IPA Blog

Responding when your community is in crisis

Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Emanuel Church, Charleston, SC

On the IPA blog this week, we are glad to be able to offer you reflections from Kris Putnam-Walkerly about responding when your community is in crisis. Grantmakers and foundations have a role to play when communities break down, and it behooves us all not only to take a proactive stance in looking for potential ruptures and breaking points ahead of time, but also to make a plan for stepping in appropriately when tragedy does strike.

Stop, Look, and Listen: Three Steps for Responding to a Community Crisis
by Kris Putnam-Walkerly

The church shootings that took place in Charleston, SC last week were horrific, especially for those directly touched by the violence and hatred that spawned the attack. The same is true for Baltimore, Ferguson, and every other place where the emotions of residents overflow into protests or violence. Perhaps the most frightening thing of all is that what happened in Charleston, or Baltimore, or Ferguson could happen just about anywhere - which means that every grantmaker should think about ways to respond in the event of a community crisis.

Here are three steps to follow when a crisis arises in your community:

1. Stop. As soon as word of a crisis breaks, stop what you're doing, acknowledge the issue, and share your words of support. That's the decent thing and the right thing to do. However, don't stop there, because words of sympathy are not enough. Charge some of your staff to drop everything else, even if just for an hour, and reach out to relevant organizations - such as grantees, your local community foundation or your regional association of grantmakers - to ask, What can we do to help? Who else is involved that we might support? What news and resources can we share with our networks? The gathering and sharing of information among your community's philanthropic network is one of the most important roles you can play in the wake of a crisis.

2. Look. Watch what is going on in your community and observe how it aligns with your current grantmaking strategy. This is as "real-world" as learning opportunities get. Are people in your community talking about the need for better mental health supports? Is race a factor? Are residents feeling threatened by police, or extremist groups, or one another? Were there government or societal systems that failed? What was the flashpoint? Take a look at what you're funding, versus what you see. How does (or could) your grantmaking intersect?

3. Listen. This is where your most unique - and perhaps most powerful - role as a funder comes into play: the role of convenor. Tragedy and crisis leave people confused, angry, traumatized, sad, and more. The healthiest way to deal with those emotions and channel the momentum toward a positive outcome is to allow people to talk. Open your doors, bring people together. Hire professional facilitators or even counselors if that's what is needed. When the time is right, take a leadership role on bringing people together around the issue and framing a constructive way forward. Will all of this have an impact on your day-to-day grantmaking? It better. If there are people in extreme need, issues that your work has overlooked, and people who are willing to come together and address them, what more important role could you play? Better yet, why not plan now for ways to prevent potential community crises? Increasingly, I see or hear of foundations - particularly community foundations - that are doing just that. In doing so, they are positioning themselves as community leaders above and beyond the checkbook, and potentially saving their communities considerable damage and heartache in the process.

© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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