Resilience in recovery? Understanding the extent, structure, and operations of nonprofits addressing disaster survivors’ unmet needs

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Michelle Meyer, Texas A&M University

It is February 16, 2021 and it is 3℉ in Dallas, Texas. It is June 25, 2022 and it is 118℉ in Portland, Oregon. Neither of these examples are isolated incidents, though, as these “extremely rare” weather events are now happening more frequently due to climate change.

I bet you have always wondered how nonprofits help after disasters or extreme weather events like these. If you are not in a disaster prone area, or researching disasters like us, you actually may not have thought about this. Well, it may be time to start.

Climate change is increasing the frequency and magnitude of disasters. As more communities face extreme weather more regularly, the nonprofit sector’s ability to address community and survivor needs after these disasters will become increasingly important to overall community resilience. Supporting individuals to rebuild their lives post-disaster will enter into many nonprofits operations at some point. Nonprofits are especially important service providers for those most affected by climate crises: populations that are already marginalized and in need. In my research, I look at local nonprofit organizations coordination to address post-disaster recovery needs for the populations most in need.

Nonprofits already have a huge presence in disaster recovery efforts. They play a large role in addressing the needs of households and individuals, especially those who are marginalized, low-income, or otherwise have difficulty recovering from disasters on their own. Nonprofit efforts commonly target individual “unmet needs”– or those needs that remain after insurance and government aid is spent. There are many nationally-known organizations whose missions are devoted to disaster management, such as the American Red Cross. Other national nonprofits do repairs or rebuild damaged housing, others provide clothing or food assistance, some focus on counseling and mental health needs.

Aside from national organizations, an underappreciated aspect of disaster recovery are the efforts of local, grassroots organizations that mobilize to help their own communities recover. Due to the large need created by disasters, these local organizations sometimes form coalitions called “Long-Term Recovery Groups” (LTRGs). LTRGs are a unique phenomenon of the nonprofit sector, providing structured coordination of resources to meet survivors’ needs during disaster recovery. My recently published article in NVSQ (with Mason Alexander-Hawk, J Carlee Purdum, Haley Yelle, Jordan Vick, Adrian Rodriguez, Saul Romero & Kenneth Taylor) discusses these groups across the U.S. 

What are long-term recovery groups and where do they exist?

So, what exactly are Long Term Recovery Groups?  The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD) describes LTRGs as a cooperative body made up of representatives from faith-based, non-profit, government, community-based, private sector and voluntary agencies that aim to address unmet needs of disaster survivors through coordination of volunteer and donated resources (NVOAD, 2012). LTRGs perform case management, construct and repair homes, pay medical and utility expenses, coordinate childcare/education/work needs, among other activities. These groups are increasingly encouraged by government and national organizations, yet they still remain relatively unknown outside the world of disaster nonprofits.

In our recent paper in NVSQ, we aim to make LTRGs more known. We created a database of LTRGs that exist or existed across the U.S. between 2010 and 2019, reviewed their mission and activities, and assessed where they emerge.

We found 455 local LTRGs and 4 state-wide LTRGs that cover 649 counties in the U.S. (20.7% of all counties). There has been a sharp increase in the emergence and operation of LTRGs over time. In 2010, only 13 LTRGs formed, but 33 formed in 2019. This result indicates increasing use of LTRGs as a response to acute climate-related crises. LTRGs arose more commonly in flood-prone and coastal areas, like Texas, Florida, the Carolinas, and the greater New York/New Jersey area as well as along the Mississippi River.

LTRGs had common missions and services, including rebuilding housing, improving resource accessibility for survivors, reducing the duplication of efforts among local organizations, and educating the public.

We expected LTRGs to occur in areas with more disadvantaged populations. Called “social vulnerability” by disaster scholars, low-income, persons with disabilities, the elderly, female-headed households, and racial and ethnic minorities are some of the populations who commonly face discrimination or have more difficulty recovering post-disaster. Our data showed LTRGs emerged in counties with more people and more housing units; which implies a tendency for LTRGs to form in more urban/suburban areas than in rural areas. Counties with LTRGs had slightly higher overall social vulnerability scores. LTRGs seemed to emerge in counties with more need related to housing and transportation and in areas with larger racial and ethnic minority populations.

LTRGs and the nonprofit sector under climate change

While LTRGs coordinate donated resources, volunteers, and philanthropic funding for disaster survivors, their place in the nonprofit sector may be hidden or are short-lived. Barely a third (36%) of the LTRGs in our study were registered as nonprofit organizations themselves through federal or state government. Some LTRGs operated as programs within another organization, such as within the local United Way. But for most of the LTRGs, we could not find information on fiscal sponsorship or who managed the financial aspect of the group. LTRGs, like many other emergent post-disaster nonprofit efforts, are less likely to formally register as organizations and thus less likely to be studied or have their impact tracked.

As we continue to grapple with the consequences of climate change, these groups have potential to make a huge impact not only on the communities they serve but also our environment as a whole. LTRGs could offer a space to coordinate nonprofit resources not just for disaster recovery, but also for longer term climate adaptation for populations most in need. Yet, very few of the LTRGs in this study connected their mission to climate change. Only 6% of LTRGs mission statements identified the likelihood of future disasters and the impacts of climate change as their reason for existing. More work is to needed on these groups and how they can be used to address climate change challenges.

Click here to read the full paper: Meyer, M. A., Alexander-Hawk, M., Purdum, J. C., Yelle, H., Vick, J., Rodriguez, A., Romero, S., & Taylor, K. A. (2022). Resilience in Recovery? Understanding the Extent, Structure, and Operations of Nonprofits Meant to Address Disaster Survivors’ Unmet Needs. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. doi. 10.1177/08997640221138265

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