Gulf-Coast Nonprofit Leaders Call for Ongoing Donations

Suzanne Perry
Date Published: 
April 19, 2007


New Orleans

Representatives of grass-roots and advocacy groups that are helping people to recover from the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita vowed at a meeting here last week to join forces to rally the nation to rebuild the Gulf Coast in an equitable way.

"The region is slipping deeper and deeper every day back into invisibility," said Derrick Evans, executive director of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, a group that is working to revitalize a historic African-American area near Gulfport, Miss. "We are the hope."

The meeting brought together for the first time representatives of groups that have received grants from the Gulf Coast Fund, a project set up in September 2005 — just weeks after Katrina hit — to channel money from foundations and other donors to small nonprofit groups trying to rebuild New Orleans and other storm-ravaged regions.

Those areas continue to suffer from a lack of affordable housing, institutional racism, exploitation of workers, environmental hazards, and other problems, and the time is ripe to solicit help from policymakers, presidential candidates, grant makers, the news media, and average people, participants said.

"The public's behind us, and they have been since day one," said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, in Durham, N.C., citing polls that indicate most Americans think the federal government responded poorly to the storms. "But they haven't known how they can respond."

Participants said last fall's midterm elections, which gave Democrats control of Congress, signaled that the public was moving away from political conservatism, and that local organizers should seize the chance to revive the kind of networks that were active in the South during the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

"This is an opportunity to push the scales back in the other direction," said Stephen Bradberry, head organizer for the Louisiana chapter of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. "The energy is there for a movement to occur."

$1-Million in Grants

The Gulf Coast Fund — which is operated by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a nonprofit group in New York that manages giving programs — was created by a group of foundations and nonprofit leaders who wanted to ensure that grass-roots organizations, especially those helping vulnerable people such as African-Americans and immigrants, were involved in shaping the post-hurricane reconstruction efforts. It has awarded just over $1-million to 78 groups in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas since September 2005.

The project introduced an innovative "community based" philanthropic model, setting up a 21-member committee of local activists to advise Rockefeller on how to organize the fund and spend its money.

Penny Fujiko Willgerodt, a vice president at Rockefeller, said the fund wanted local people involved in thinking about how they could reshape a region that trails other parts of the country in areas such as education levels, quality of health care, and job opportunities — and also trails in attracting money from mainstream philanthropy.

"This is about taking folks who are directly affected by the problems — and have been working in the nonprofit and advocacy community for a long time before the storm — taking their experience and wisdom and really giving them the opportunity to employ that for the greater good," she said.

Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, in New Orleans, and a member of the advisory committee, said the fund was designed to make it easy for small groups to apply for grants. "You don't have to be 501(c)3," she told the 150 participants. "You don't have to talk in language that you don't talk in as part of your activism work. As long as you were doing good work, there was a place for you in the fund."

Money in the fund has been provided by more than 20 foundations and major donors, including the Ford Foundation, which had contributed $800,000 as of December 2006. Others that have contributed at least $100,000 include the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, in San Francisco; the John Merck Fund, in Boston; the Park Foundation, in Ithaca, N.Y.; and the Beldon Fund, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Starry Night Fund, all in New York.

Encouraging Signs

Several speakers at the meeting discussed their recent successes. Mr. Bradberry said his organization, ACORN, claimed a significant victory when the city of New Orleans announced in March that it had singled out the lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood that was heavily damaged by flooding, as one of two neighborhoods that would be able to split $145-million in rebuilding money.

Susan Do, deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Development Corporation, a group that helps Vietnamese-American Katrina victims in New Orleans, said her organization had united with environmental groups to stop the city last August from using a hazardous landfill that had been set up in a Vietnamese neighborhood outside normal permit procedures.

The Gulf Coast Fund plans to continue awarding $1.6-million to $2-million in grants each year through 2010 and hopes to attract additional donors who understand that the hurricanes were an "extraordinary event that demands an extraordinary response," Ms. Willgerodt said. "The Gulf Coast Fund is hopeful that mainstream philanthropy will recognize that and not abandon this region."

Bryan Parras, a spokesman for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, in Houston, said groups like his suffer because so much of the money donated for nonprofit work goes to big organizations, like the American Red Cross and United Way. "Funding really needs to go to smaller organizations that are connected to the community already," he said.