Nonprofits let government agencies bypass their formal procurement processes.
When the Miami-Dade County Department of Emergency Management holds its Storm Prep Expo, some 60 vendors and 5,000 visitors come to teach and learn about hurricane preparedness. No way is Jaime Hernandez, the department's public information officer, going to tackle that alone.
As project manager of the expo, Hernandez turns to the nonprofit sector to make the event possible. The American Red Cross of Greater Miami and The Keys manages the $35,000 budget, handles the logistics, coordinates vendors and prepares the Miami Beach Convention Center to handle the crowds.
"The Red Cross handles the business side of everything," Hernandez said. "Since they are a nonprofit and we are a government agency, it is easier for them to go out and find the private-sector sponsors and participants. For us in government, everything has to go through a formal procurement process, and we are always concerned that that could drag out for a very long time."
Hernandez has tapped into an idea that's gaining currency among emergency planners. It has long been understood that the nonprofit sector can provide vital services during crises, delivering food, shelter and other vitals in a timely way. What Hernandez and others have come to realize is that philanthropic agencies also can access cash and resources with an alacrity not typically available to their public-sector counterparts.
Researchers from the Urban Institute spell it out in their report Partnerships for Parks. "Nonprofit agencies can tap funding sources unavailable to public agencies, including donations from individuals, corporations and private foundations. Unlike public agencies, nonprofits are flexible in their ability to use these funds to pursue new programs, and they are free to develop innovative ideas and solicit contributions to support them."
Take for instance, the New Jersey State Police Office of Emergency Management, which turns to nonprofit partners in its efforts to provide training to the state's Citizen Corps. In a recent statewide exercise, for example, nearly 1,000 people enjoyed daylong meals at Salvation Army mobile kitchens.
Certainly this assistance helped keep costs in line. "Financial resources are always strained, and whenever we can do something in a more cost-effective manner, that's the way we like to go," said Howard Butt, emergency response specialist of the NJSP's Office of Emergency Management.
But it's not just the budgetary concern at play here.
Equally important is the mere ability to get to those needed resources in the first place. "Spending either federal or state dollars from any source is an art form in and of itself. It takes a lot of knowledge of the system and a lot of ability to move things through a bureaucratic network that sometimes is not user-friendly," Butt said. By rolling in hot meals on its own wheels, the Salvation Army saves planners untold time and effort.
That ability to streamline makes nonprofit partners highly attractive, said David Miller, the administrator of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division. Miller maintains relationships with a range of nonprofits through the Iowa Disaster Human Resource Council, a collection of community and faith-based organizations. In times of crisis, "I do think they can be more nimble," he said. "Because of what they do, they are usually active in the communities before we are and so they can act very quickly."
Back in Florida, Hernandez said his relationship with the Red Cross serves a number of valuable functions.
First, it's great to have an extra pair of hands to assist with what might otherwise be an overwhelming task. Though his department has two dozen employees, an event like the expo could easily stretch them too thin. "We are an emergency management department. Our job is to keep our community safe and plan for emergencies. As important as an event like this is, we really have a lot of other things that we need to be doing."
At the same time, the nonprofit partner can streamline an already-prolonged process. Planning starts in January for the May expo, and that time line would stretch even longer without the Red Cross there to handle logistics. "We are required to go through a formal procurement process to do just about anything," Hernandez said. "For such a large-scale event, with so many vendors involved, it would have been very difficult for us to handle that internally."
When it comes to forging meaningful ties to the nonprofit community, every emergency management agency starts out ahead of the game. While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of nonprofits poised to interface with emergency management, planners can readily access broad swaths of the nonprofit community through a single portal, Florida's Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).
VOADs unite a broad range of nonprofit participants who share an interest in disaster relief. Members of state organizations typically meet in advance of any disaster to coordinate among themselves and to liaison with public-sector managers.
A national body, NVOAD, was formed in 1975 to coordinate the various state efforts. NVOAD helps state organizations prepare for disaster and can be a useful starting point in any public-sector effort to line up nonprofit partners.
NVOAD Executive Director Diana Rothe-Smith said there's a natural synergy between emergency management and nonprofit capabilities.
"Government has a certain responsibility to its citizens, and it has created a very specific hierarchical structure to manage that. That chain-of-command structure is imperative to the wellness of the community," she said. But structure can also mean rigidity. "They have limitations, just because it is government."
Governments benefit because of nonprofits' structure. "The nonprofits are ‘squishy,' for lack of a better word. They are able to fit where government can't because of that hierarchical structure," Rothe-Smith said.
She points to the human services arena as one in which this public-private partnership has always been at the fore. "It works because the nonprofits are able to move quickly, mobilize millions of volunteers [and] do direct pushes for funding from their own constituents and the public overall," she said. All those same factors can hold true when nonprofits lend their weight in the service of emergency management.
Some say there's a kind of irony in the very idea of government turning to the nonprofit sector for help in accessing and spending money in support of emergency management missions. In the everyday world, after all, it's the nonprofits that look to the government for help.
"There is a general perception within the nonprofit community that all the money is on the government side," said Jim Tragakis, chief of staff for federal government services at professional services firm Deloitte.
VOADs can be strong advocates for nonprofit involvement, and they often have a prominent place at the table. "They are generally up there trying to get their share of funding for various kinds of services they will provide," Tragakis said. "It is a real battle from the nonprofit perspective."
Sometimes it's in government's interest to help the nonprofits win that battle, to ensure that these philanthropic friends are in a position to form fruitful partnerships.
The first step is to establish an environment based on equality, Tragakis said. "From the government side, there can be this perspective of, ‘Oh, we're the professionals, we'll call you guys when we need you.' But there is a really feeling on the nonprofit side that they have a lot to offer, and that needs to be recognized."
At NVOAD, Rothe-Smith said emergency managers serve themselves best when they look at potential nonprofits in finer detail rather than broad strokes. "When we talk about the nonprofits, each of them has taken on a very specific piece of the pie," she said. "Most of these organizations are not looking at doing everything in terms of disaster."
For example, the nation's food bank network Feeding America may provide food to a group like Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, which in turn partners with the Salvation Army to distribute the food. In an effort to efficiently distribute funds and get aid out on the streets, planners must understand these interrelationships. By the same token, emergency managers seeking logistical or other support from these agencies have to be aware of everyone's relative place on the landscape.
"As a government agency, you should have awareness of that level of that detail," Rothe-Smith said. "It's not enough to just have a partnership with one agency. You need to be aware of where the pass-offs occur."
Even done well, these partnerships pose potential risks. In New Jersey, Butt notes that a nonprofit's efficiency, however valuable, must come under some oversight.
"The federal and state rules of purchasing and expenditures are in place for a reason, to make sure there is no abuse of the system," he said. Emergency planners likewise must take some care in ensuring that a partner's ability to make this happen quickly does not come at the expense of the public interest. "You need to be able to walk that fine line between accountability and urgency."