or before there were disaster case managers. I’ve jokingly commented here in Oregon that like, not only I want to say that it wasn’t only the Santiam Canyon group, but several others were doing this in Glide, and Otis, some of the other fire areas, and certainly down in Jackson County, they were DC ending. So disaster case managing 12 months before anybody from FEMA or any of the contracted people actually put an official DCM on the ground. They had been disaster case managing for a year before we physically got the Disaster Case Management system set up in Oregon. And that’s where those entities can, I would encourage the government to use the apparatus that’s already in place. Don’t superimpose your own apparatus on top of them. And that’s unfortunately what happened here.
“It was important to us that our style is ‘how do we support?’, not supplant.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: When I think that that’s actually a lesson for nonprofits, we are based in Sonoma, California, and we’ve been working in Oregon since September, October of 2020. But it was really important to us that our style is very much like, how do we support not how do we supplant. We’re not interested in that. We totally believe that local people have the relationships, they’re going to put their kids on the soccer fields and tenures. Our job is not so different from your job, which is, how do we actually support the people who are already on the ground doing great work in order to coach them, provide virtual services, provide essentially a free consulting service to, it’s free to everyone. But what we see though, which I think gets in the way of nonprofits actually setting a standard of integrative care, which is like with the SIT Team, what does a SIT people do on a smaller level is that, because wildfire is relatively recent, we have people in this field who just want to blaze in a cloud of glory and take over, and then just say like, oh, well, you don’t know what to do, I’m just gonna tell you what to do. And I’m going to get on all of your LTRGs and all your calls. And because now, it’s all Zoomed out, I can just suck up all the air out of the room. That may be harsh, but that’s what we witnessed all the time. And rural communities are particularly vulnerable to that because of the lack of capacity, it’s not a lack of talent at all.
“Rural communities are particularly vulnerable because of the lack have the capacity, not a lack of talent.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jim White: I think that’s exactly right. And I think the other thing that complicates things is that the FEMA folks and the states have a preset modality that they had agreed to, and they sort of mirror each other at the federal and state levels around, how do they deal with these nonprofits from the emergency side? To be clear, this is the emergency side. And I want to try to be careful and clear about this. So in response to these disasters, whether it’s a wildfire or not, but certainly with the wildfires, the FEMA has an inbuilt relationship with the National VOAD, and the National VOAD has built relationships with the state VOADs. So they are then made up of largely voluntary organizations, hence the name, Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. In our situation in the wildfires, we had two really compellingly different elements at play that did not allow that system to work well at all, in my opinion, and one was COVID. You couldn’t fly in a group of Baptists from Indiana to rebuild a house in a town in Glide because of the COVID restrictions. You just couldn’t.
So the volunteerism part of bringing all these assets in from outside to support these communities didn’t exist. Really, it was seriously hampered. The second piece was that as the name says, these are largely voluntary, although not all of them are voluntary organizations, but largely voluntary organizations, and it doesn’t really take into account the staffed nonprofits who are already there on the ground doing work that can be probably more quickly re aligned to give that service to the community. And so, again, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn, and I don’t think (inaudible) or any of her team would disagree with me, or anybody who’s involved with the Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund would disagree. They had no idea who they were, they just started doing what they knew would need to be done. And then that understanding had to come much later. But the federal and state people only know those VOAD structures. And so they were blind in a way to what’s already there on the ground happening. And that is a learning, I definitely have seen our OEM start to recognize and realize is like, oh, there’s a whole bunch of other nonprofits who already do certain things with our other line Departments of State, whether it’s our Oregon Health Authority, or Oregon Department of Human Services, they’re already in relationship, oftentimes, through contracts and grants to deliver certain services. So there was a real miss there in, we’re talking to a group over here who’s trying to get volunteers brought in when other organizations who are directly involved with the counties or states in delivering other kinds of services aren’t even being talked to.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, and also, if you’re not being talked to, you’re not being funded though too. So if you look at it like, well, two things. First, I’m hoping that as we grow our skill set and grow our presence, that we’re able to be like a translator between that space in that gap space. Because we’ve certainly had other national nonprofits come to us and say, well, why won’t anybody return our calls in this fire? Will be like, who you’re working with? Working with the one person that nobody will work with. And it’s just like, because they’re not actually boots on the ground, and it’s very hard to figure out who’s, we all make mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly have. But the other side of it is when I see an amazing group of people like the SIT, and I see how they’ve expanded now to 21 people for the long term recovery, and what I want to do is like make a big banner over my head and fly into the State and Feds and say, this should be funded for three years fully at a fixed number of FTEs. And the people running this program are already dealing with a hugely traumatized community doing great work, though, in the midst of it. I am truly inspired to work. Why are they also stressed about funding for the FTEs, their full time positions that they need in order to get to the other side of this. And hopefully, come out even. Like, that’s what you hope for. If they’re not being spoken to, then they’re not being funded. And so that’s another one of our concerns.
One of the things that we are hoping to set a different tone. And that’s why we have social pinpoint, or we have certain things that we’re hoping that they’ll look at and they’ll see who’s already on the ground. And then we want to highlight those systems and organizations as best practices. And we think the SIT is definitely a best practice. There’s no question.
Jim White: I would agree. I would agree. And I think that there’s been other real innovations made across the various burn zones that we’ve experienced here. I did just want to say one other thing and go back a little bit to the disaster declarations for a person who’s lost their home. It doesn’t matter whether you feel like, whether the state recognizes that well, they were enough that the threshold was met at a certain level for us to do a certain level of response, for that it trips over that now we can receive federal money for our response. What I think is incredibly inequitable is when, as we had here in Oregon, a case where we had these massive Labor Day Fires in 2020, and then we had the Bootleg Fire and 2021 that burns 600 square miles of largely uninhabited national or state forest lands, Marsh land, plains areas, but there were habitation scattered throughout some of that areas. Some of them were generationally, they’d gotten, sort of grandfathered in to be able to have a homestead in these areas that went back decades and decades. And so unlike the situation that we had with the Alameda Fire which burned down 99W through the towns of Talent, Phoenix, and as you mentioned, horrendous displacement, especially to the Latinx population there. In the Bootleg Fire, you didn’t have people living in these trailer parks. You literally had maybe a trailer, and the next person living nearby was 10 miles away, 15 miles away. So these people were much more rural, almost frontier, scattered across that 600 square miles, they did not meet that presidential disaster declaration or the federal disaster declaration. And therefore, they’re not getting the same level of support. But for that individual, for that family, it’s the same pain. They lost everything.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, we would like to see it. We would like to talk about it being applied for square miles for level of, we could obviously measure pollution in the air, we do it all the time. We’re only asking for the same kind of, utilizing technology that already exists to just change the metrics of how what that would look like. And we’re not trying to negate the role of the state or the local, or anything like that. But there is a point where, if you don’t get any help at all from the feds, then what is the burden from the state all the way down to that homesteader in a frontier situation. I totally appreciate that. And because it’s going to become more and more common, we don’t see that not happening again. We see that. We predict that will happen over and over and over again. So we’re kind of like, okay, everybody, let’s figure this out as quickly as we can and do the best job that we can. So because we’re running out of time, I wanted to do two things with you. I’ve told everybody since I’ve met you, I said, I think Jim White is the smartest person I’ve ever met in the business of nonprofits.
Jim White: Thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: True. And earned too. I could talk to you all day, which won’t work for a podcast, but will work for you and me. So my first question is, what is your advice for funders? When their funders are looking around in the middle of a disaster, their heart goes out to them, and what’s your advice for them on where and how to put their money? And also, can you talk about the role of long term funding?
“From a coordination standpoint, they [government funders and private foundations] need to do a much better job of coming together and deciding how they can either pull their funds or very closely collaborate so that they’re not putting these local organizations and local communities in the in the space of having to compete to receive these funds.” -Jim White
Jim White: Yeah. I’m going to start first with the government very quickly. Governmental funders, you need to get your act together interdepartmentally. You need to pick who’s going to be in charge. And then they need to have that authority, and be given the resources that it’s coordinated across the different line departments. Sometimes, governments go jurisdictionally, you know, we all, you know, see those things where that’s not your jurisdiction kind of thing in the TV shows. But for the government side, they’ve got to get clear on jurisdictional authorities and allow that leadership to happen. Then for the private philanthropy, I think it’s imperative that, particularly foundations, whether they exist as a community foundation, or whether they exist as a private foundation, that they have a plan for all of the programming that they do. They should be building in the resilience by asking those grantees, how would you continue to support this if something bad happens? So build it into everything they do in terms of a budget line in a grant, and a portion of this must be, the money we’re giving must be built into how this program that we’re funding is going to be remaining resilient even in a disaster. And from a coordination standpoint, they need to do a much better job of coming together in deciding how they can either pull their funds, or in the cases where they can’t pull their funds, where they can very closely collaborate so that they’re not competing, they’re not putting these local organizations and local communities in the space of having to compete to receive these funds. And the same organization may win across three different funders, while one other organization completely loses out.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But often because they have that person who can write the grant, may have the relationship, and also if there’s any match funding, they also have that. So it automatically favors those who have over those who have not.
Jim White: Is your five minutes hanging up?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, we’re fine. Yeah, I already did it. I have a remote. It’s all good.
Jim White: Oh, okay. Great. Oh, wonderful.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We’re very slick around here, Jim White.
“People should think about how they want their donated funds to be used and remember these disasters last for years.” -Jim White
Jim White: And then with private individuals who might be funding, try to get to know the organizations that you’re giving to. I know that in a disaster, they may be popping up and you’ve never heard of them before. You can check out with your state association or check out through Charity Navigator or GuideStar. Is this a reputable organization? And allow for the fact that some of these may be brand new. But again, that’s where you might want to check in with your state association and see, do you know about these people? Do you know what’s going on? There were some fantastic organizations that came into being because of these wildfires, and they’re doing a great job, but they didn’t exist before. So they wouldn’t have a Charity Navigator or GuideStar rating yet. So I would just encourage people to really think about how they want their donated funds to be used. And remember, it’s not just the blankets and the food at the beginning of the disaster, these disasters last for years, and years, and years.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They do. I think that one of the things that we’ve worked with a lot of community foundations, and I’m always sort of curious how they’re going to approach it. And some of them are so creative and amazing. And I think that what we’re always looking for is not just one standard of how they are dispersing the funds that they gather, but are they serving the community in front of them in the way that they need it? Like in Mendocino County, they specifically, were incredibly creative with not very much money and helped a lot of people get home. It was so impressive to work with them in Napa County. They were able to give $35,000 to every person who lost a home as long as they weren’t over 300% of AMI. Napa County is not low, by the way. But they had the funds and the goal was to outspend it. We’ve conversely also seen a community foundation hold on to the funds forever and say like, we’re going to disperse a little bit. But actually, none of these are ever going to go, this is not going to a fire survivor, period. We’re going to work on other things with those funds, we’re going to build resilience into our community, but we will not disperse them to a fire survivor, any of it. And so we have seen this huge variety. And so I think it’s okay, especially if you’re a big donor to say specifically to whoever you’re giving it to, here’s where I would like this to go. But please, we’re begging you to please stop refusing to fund capacity.
Jim White: Yes. Oh, absolutely.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Nobody is asking like a baseball team or Coca Cola to really pare down on their staff in order to bring down the cost of, I guess maybe sometimes, but there is this idea in the nonprofit sector that we should underfund everybody who works in it while we’re also challenging them with solving the most difficult problems in society.
Jim White: Exactly. I mean, we’re big cheerleaders for, there’s a movement called the Overhead Myth, that overhead or administration of a nonprofit is bad. These are people who do this as a profession. You want them to do it professionally, you want that level of care, that certification. I mean, there’s women who work at this Service Integration Team, I mean, they’re fantastic and they’re so good. They’ve got accreditations that they’re required to have as hospital workers. And then also with the state, of course, you got to pay them.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It actually comes out of sort of this history of that women would be married, and then they’re upper middle class women, and then on the side, because they couldn’t enter into a lot of other professions, but they could do charitable work. And so the idea that we don’t pay them, I think, is an antiquated view with a misogynistic overtone. That’s how I feel about, it’s kind of like the profession of education. It was pretty well paid until women started entering into that profession and then it became like, oh, this will be a bonus to your husband’s paycheck. And we would really like to see that change. And also, you want really good minds on this. A lot of people who work in a nonprofit in this world have master’s degrees, have PhDs, they come to it highly qualified, they have other choices. Like you could have gone into the private sector easily and made a very, very, very healthy living.
Jim White: And chose to do this.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And you chose to do this. And so my other question for you is, what’s your advice for nonprofits, if they’re facing a disaster, and maybe they need to stretch, maybe they need to figure out how to work with other people or apply for funding collaboratively, what’s your advice there?
“Not everybody has to create a new nonprofit to do something… This is not about the ego of one individual and their mission to help people. It’s about how an organization can be structured to support these people who’ve been hurt.” -Jim White
Jim White: You basically listed all the things I was gonna say. So absolutely, they’ve got to be thinking about the collaboration, how they can effectively and efficiently use the resources that become available? How can they work together? Not everybody has to create a new nonprofit to do something. I mean, that might seem odd coming from someone who does what I do, but this is not about the ego of one individual and their mission to help people. It’s about how an organization can be structured to support these people who’ve been, in this case, hurt damaged in some way by a wildfire. And so there’s, again, I just take the hat off to those organizations where there was no one else actually there, and they created something. And where there was already something there and discussions happen quickly, that a fiscal sponsorship could be created, you don’t have to create a whole brand new nonprofit, that’s also a great mechanism. And then collaborating these long term recovery groups, these LTRGs have a hugely important role in coordinating collaborating. What I’m seeing is they’re beginning to become more implementers as opposed to coordinators. And I caution them, stay in your lane, because your lane is vitally important. Community mobilization, like democracy, I guess, is a little messy, but it’s the most pure feeling of the community about themselves.
“Community mobilization, like democracy, is a little messy. But it’s the purest feeling of the community about themselves because ultimately, these nonprofits are all governed by all-volunteer boards, who are made up of people from the community.” -Jim White
Because ultimately, these nonprofits are all governed by all volunteer boards who are made up of people from the community. So they’re literally of the community that they’re supporting even if they do have paid staff. So it’s important that we all get better at collaborating and we build, just like I’m suggesting on the foundation and philanthropic side, build mechanisms for coordination. We on the nonprofit side, moved to do better at that as well. And whether that’s through the VOAD System, we all just really embrace that and then lift it up, and we energize that, or whatever it is we need to do there. But we can’t get caught flat footed like this again.
“Once you end up chasing the funding solely, then that’s what all of your programs become and what people are willing to fund as opposed to what needs to be funded.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that one of the things that we’re hoping for is, we had a kind of a unique start, and we were not your normal nonprofit because we started with $2 million PG&E gave it to us. I mean, no doubt it was a panic. Like a little bit of guilt in there for sure. In December of 2017, they won’t mind me saying that because they would agree with that. But it allowed me space to actually chase the mission instead of chasing the funding. Because once you end up chasing the funding solely, then that’s what all of your programs become. What people are willing to fund is opposed to what needs to be funded. And I’m so gratified to see people and funders lately really understand why that’s so important to allow an organization like ours, that we should be setting the agenda because we have the most experience in that area, and we can prove it. Otherwise, we would have become social, just nothing wrong in social equity, it just doesn’t serve the entire community in disaster, and we don’t need to implement social equity programs. So is there anything that you wish I would have asked you that I didn’t ask you today?
Jim White: Actually, I can’t think of anything. I think you really got me pretty good.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, Jim White, I love working with you. I appreciate your counsel and your advice. And oh, can you please tell the audience where they can find out more about you and your organization?
Jim White: Sure. So we’re the Nonprofit Association of Oregon, and it’s www.nonprofitoregon.org. Check us out on the website. We do a lot of virtual work right now, especially. But we do that even when we’re not. But otherwise, we’re working all across Oregon working with local community based nonprofits, helping them build themselves better.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And if someone from another state based nonprofit, obviously, they would know how to get a hold of you because sharing best practices and best lessons is what we are all about. And we know that you share that value as well. And we’re so happy. I’m so happy to have had you on today, and I really appreciate you being on the podcast.
Jim White: Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thanks.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Thank you.