Aid, Assist, Act: Best Practices in Disaster Resiliency
We sat down with Antoinette LeCouteur, Founder of Waters Edge Corporate Social Responsibility Consulting Firm, who helps corporations navigate the complex realities of disaster resilience, preparedness, and response. She offered her expertise as we asked tough questions – mainly, how can our corporate community do better in the face of disasters? Antoinette gave us the honest answers our readers need to move disaster response conversation and reaction forward.
Where are corporations missing the mark when it comes to disaster campaigns?
There’s not enough preemptive thought occurring in corporations. It’s not IF a disaster happens anymore, but when. Corporations need to tie disaster campaigns to the bigger picture, resiliency in the community. If we think locally, we will react locally, so corporations really need to have a plan in place for local communities. Once everybody begins to work local, resilience is built across the board and then everyone is taken better care of.
The best entities to serve in the face of a disaster are the organizations on the ground closest to wherever the disaster strikes. They’re the ones with the most capacity to help because they know who is going to be impacted the most.
A good example was during Harvey and Maria, last year. A huge portion of the devastation came from the length of time it took to re-house people afterward. There were so many disasters in a row that resources were stretched thin on the government, community, and nonprofit side. If more corporations, with capacity and community investment, had been funding resiliency plans and disaster preparedness, there may have been a much faster recovery time.
Can you give us examples of companies who react to disasters rather than having a proactive strategy?
I’ll use the example of a company who has a global presence and offices in multiple locations, both nationally and internationally. They are exponentially more likely to be hit by disaster somewhere in their corporate chain: whether it’s a distribution center, manufacturing plant, or a group of employees doing intellectual work and living in a part of the world that is particularly vulnerable.
Often times, a corporation’s HR or security team has a security plan set in place in case of disaster striking company locations. However, these plans may not be shared with the philanthropic team and there may not be an awareness that other plans exist until after a disaster strikes.
To answer the question more directly, the companies that aren’t proactive to disasters are the ones that aren’t integrating. Once a disaster strikes one of their own, employees want to rally around co-workers that have been impacted. If the company doesn’t have a process for making that happen, such as an employee relief fund (ERF) set up to accept donations or the philanthropy team isn’t prepared to be a part of that conversation on a company-wide basis, they can’t expect to have a proactive strategy.
The companies who are doing it right are the ones who have already suffered a disaster, have learned, and are now integrating all-around disaster resiliency. They can react and communicate to their employees what is in place. When their employees wish to respond to a disaster, they are able to provide a proactive strategy that stays within the predetermined plan instead of rushing to throw up a disaster campaign and give away a smaller amount of money.
When talking about disaster resiliency and sharing the stories of impacted employees, what do communications departments need to keep in mind? How can they institute policies to prepare for this new style of messaging?
The communications team needs to be a part of awareness integration mentioned above. They should be aware of the disaster plan if there is an ERF, and what communication requirement will be expected from them (a lot of philanthropy teams now use a liaison to help communicate updates on any program changes).
When building the communication for disaster relief efforts, it is important to consider the employees that gave to the campaign, knowing they were a part of the effort. Above all, you should consider the employees who have been impacted, their needs, and their privacy. In the most extreme cases, it is not the company’s news to share and protocol should be handled with HR.
To sum up, communication is about coalition building and making sure that all people who may have a stake in what is being communicated are considered before taking action.
As a consultant, what are some of the biggest obstacles that you face in helping companies plan for disaster response?
The biggest obstacle is shifting awareness and prioritization so that disaster resiliency is a line-item in philanthropic budgets. I’ll use the California wildfires right now as an example. They are so disastrous that, even for a state that is prepared and used to wildfires, they are record-breaking.
It should not be considered a disaster reaction or a disaster plan, but instead disaster resiliency planning as a corporation and as a community. Working in coalition, even with people who are considered competitors, needs to be brought back to the table. Companies who are right next door to each other, with employees and customers equally impacted, cannot be unwilling to set aside their competition to be strategic during a disaster.
The Center For Effective Philanthropy has brought this up in much more succinct and eloquent ways than me, but for anyone in this space, we must continue to try to broaden the conversation about coalition building. We need to work together to integrate philanthropy.
When preparing for potential disasters, how can a company ensure that it can act quickly and efficiently?
Companies can prepare by knowing their parameters and utilizing the capacity of their technology provider. In our case, I’d have a conversation with my Account Manager, make a plan for different disaster scenarios, and then set up triggers for those campaigns when/if necessary.
You can have an allotted amount in your budget you are willing to spend for disaster relief match, or in other cases, have disaster scenarios picked out that will receive activation and other scenarios in which you choose to remove company budget. Knowing what you can do within the platform now will give you more flexibility when a disaster occurs.
Pre-determine media and baseline communications you will use beforehand. Do a test run, just like you do for every other part of your disaster plan. With these decisions made, it won’t feel as though you are responding to an emergency. Every year, look at the previous year’s disaster resiliency allocation and see how much money was spent. This information will help gauge whether or not to allocate more or less money to support disaster resiliency the next year.
It can be confusing to understand the complex laws and regulations surrounding employee assistance funds and employee relief during federally declared disasters. What are the three most important things a CSR practitioner should understand to provide relief to affected employees?
- Know the difference between a federally declared emergency and the limitations there are around philanthropic giving. It’s a complicated process distributing money to your own employees.
- If you’re accepting money from your employees to give to employees in need, or worse, accepting money from outsiders (clients, customers, etc.), make sure you have someone there that is specialized in the area. There are a lot of rules and regulations on what is allowed (for a reason!)
- An ERF (Employee Relief Fund) is for an individual that has something befall only them (house burns down, medical emergency, etc.) Those aren’t federally declared disasters and really should be separated from disaster relief. You can use your existing technology platform, but you should use dedicated attention or an expert to set up this program so that you know you have all the legal parts in place.
Once you’ve made the decision on what your corporation is willing to offer, you can set up the channels for giving to your employees and construct disaster resiliency plans for the three separate groups.
How can employees activate in their local (unaffected) communities to support disaster relief in all areas?
On behalf of my friends who do collections for disasters, please, please, do NOT send goods to a disaster. It is the most inefficient and expensive experience. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a clothing drive, but distribute it locally. Someone in your community needs it.
If you want to provide your employees with a volunteer opportunity to give something other than money, consider holding a food, coat, or amazon drive. Make sure you find a local nonprofit who can receive these goods, rather than sending pallets to a flooded area. Although these are great intentions, you end up burdening victims rather than providing the maximum level of support.
The best plan is to survey your employees and get a sense of who is driven to support disaster relief. There may be employees with CPR training, some volunteer firepeople, individuals activated with the Red Cross, or those who have previously done Peace Corps work, all with tangible disaster skills you were unaware of before. Encourage them to become champions of disaster preparedness.
Continue to find local ways you can integrate your corporation in the community. Regular disaster preparedness and education is a great way to keep the populace feeling as if “we’re doing something all the time,” rather than just when disaster strikes a community. Make sure people have awareness of all local, governmental, and nonprofit entities that are already working together. As a corporation, you can simply come alongside and fund their work.
In the Bay Area, for example, we do National ShakeOut. People come and volunteer to be victims, giving first-responders time to practice in case of an earthquake. It’s a really great way to provide a safe, yet disaster-related volunteer opportunity. While your employees may not be able to volunteer day-of or in the midst of the disaster, they are able to make an impact.
If you’re a volunteer manager looking to provide your employees with opportunities, another great place to look is with your local disaster response teams, government entities, and volunteer centers (Points of Light, Hands On). Hold a day of service or do a disaster preparedness day company-wide! You can give everyone a Cause Card for participating and build a culture around being prepared versus just reacting in the face of disaster. It’s the responsible and proactive thing for corporations to practice and incorporate into their bottom-line budgets.
Antionette believes the best ice cream is the kind eaten for breakfast.
She has deep, direct experience working for major corporate foundations in multiple capacities including; employee giving, grants management, sponsorship activation, and technology training. She’s driven transformative efforts to successfully innovative programs, select and implement technology, strengthen vendor relationships, and exponentially increase employee engagement and community impacts.
Personally, Antoinette maintains strong ties to nonprofit organizations. She has served as a fundraiser, events director, and board relationship manager across a large spectrum of arts, environmental, and social service organizations. She takes a holistic approach to solutions, with a sharp eye for improved efficiency, and doesn’t hesitate to roll up her sleeves to make things happen.
Antionette brings a deep personal focus, leveraging her liberal arts degree and an exceptional network of industry practitioners.