Disaster Doesn’t Have to Be a Crisis—One Foundation’s Big Insight

Monday, May 14, 2018

In the aftermath of the fires which devastated Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma Counties, NCG spoke with members about their disaster funding interests and strategies.  One such conversation – with Claire Solot, Managing Director of the Bigglesworth Family Foundation – highlighted an interesting shift in post-disaster grantmaking in both focus and process.

Like many foundations, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation (BFF) did not have a specific focus on disaster or a targeted emergency fund.  The Foundation had planned to adopt the approach to disasters which was followed at the Marcled Foundation (the parent foundation of BFF) where Claire Solot had been Executive Director.  Although its primary grantmaking area is legal services, again like many foundations, its disaster grants would support first responder nonprofits in the impacted areas to meet immediate basic needs such as food and shelter. That all changed in the Fall of 2017.

A strategic shift in focus

As a member of the Legal Services Corporation’s Leaders Council, Claire Solot was invited to join the Council’s conference call on the recent catastrophic hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.  As she listened to the executive directors of local legal aid organizations describe the hurricanes’ impact, she realized that BFF could support disaster relief within the context of its legal services focus area, rather than as separate from it.

Claire Solot describes BFF’s grants to legal services organizations in those three states as “a more authentic match in terms of the kind of support we want to give, not only allowing BFF to stay true to its mission and focus areas, but resulting in more direct and targeted relief to the communities the foundation wished to help.”  BFF’s support also recognized the importance of addressing the impact disasters were having on the capacity of nonprofits to provide their services.

Ironically, BFF had provided similar support to legal services organizations in response to the travel bans in early 2017 but had not viewed them as “emergency” grants.

A shift in process

This past fall, to formalize its ability to respond in this way, BFF’s board revisited its grants budgeting approach and approved a new allocation to fund legal services after a crisis or natural disaster.  The fund is supported by an annual set-aside of ten percent of its total grants budget.

These BFF funds are available to support:

  • Legal assistance through legal services organizations responding to the disaster;
  • Financial assistance to legal services organizations that have suffered damage themselves;
  • Additional capacity within legal services organizations that result from increased demands for services; and/or
  • Collaborative legal services disaster relief funds.

North Bay fire support

BFF’s new disaster grants initiative has already been put into action in response to the Northern California and Southern California wildfires, as well as the latest travel bans.

For example, when wildfires devastated communities in the North Bay, Claire Solot knew that BFF was already aligned with a community that it would support -- legal services organizations. 

To date, BFF has contributed to funds housed at the California Bar Foundation (Wildfire Relief Fund) and the International Institute of the Bay (Immigration Defense Fund) and made direct grants to several legal service providers. Claire Solot hopes that these grants can inspire other funders to participate as well as demonstrate to the effected legal services organizations that they have a community of support.

In 2018, BFF plans to build on their current efforts to explore support for organizations that provide coordination and assistance to the direct services organizations on the ground, as well as to programs and organizations that help with planning and preparation for disaster.

To learn more about BFF and the recovery in the North Bay, join us at NCG as the Legal Services Funders Network hosts a program, Disaster Relief 2.0, on May 22. We will get updated by local non-profit leaders about the effectiveness of the disaster relief efforts both locally and out of county, their plans for the current and future phases of recovery from the North Bay Fires, and what we need to do now to prepare for the next disaster.