Will Irene’s legacy be strategic charity?

Charity has been getting a bad rap lately.  I don’t mean the act of giving to your local food shelf or homeless shelter.  I mean the philosophical concept of charity.  With the surge of interest in “strategic philanthropy,” anyone who isn’t talking about “working upstream” or measureable outcomes can be made to feel less sophisticated.  Sure, many would argue, giving to your local food shelf is a fine use of band-aid funds, but only if you are also funding the “upstream” or root causes of hunger.

I’ve spent the summer visiting with fascinating people across our state – thought leaders, philanthropists, CEO’s, financial advisors, non-profit execs – to stimulate discussion about strategic philanthropy in Vermont.  There has been conversation about the role of philanthropy in corporations, supporting young adults in re-interpreting their family’s tradition of philanthropy, the tension and synergy between philanthropy and government, and encouraging non-profits to develop measureable indicators of change.  I am grateful to the many people who opened their homes and offices to me to join this conversation, and have been inspired with the potential for strategic philanthropy in our state.

And then, Irene came knocking.

My family and community in Montpelier have been incredibly fortunate.  After the localized floods in May, Irene largely gave us a pass.  But much of central and southern Vermont is devastated – 11 communities are cut off, hundreds of homes, businesses and non-profit offices were destroyed, and entire villages soaked in mud. Even the state emergency management staff had to evacuate from the state office building in Waterbury. Thankfully there have been few lost lives – but even a three or possibly four are too many.

Even as Irene flounced north and the skies cleared Monday, Vermonters got down to business.  Vermont Digger reported that 200 people helped American Flatbread owner George Schenk to clean up after the seven feet of water that flooded the property in the Mad River, saving the business tens of thousands of dollars.  “It’s really been an exceptional outpouring of support, and it kind of humbles you,” Schenk told Vermont Digger. “It reminds us all we don’t live alone, as much as we might think about living in isolation.”  Rep. Maxine Jo Grad, D-Moretown, explained to Vermont Digger that Mehuron’s Grocery Store in Waitsfield gave her 60 free sandwiches for Moretown residents.

These neighborly acts are just the warm-up.  I know that Vermonters will continue to rise to the occasion to support each other in recovering.  The Times Argus reports that Montpelier resident Todd Bailey, who organized a fundraiser in May for flooded capital city businesses, is already pulling together a coordinated fundraising effort for impacted businesses, the VT Irene Flood Relief Fund.  The Seven Days blog lists other ways to help.

Eventually, there will be a role for increased strategic philanthropic investments that address the root cause of such crises – as Bill McKibben simply and eloquently explained in his commentary on the connection between Irene and global warming.  Private funders can also plant seed funding to support communities in learning how to manage in our newly-warmed world.

But right now, we have neighbors in need.  How do we best support them – this week, and next?  What’s the system to help vital non-profits, whose offices may be coated in mud, to get meals and medication to elderly people isolated by Irene?  Is there a role for private funders to play in helping local businesses and municipal offices recover?  How will non-profits, such as child care centers, that are reeling from the recession recover from Irene if not with our help?  These are the immediate, pressing needs – and to call private funding of these needs “band-aid funding” would be offensive.  Let our state respond with a generous, effective, and coordinated outpouring of support to address these short-term needs: let us engage in strategic charity.