The August flood directly and indirectly impacted virtually every nonprofit organization in the Capital Region. Along with having facilities inundated with floodwater and volunteers displaced, many nonprofits were forced to make tough decisions about end-of-year fundraising drives and events. At the same time, demand for services has increased, leaving nonprofit organizers nervous as they head into what is expected to be a tight 2017. Photography by The Assocaited Press
Like many nonprofit organizations, Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area holds an annual fundraising event each fall, the lynchpin of a fourth quarter push to secure current year operating funds. Last year, the agency’s popular Walk/Run to Remember netted more than $133,000 in cash from 136 participating teams, and another $93,000 in corporate sponsorships. It was the best year on record, says Executive Director Barbara Auten.
This year was a different story.
Scheduled two months after epic flooding swept through the Capital Region, the normally robust Walk to Remember saw a significant drop in participation. The number of teams walking in the Oct. 15 event fell to 101, and the donations they raised slipped to $72,900—about half the amount raised last year. Corporate sponsorships fell by $16,000. The total number of walkers dropped 35%.
Meanwhile, demand for the agency’s services this fall increased by about 50% due to a natural disaster that upended the stability of tens of thousands of area families. Flood victims represented nearly every demographic and strata, including those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
“There are so many challenges for this population that were exacerbated by the flood,” says Auten. “For individuals affected by dementia, being displaced and living in a strange place agitates them and puts a lot of stress on their caregivers.”
Consequently, Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area absorbed a higher number of clients at its respite center for dementia patients, Charlie’s Place, and doubled the number of respite reimbursements it issues to families who need to pay for a professional sitter. Respite care was critical after the storm as many caregivers needed time to deal with damaged properties. The increase in reimbursements is currently costing the agency an additional $3,000 a month, says Auten.
Nearly four months after an unforeseen weather system brought bewildering damage to south Louisiana, government officials, economists and social services providers are still trying to decipher its long-term impact. But for nonprofit agencies, a crystal clear trend is emerging. Demand, at least temporarily, is threatening to outpace the ability to raise commensurate funds. Regional executive directors say they’re bracing for a challenging 2017 as the need to support flood relief in its many forms continues at the same time that donors are financially pinched. Many suffered their own losses or are providing financial support to friends and family. Others gave quickly to flood relief, and are holding back additional gifts until further notice.
“The general consensus among us nonprofits is that next year is going to be a tough year for fundraising because those people who gave to multiple organizations are still going to be helping families next year and helping that recovery effort,” Auten says. “We all feel like it’s going to be tight.”
WHEN IT RAINS
In terms of damage, the historic flood that began on Aug. 12 was on par with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. A bizarre convergence of meteorological factors caused a low pressure system to park over the greater Baton Rouge area and slowly unleash what amounted to 7.1 trillion gallons of water—enough to fill Lake Pontchartrain four times. Rivers and bayous, ineffective at holding back rising water, swelled and overtopped. Thirteen people died. Tens of thousands were displaced from their homes. The federal government ultimately declared 20 parishes disaster areas, up from an original declaration of 12 parishes. As of mid-November, 91,000 households had applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency support. Sixty percent those applicants were from East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes, the two hardest hit areas.
“It’s an unnamed storm, and it’s hard to attract attention when you don’t have an identity. Floods also don’t have the impact of hurricanes and the death count, thankfully, was so much less. To the rest of the country, it just doesn’t seem as big of an event.”
—John Davies, president and CEO, Baton Rouge Area Foundation
But while the magnitude of the event mirrored other high profile storms, the national response has not. Large named storms like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy inspired countless celebrity benefits and triggered tens of millions of dollars in private donations. By this time after Hurricane Katrina, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation alone had raised $44 million, compared to $7 million in the same period after the August flood. It’s an amount BRAF President and CEO John Davies calls “fully insignificant” to respond to the flood’s long-term wake.
Davies believes the failure to attract big dollars stems from several factors.
“It’s an unnamed storm, and it’s hard to attract attention when you don’t have an identity,” says Davies. “Floods also don’t have the impact of hurricanes and the death count, thankfully, was so much less. To the rest of the country, it just doesn’t seem as big of an event.”
Other factors may have also contributed, says Kelly Pepper, president and CEO of the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations. Those factors include a delayed national media response, and a negative impression on the region following the racially charged police shooting of Alton Sterling followed by the shooting deaths of three law enforcement officers.
“I think we have to be realistic and recognize that our city had a lot of attention over the summer, our heartbreaking summer, that was not very positive,” speculates Pepper.
Over the course of the weekend of Aug. 12, the realization that the greater Baton Rouge area was facing an epic disaster became abundantly clear, at the least to the regional population. Nonprofit organizations of all kinds mobilized to lend support, says Pepper, while those specializing in disasters began the complex job of coordinating incoming donations, volunteers and shelter support. These specific nonprofits, including charities like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank and Capital Area United Way are part of the regional Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD, a committee that meets year-round to prepare for catastrophes.
VOAD members assembled quickly with local government officials to assess damage and figure out how to coordinate relief.
“This was nothing to the scale that we’d experienced before,” says Katie Pritchett, a VOAD member and CAUW president of community impact.
Moreover, two of the biggest local disaster relief agencies, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank and the Salvation Army, sustained serious damage and could not initially provide the warehouse space for incoming food, water and supplies. Other locations had to be secured, says Pritchett.
By Sunday, Aug. 14, the Red Cross had opened 46 shelters in the area with a peak population that night of 10,510 people, according to the agency. Once floodwaters subsided and roads cleared, droves of volunteers helped flood victims gut damaged homes, dragging ruined possessions, molding sheetrock and saturated insulation to overflowing curbsides.
But by the end of the first week, says Pritchett, those who had been volunteering had to return to work. Some volunteer groups from around the country arrived to help, but were met with a different problem—a shortage of volunteer housing.
“Nonprofit organizations still needed to respond after that first week, but had to do it without the volunteers,” says Pritchett, who is part of a VOAD team working on long-term recovery. “The question of how to sustain operations became really important and became very taxing for local charities.”
Many local nonprofits have received emergency support from BRAF. By late November, the foundation had issued nearly $4 million in flood-related support to charities. In addition, CAUW raised $1.5 million for direct relief shortly after the flood and granted $818,000 to 34 regional nonprofits in two rounds of funding. Both agencies plan to continue to issue grants.
Still, charities of all kinds are being stretched to meet rising demand for services at the same time they usually focus on annual fundraising, says Charlene Guarisco Montelaro, senior vice president of development and philanthropy at the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank and president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the national Association of Fundraising Professionals.
“Typically, nonprofits get their largest donations—and most of their donations—during the final quarter,” Montelaro says. “That’s one of the things that’s made this disaster so difficult for agencies—the timing.”
Psychologically, the Capital Region’s immediate focus after the flood was on recovery, and it left many nonprofits in a quandary about how to move forward with planned fundraising events.
“It’s a judgment call,” says Montelaro. “Sometimes, it’s not the right message because it feels like you’re throwing a party during a difficult time, and you won’t have the right turnout. But at the same time, the need hasn’t gone away. Your charity still needs to raise money.”
Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge’s annual Capital Chefs Showcase fundraiser was originally scheduled for Sept. 8 at the River Center, which by then had become a Red Cross shelter for flood victims. After the flood hit, Cancer Services had to decide whether to cancel the event altogether or come up with alternative date or format, says CEO Jill Roshto.
“It was a very difficult decision to figure out what to do,” says Roshto. “The money we raise in that event is crucial to our services and amounts to about one-sixth of our budget.”
Ultimately, the agency shifted the event to the Crowne Plaza Hotel and pushed it back to Nov. 16. Roshto says it was the right move. The venue was smaller, but the organization successfully met its goal of raising about $250,000. Even with an increase in demand for services this fall among flood victims who suffer from cancer, the agency is hoping to be down by no more than 10%, says Roshto.
Indeed, most nonprofits agree that canceling fall fundraising outright is a poor strategic decision.
Boys and Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge President Pat Van Burkleo says that while the agency held back on a planned social media drive to raise money in August, it has moved forward with its regular fundraising requests. The Boys and Girls Club runs after-school and summer enrichment programs for low income children and experienced its own challenges when four of its school sites flooded, forcing the agency to find alternative sites. Moreover, all of its computers and equipment housed at those locations were lost.
“The flood was horrible, and we wanted to be respectful of people who had lost so much personally in the way we asked for funds,” says Van Burkleo. “But I can never be apologetic for asking help in carrying out our mission.”
For the Louisiana-Mississippi Chapter of the ALS Association, six fall fundraising walks throughout the two states build awareness and raise about 75% of the regional agency’s annual budget, says Kelly Viator, who founded the chapter and is its immediate past executive director. It’s a typical fundraising strategy for national ALS chapters, Viator says.
For the first time in 15 years, the ALS walk in Baton Rouge raised fewer dollars this year than it did the year previous, and it wasn’t a small dip. The $109,143 raised by the event this fall was less than half of the $244,731 netted in 2015.
“The flood made it a very challenging environment to fundraise in,” she says. “The Baton Rouge walk is typically the largest with the greatest amount of corporate sponsorship, and we’ve seen a decline this year. It’s going to take having more face-to-face conversations and ensuring people that the dollars that they contribute are badly needed.”
Some agencies also had to think through their strategy for snail-mailing annual appeals. Both the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank and Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area decided not to mail appeals to addresses in flood-affected ZIP codes.
CAUW officially began its annual workplace campaign as usual in September, but recognized that many of its partner companies would need to delay internal drives as employees and their families continued to recover from the flood. The goal of this year’s campaign is $10.5 million, says President and CEO George Bell. The United Way will announce the results of the campaign in the spring. Last year, CAUW surpassed its $9.3 million goal by more than $150,000.
Bell says one of the biggest challenges of the current campaign is fundraising in an environment in which younger donors are more inclined to give to grassroots crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe over an employer-based models like the United Way.
“There is more competition for donor dollars,” says Bell. “We have to do two things: Expand and broaden our base and branch out into many employer sectors, and we also need to build out our accountability matrices so that more people understand how we work.”
Bell and other nonprofit executives say they believe the demand for flood relief dollars in the community will continue, even as houses are rebuilt and the pace of life seems to return to normal.
“We’re going to see a big need for more affordable housing,” says Bell, “and we’re going to need to pay a lot of attention to mental health.”
Auten, a former New Orleans fundraising executive who lived through Hurricane Katrina, is especially concerned about the community’s ongoing mental health needs.
“When people can’t get their houses back together and they get depressed, a lot of things can happen, from families breaking up to suicides,” Auten says. “My experience tells us to look down the line at mental health, and figure out how we can get out in front of it.”