Sheena Wright, President and CEO, United Way of New York City

Sheena Wright, President and CEO, United Way of New York City

The six-month anniversary of Superstorm Sandy was accompanied by the requisite progress reports, assessments of what worked and what didn't, and general impatience with the slow pace of recovery. Some criticized the American Red Cross for not spending more of the funds it raised on short-term relief efforts, while others praised the organization for holding funds back for longer-term recovery projects.

Within days of Sandy making landfall, United Way Worldwide had created a Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund to collect donations for use by local United Way chapters. Of the $10.3 million raised by the fund to date, some $5.7 million was awarded for long-term recovery efforts by March, with another $3.3 million to be disbursed by mid-July. The remaining $1 million or so will be distributed by September 2014.

Recently, PND spoke with Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way of New York City, about her organization's strategy in responding to Sandy, some of the lessons it learned, and what philanthropy can do to help nonprofits prepare for the next disaster.

Philanthropy News Digest: You joined UWNYC as president and CEO just as Sandy was about to make landfall. What was the first order of business your first day in the office?

Sheena Wright: My first official day of work was supposed to be Monday, October 29, which was the day the storm made landfall, but the office, which is on Park Avenue between 32nd and 33rd streets, was closed that day. As things turned out, it remained closed for another week because the storm knocked power out below 34th Street. But that didn't prevent me from working. The first order of business was to make sure staff was okay. Then, on Tuesday, I received two phone calls. One was from the head of the United Way, who asked us to take the lead in raising a fund for relief and recovery efforts and to administer the fund on behalf of all United Ways in the region. The other call was from Mayor Bloomberg's office, which wanted us and five other large nonprofits in the city to play a lead role in emergency relief efforts. They knew we had ties in many of the neighborhoods and communities affected by the storm and that we would be able to help other organization mobilize and connect people to resources. As a result of that call, we agreed to assume responsibility for the emergency relief efforts in Coney Island, and we also did a fair amount of work in the Rockaways. So in those early days — those first few weeks, really — my focus was on getting the fund up and running and activating and coordinating thousands of volunteers to help deliver food, water, medicine, and other kinds of emergency relief to residents of Coney Island.

PND: UWNYC made it clear from the beginning that any funds it raised for relief and recovery efforts would be allocated to longer-term initiatives. Is that still the policy? And what are some of the initiatives you're focused on?

SW: We knew and appreciated the fact that organizations like the Red Cross are really built for short-term emergency relief, and we wanted to make sure we coordinated our efforts, resources, and work in ways that complemented the work of others. We knew that some of the funds we raised would be earmarked for nonprofits on the frontlines in neighborhoods and communities impacted by the storm — things like food pantries and soup kitchens and early childhood centers — to get them up and running again. We directly touch five thousand nonprofits in the city, and we were able to help connect organizations like the Red Cross that aren't on the ground in these neighborhoods to partners who were providing a lot of the first-responder relief services. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that after the emergency responders left, there would still be resources available to help communities rebuild over the long term.

One of the key long-term strategies we're focused on is making sure that the nonprofit community in the region is fully recovered and prepared for the next disaster, which is no easy task. Superstorm Sandy was unique in that federal disaster aid was not approved until almost six months after the storm hit. And during that period, nonprofits really filled the gap for families and communities that were impacted by the storm. Of course, from an infrastructure and demand perspective, that put a tremendous financial burden on them, and so one of our long-term strategies is to focus on rebuilding the social service infrastructure in the region and making sure that the organizations which comprise that infrastructure are healthy and prepared for the next disaster.

PND: Given that every disaster is different, what lessons have you learned from Sandy?

SW: One consistent lesson we learn from every disaster is the need for more and better coordination among nonprofit responders and funders. Our collective efforts would be more effective if organizations had a better sense of what each other's strengths and weaknesses were and coordinated their relief efforts, and funding, accordingly. That's true for the public sector as well; if there was more coordination among the federal government and cities and states and clear disaster-response protocols in place, things would be much easier.

PND: Where is the intersection between disaster relief/preparedness and the social justice and housing issues that were long a focus of your work at the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where you served as president and CEO before joining UWNYC?

SW: When the city catches a cold, low-income communities get pneumonia. So any negative event — whether it's a recession, a major disaster, a drop in tax revenues — disproportionately affects marginalized communities. It's even more the case when you have the kind of economic disparities and inequality we have today. The Rockaways are an interesting example of a community where every single person, whether they had money or not, was impacted by Sandy. On the other hand, one's ability to recover and move forward after a disaster like Sandy is greatly affected by one's financial resources and social networks. And that's what my work at the Abyssinian Development Corporation was about — promoting social justice and economic equity and opportunity for communities and individuals that are disenfranchised and underresourced. It's the same work I plan to do, citywide, at the United Way.

PND: Talk about the role of philanthropy in disaster preparedness? Where do you see funding gaps?

SW: There are huge gaps. Philanthropy in general is not investing in the infrastructure of the social sector. Philanthropy in general wants to only invest in direct service or programs. "Overhead" seems to be a bad word as far as funders are concerned. But if we want to respond effectively to the next disaster, if we ever hope to address the serious problems that afflict so many of our communities, we need to have strong, fiscally sound nonprofits. Nonprofits with superior leadership and governance, well-conceived disaster-recovery plans, adequate financial reserves. All of those things are really important in terms of the sector's resiliency and effectiveness. Philanthropy doesn't focus on those things as much as it should, and it absolutely needs to.

Kyoko Uchida