THE BLOG
05/01/2013 01:12 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Disasters Motivate Donors, But How Can Everyday Problems Compete?

On April 15th, explosions rang out at the finish line of the 117th running of the Boston Marathon. The Marathon, on Patriots Day annually, is a Boston rite of spring. But allegedly two young men shattered that rite and shook our foundation as Bostonians, literally and figuratively, for reasons we may never really completely understand.

The Boston philanthropic community was quick to respond. A fund set up jointly by State and City, called the One Fund - Boston 2013, motivated individuals and corporations alike to ante up. As recorded on their website but a moving target, to date, over $27 million has been raised for the victims. Individuals and corporations responded almost instantaneously and continue to respond. Those funds will be devoted to victim compensation and Kenneth Fienberg, the leading figure for the government's 9/11 victim compensation fund, was called in to manage that complex and difficult process.

A conference call organized by Associated Grant Makers (AGM) on April 18th, three days after the event, was able to put listeners, who were funders representing a multitude of charitable foundations, on a level playing field. Presentations by representatives of the City of Boston, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., as well as the Boston Foundation, one of the country's oldest and most respected community foundations, packaged information in an hour so that everyone could quickly learn what was going on, and strategize for what should be going on.

The coordination of a funding and monitored distribution method is a sound approach to helping victims. But there will be long term needs of the victims and the families that persist, necessitating the help and strength of mainstream community organizations that are here and will be here and who also need support, training and funds to complete their work on behalf of others. And in the wake of the outpouring, please let's not forget these ongoing community needs and the organizations that will be dealing with the fallout from not just this disaster but also from others; shootings, killings, hunger, homelessness, psychological trauma, community development--the list goes on.

One of these needs, a forum for collective healing, was swiftly addressed. Co-sponsored by the Boston Foundation and WBUR, a local public radio station, an open meeting was convened on April 24th at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston's downtown, not far from the sight of the mayhem.

The panels were broadcast live and available on WBUR's website as well. Police, medical and public health officials, clergy and newspaper columnists presented their experience and firsthand views of the recent events that they had been personally involved in that had left everyone bruised, baffled and confused. Kevin Cullen, a Boston Globe columnist and panelist, said, "Boston is the smallest big city and everyone knows someone affected." So a first responder treating wounds of a person who had been a family friend or whom his daughter had babysat for was not uncommon. Many others in the city had less than six degrees of separation from victims, first responders, officials, and even the perpetrators. In a city where the mayor himself has met 50 percent of the 625,000 residents, this is not surprising.

There was little talk at that meeting about the philanthropic response, though the Boston Foundation banner was prominently displayed. The Boston Foundation had co-sponsored the meeting through its Civic Leadership Fund. I assume that had politics not played a role in dissuading the Boston Foundation from setting up its own special fund to continue supporting both the organizations that will deal with the aftershocks for a long time to come, or to support a community grappling for answers, there would be a Boston Foundation fund now. On our AGM conference call, it seemed that one was in the works but we never heard about that notion again.

While I am in awe of the power of a disaster to raise enormous amounts of funds in a short time for victims, I am also struck by a corollary -- how difficult it is for community agencies to raise funds to do similar kinds of work on a day-to-day basis, for the health, welfare, education, hunger prevention, employment, and violence prevention in our city. I am still hopeful that support will be available for those who make the city safer, and for forums where prevention and responses can be critiqued honestly. All are needed to keep a free society free and our citizens' needs met. They also deserve to be supported with an outpouring of generosity.

I am proud to be a board member of AGM -- the information our staff pulled together at a moment's notice, the follow up after the meeting, the information from the City of Boston, having officials live on the conference call to explain things first hand, the willingness to learn from New York, Aurora, Newtown, Hurricane Sandy, all showed a non-arrogant response and a desire to get it right. I hope we do.

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