Sonoma County Resilience Fund looking at help for the long haul

The Sonoma County Resilience Fund, created by Community Foundation Sonoma County, was launched less than two days after the North Bay fires began. By the end of December, it had raised more than $10 million.

Since the fund’s primary focus is the mid- to long-range needs of fire survivors –– things like temporary housing, environmental mitigation, post-traumatic stress and supporting the underinsured –– the money raised will be distributed in coming months and years, said Beth Brown, the foundation’s CEO and president.

However, the Community Foundation also awarded early emergency relief grants of more than $300,000 to nonprofits that needed immediate resources to provide shelter, food and other basic needs to people displaced by the fires.

Community Foundation Sonoma County has 13 staff members, some of whom were evacuated from their homes in the fire’s early days and all of whom were deeply worried at the time about friends and family throughout the region. Despite this, they came together at a time of crisis and worked hard to launch the fund and oversee its growth.

On Oct. 8, Brown attended a tribute to Holly Hunter at the 40th annual Mill Valley Film Festival and arrived back home in Healdsburg around 10 p.m. She noticed that the wind seemed unusually strong and, curious, looked up the current wind speed. She was right. It was an exceptionally windy night.

That question settled, she turned off her cellphone and went to sleep. The next morning, she turned the phone back on to find six texts and several phone calls from staff members who had evacuated their homes during the night. That’s how she learned about the fire.

“I tracked down everyone to make sure they were safe,” she said, “and I learned what I could by talking to other people throughout the day. Power was out, I was alone and roads were closed. It was a long and isolated day.”

But Brown was busy, calling several other community foundation CEOs around the country who had experience dealing with flood, fire and other disasters.

Nationwide, about 750 community foundations nationwide are dedicated to improving the lives of people in their defined geographic areas by bringing together donations from individuals, families and businesses to support local nonprofits. In its 34-year history, Community Foundation Sonoma County has distributed more than $200 million to local county organizations that address issues such as hunger, housing and mental health.

Among the topics Brown discussed that Monday with her community foundation peers was that, historically, a large influx of donations tends to arrive on the immediate heels of a disaster. They quickly taper off, however, while those affected by a disaster often need help months and years later, long after donations have greatly diminished.

“Disaster recovery has three distinct phases,” Brown said, “relief, recovery and rebuilding. In the world of disaster philanthropy, almost all funding is raised immediately, with more than ?70 percent distributed quickly for direct relief and less than 5 percent going to later recovery and rebuilding, a process that can last a decade.”

“We want to make strategic and impactful grants to support the community’s well-being. So we decided to focus on mid- to long-term recovery efforts. After the community starts to heal, needs will arise that no one thought about.

“Supporting and maintaining the Resilience Fund isn’t a one-week or one-month effort,” she said. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Long after media attention has shifted from our community, we will be here, committed to providing support that addresses the most critical needs of our nonprofits and their clients.”

On Oct. 10, the staff of Community Foundation Sonoma County established the Sonoma County Resilience Fund, launched with a $250,000 seed gift from Facebook and intended to aid recovery efforts in the current and future natural disasters, including fires, floods and earthquakes.

No more than 15 percent of the funding per disaster would go toward immediate relief-support efforts, with 85 percent or more set aside for later recovery and rebuilding phases.

To aid victims of the North Bay fires, emergency grants of more than $300,000 –– focused on meeting the immediate needs of Sonoma County nonprofits –– were given to agencies that included 4C’s (Community Childcare Council), California Human Development, Catholic Charities, Ceres Community Project, Community Action Partnership, La Luz, Petaluma People Service Center, Redwood Empire Food Bank, Sonoma Humane Society, UndocuFund for Fire Relief and the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County.

Within three days of the fund’s launch, the staff raised more than $1 million, the most significant fundraising effort in such a short window in the foundation’s history. By late December, the fund had crossed the $10 million mark and continues to grow.

“My initial and rather naive goal was $1 million,” Brown said. “We knew that the generous people of Sonoma County would be stepping forward, but there was a borderlessness to this disaster that brought generosity from other parts of the Bay Area and the country.

“People who are generous think about their own community, and then think about the nation and the world. Hearts don’t stop at the borders of a county. It’s natural for people to think about helping people they know, to think about issues that impact them directly as well as the rest of humanity.

“One of the great things about philanthropy is to see the natural generosity of others, to learn how much we all have in common.”

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