Uncovering JAPA

Supporting Nonprofits During Post Disaster Recovery

How can planners support nonprofit capacity building? In "Recovery Capacity of Small Nonprofits in Post-2017 Hurricane Puerto Rico" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 2) researchers Divya Chandrasekhar, Ivis García, and Sayma Khajehei conduct a survey and field observations that compare the recovery capacity of small and medium/large registered nonprofits.

Puerto Rico, in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, is an important case study as it experienced slow federal aid action that disproportionately favored nonlocal and larger nonprofits. Discrepancies in funding and networking capacities have created a system in which small nonprofits have not been considered critical stakeholders in post-disaster recovery.

Small Nonprofits Crucial in Disaster Recovery

Field observations from the CENTRO conference supported the idea that small nonprofits add value to post-disaster recovery planning because they are best positioned to understand the interests of the most underprivileged and impacted communities. They encourage community participation, build social capital, and ensure recovery efforts respond to the community's needs.

Small non-profit leaders emphasized that their work centers on member "collaboration and volunteerism." Some interviewees argued localized approaches best address one-on-one care for vulnerable populations. Nevertheless, Puerto Rican CBO participants feel a strong "need to fight" for recovery resources because of the "neglect and abuse" of federal and government aid assistance.

The team's survey demonstrated organizational capacity differed based on nonprofit size in the following ways:

  • Median number of employees
  • Years of operation
  • Sector-specific representation in economic development, health, and housing

Stable and formalized funding mechanisms favored medium/large nonprofits. Ability and experience in grantsmanship demonstrated statistically significant gaps based on nonprofit size. Figure 1 illustrates that small nonprofits' lower attendance in workshops further inhibits meaningful recovery impacts. Local nonprofits' overall reduced organizational capacity, grantsmanship, interaction, and networking create greater challenges for funding and technical assistance.

Figure 1. Posedisaster changes in interaction by organizational size.

Figure 1. Posedisaster changes in interaction by organizational size.

Planners Vital for Small Nonprofits' Involvement

Nonetheless, small nonprofits' outreach at a grass-roots level positions them to be significant actors in participatory post-disaster planning. The authors contend that the field suffers from a lack of existing literature on small nonprofit facilitation strategies for planners. Their work outlines three areas planners can facilitate: pre-event capacity building in disaster management, pre– and post–disaster grant writing workshops, and networking between stakeholders. Such recommendations could be applied to mainland states like Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Alabama, which all have social vulnerability indexes similar to Puerto Rico.

A core component of the planning profession is intermediating between government and nonprofit actors. This role is of heightened importance in the wake of natural disasters. I would argue nonprofits' unequal access to capacity building and funding opportunities is a symptom of the broader structural fragmentation of the U.S.'s disaster response.

While the authors' research provides a stronger understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities for smaller nonprofits, it remains unclear which type of "planner" should take on local nonprofit facilitation. Future work could explore differentiated approaches to a nonprofit collaboration of planners based on the scale and sector of practice.

Top image: Lorie Shaull/flickr.com (CC by 2.0)

About the author
Ellie Sheild is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

June 16, 2022

By Elizabeth Sheild