El Pomar Foundation began preparing to respond to one of the worst natural disasters in Colorado history 10 years before the first sign of smoke in Waldo Canyon. In June 2002, the Hayman fire ripped through four Colorado counties, consuming more than 137,000 acres. While those flames were still active, El Pomar trustees established an internal fund of $5 million (known as the Wild Land Fire Fund) to make grants related to wildfire response. Staffers, with checks in hand, made their way to the affected areas. They worked quickly to provide small grants to volunteer fire departments with immediate needs to replace damaged and destroyed equipment.
In the aftermath of the Hayman fire, the foundation maintained the fund, making grants in response to wildfires and soliciting grant proposals from volunteer fire departments that lacked the resources to replenish and update equipment.
In the spring of 2012, after two consecutive winters without meaningful precipitation, wildfire potential was a frequent topic of discussion. In fact, El Pomar Chairman and CEO Bill Hybl called a special meeting of senior staff members on June 18 to hear an update from the Wild Land Fire Fund team.
Six days later the talk became action. By early in the morning on June 24, the Waldo Canyon fire was clearly visible from the foundation’s executive officers—and spreading quickly. The trustees discussed potential grants, approved several, and gave their consent to move forward with a coordinated response if things got worse.
Seventy-two hours later, the trustees convened again via conference call. It was Wednesday morning, just hours after part of the foundation’s hometown went up in flames. This conversation concluded with a commitment of $2.5 million in wildfire response funding. El Pomar’s yearly charitable contribution is approximately $20 million. Therefore, this was a bold step, but one that all agreed was necessary and in keeping with the foundation’s mission to enhance the well-being of the people of Colorado.
Several weeks removed from the worst night in the history of Colorado Springs, the foundation continues to make grants on an as-needed basis and has already designated more than $500,000 of the $2.5 million pledge. This includes $125,000 for Pikes Peak United Way to establish a local fund for community members to support with donations that directly help their neighbors in need.
While El Pomar’s funding will continue for many months as the emergency response gives way to a rebuilding effort, several lessons learned are already apparent:
- Know Yourself. Figure out if your organization is positioned to respond to a disaster that affects your service area. Not every foundation has a broad enough mission to encompass this type of grantmaking. Focus on funding areas that align with your mission.
- Prepare What You Can. If there is a specific danger that threatens your area, consider establishing a fund with dedicated grant dollars that can be used for a quick response. Consider making grants that could help prevent or mitigate the disaster risk.
- Involve Trustees. Have a process in place to reach your trustees quickly. Responding to a disaster shouldn’t be about circumventing your typical system. Rather, your typical system should allow for quick action.
- Rely on Existing Relationships. When making quick grant decisions, partner with agencies that you trust and have supported in the past.
- Look for Gaps. When disaster strikes, many needs in the community are not immediately obvious. Connect with government agencies, local foundations, and nonprofits to learn what gaps exist and how your foundation can make an impact.
- Follow the Money. Make a point to understand the funding landscape. Knowing what government dollars will fund, for example, can help ensure that charitable dollars are deployed more effectively in those areas where the government will not play a role. As an example, El Pomar found that volunteer fire departments usually don’t get the same government funding as local fire departments.
- Lead by Example. Community members will go above and beyond to respond in a time of crisis. Be ready and able to help guide them to outlets that will distribute their financial contributions responsibly.
Josie Burke is director of communications for El Pomar Foundation. For more information on disaster grantmaking visit the Council’s Disaster Center.