Be Prepared: 3 Lessons for Nonprofits from Sandy

Photo by Pam_Andrade

Storms seem different today than when I was growing up. They seem more unpredictable and dangerous. The first major hurricane I remember is Hurricane Gloria in 1985. Gloria followed a typical Hurricane path, spun up the coast, and moved quickly through New England. In today’s dollars, Gloria did almost two billion dollars in damage.

Sandy was different. She took a sharp left into New York and New Jersey, and pushed the surge into the coastline, which caused most of the damage. The cost of Sandy is at least $50 billion, and growing.

Many think that Sandy represented a new type of storm. I’m not a meteorologist, but I agree that things are different now and everyone, including nonprofits, need to be better prepared going forward.

Be Prepared to Tell Your Story Personally, Compellingly

I’ve already read that nonprofits are trembling in their boots about year-end giving, fearful that the American Red Cross and other disaster-oriented charities will be sucking up funds like a hurricane pulls moisture and power from the sea. But what nonprofits are really scared of is their inability to communicate personally, humanely.

On Friday night I watched Anderson Cooper talk to victims on Staten Island. All of them had lost something or someone to Sandy. He also talked to volunteers, like a blind woman with her seeing-eye dog who dropped everything and dashed to the area to help.

Be prepared to tell your story at the street level where people can see the faces and hear the voices of those you’re trying to help. You also have to give donors a compelling reason to act. The public’s interest in Sandy will wane and–barring another crisis–they’ll shift from the urgent back to the important. Will they fix their eyes on you, or will they look at something else?

Be Prepared to Help Others (And Yourself)

Regardless of the type of nonprofit you run, you should be asking yourself two things. First, can you help the victims in New York and New Jersey? Second, how can you use the disaster as a lesson to supporters of the vital role your organization would play if a disaster struck your community?

The New York Public Library and its 65 branches were largely undamaged by the storm, so they’ve opened their doors to the community. As first reported in GOOD, Tony Marx, president of the NYPL said of the Mid-Manhattan branch:

You should see this scene: every chair and inch of floor and rug being used by rich and poor, black and white, young and old New Yorkers to read and write and work. Admin staff volunteering to fill in for those who can’t get to work. Amazing.

The NYPL has also canceled its biggest fundraiser, an annual gala, so it can send the food to places where it’s needed more.

But what’s stopping other libraries across the country from sending books, magazines and other donations? This is a great opportunity for nonprofits to respond generously when people are taking note of those who act . . . and those who don’t.

Now is also a good time to tell supporters how your organization would act if a similar disaster befell your community. This is especially true here in Boston where if it wasn’t for an irregular jet stream that pushed the storm into New York and New Jersey, we would have borne the brunt of Mother’s Nature wrath. Make sure supporters know the role–major or minor –our nonprofit would play in such a disaster.

Be Prepared for Plan B

While you’re explaining how your organization is supporting victims, and sharing the important role you would play in a similar disaster, you may want to write down on paper what you would really do in a disaster!

What if you can work from your offices? Where will you work, probably without power?

Where are your servers hosted? What’s the plan if they go down (as the servers for Huffington Post, Jezebel, Gawker and Gizmodo did during Sandy)?

If a serious storm devastated your organization and you could only respond in your community in one meaningful way, what would it be?

Check out this blog post for other ideas on how your organization can be ready in case of a disaster.

As New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week, it seems like these hundred year storms happen every two years. They’re a new reality, especially for those of us who live on the coasts.

Want to be successful moving forward? Prepare for the worst.