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Rallying Around Relief: In the Face of Wildfires, California Funders Take Action

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

With flames ablaze and billowing smoke at both ends of the state, it seems that wildfires have become the new normal in California. In response, regional grantmaking associations have emerged as sources of fire-related relief information and central points of contact for donors who want to help. Meanwhile, foundations that normally focus on other local issues are prioritizing disaster relief to a greater degree than ever before. While firefighters and EMS professionals are on the ground doing extraordinary work, California funders are doing what they can to get resources to where they’re needed most.

For example, Southern California Grantmakers launched a web page with California wildfire resources that is being updated with information concerning where to find help and ways to help those affected by the Woolsey and Hill fires. Northern California Grantmakers also has a page of resources for funders who want to help following the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise—the most devastating fire in California history. The grantmaker group has been closely involved in work with funders throughout the region related to this and earlier fires. In fact, it recently hired a new director of disaster resilience, Alan Kwok.

Philanthropy California, comprising Northern California Grantmakers, Southern California Grantmakers and San Diego Grantmakers, recently hosted a briefing with local responders and funders that featured speakers offering perspectives on anticipated community needs and the best ways for funders to help. One of the key goals in the current wildfire efforts is to establish grantmaking relief strategies that promote equity among all local residents. Additionally, the United Way of Northern California set up a fund to provide immediate cash grants to people who have been evacuated and have lost their homes, and the group is distributing aid alongside the Red Cross and other local partners.

There is a range of other philanthropic responses, including a pledge by Facebook this week of $500,000 to match online donations for relief. Amgen, the biotech company, also pledged $500,000 for relief efforts in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, where the company is based.

Grantmakers of all kinds have been involved in providing wildfire disaster relief support over the past couple years in California. We’ve written about a number of these efforts, including work to help vulnerable Latino communities affected by last year’s North Bay fires and assistance for local arts organizations.

The most impressive relief initiative in the wake of those fires was mounted by the poverty-fighting organization Tipping Point. The primary mission of this group is to assist the estimated 1.3 million people in the Bay Area who are too poor to provide for their own basic needs. But the unprecedented devastation of the North Bay fires led Tipping Point to mount a major fundraising effort toward rebuilding. This money came from thousands of individual and corporate donors, thanks to events like Band Together, a sold-out benefit concert at AT&T Park that generated $17 million.  

By last month, less than a year after the North Bay fires, the group’s emergency relief fund had raised nearly $34 million. Grants have gone out to at least four dozen local nonprofits and targeted multiple recovery needs. “We know how to raise funds, but our emphasis is getting it to those who need it most,” Daniel Lurie, Tipping Point’s executive director, said in an interview.

Housing tops the list, accounting for 37 percent of grants from the fund. Tipping Point gave its largest housing grant ($5 million) to Catholic Charities Santa Rosa to double its capacity in serving homeless individuals and to build the Caritas Village affordable housing project. Health was the second most funded category, comprising 25 percent of emergency grants. One health grantee, the Redwood Community Health Coalition, is using $850,000 of the fund’s money to accommodate the growing need of mental health services for locals experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Employment and social services each received 19 percent of the emergency fund, but Tipping Point awarded six-figure grants here, too. La Luz, for example, received $1.5 million to train new construction workers, and Undocufund received $1 million to support the legal and mental health needs of immigrant communities affected by the fires. You can view a full list of all the emergency fund grantees here.

Overall, Tipping Point grants differ from other localized donor support in the organization’s dedication to unrestricted and flexible funding. This isn’t just for the emergency fund, but across the board with all Tipping Point grantmaking. Also, this is exactly the type of funding that the recent Northern California Grantmakers report called for to help nonprofits to figure out exactly what they need to pick up the pieces and move forward.

Even as funders mobilize again to provide relief in the wake of the fires that devastated Paradise and areas of Southern California, a larger question is how much philanthropy can or should to respond to ever more frequent fire disasters. Private funders have limited resources and many other priorities. The rising tempo of hurricane-related devastation raises a similar question for foundations in the eastern United States. Philanthropy can’t turn its back on disasters and human suffering, but as the negative impacts of climate change grow, the sector needs to think carefully about its proper role in the face of rising relief needs.


Published by: Inside Philanthropy
Date: November 14, 2018


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