June 4, 2009 By Adam Stone
When the Miami-Dade County Department of Emergency Management holds its Storm Prep Expo, some 60 vendors and 5,000 visitors come to teach and learn about hurricane preparedness. No way is Jaime Hernandez, the department's public information officer, going to tackle that alone.
As project manager of the expo, Hernandez turns to the nonprofit sector to make the event possible. The American Red Cross of Greater Miami and The Keys manages the $35,000 budget, handles the logistics, coordinates vendors and prepares the Miami Beach Convention Center to handle the crowds.
"The Red Cross handles the business side of everything," Hernandez said. "Since they are a nonprofit and we are a government agency, it is easier for them to go out and find the private-sector sponsors and participants. For us in government, everything has to go through a formal procurement process, and we are always concerned that that could drag out for a very long time."
Hernandez has tapped into an idea that's gaining currency among emergency planners. It has long been understood that the nonprofit sector can provide vital services during crises, delivering food, shelter and other vitals in a timely way. What Hernandez and others have come to realize is that philanthropic agencies also can access cash and resources with an alacrity not typically available to their public-sector counterparts.
Researchers from the Urban Institute spell it out in their report Partnerships for Parks. "Nonprofit agencies can tap funding sources unavailable to public agencies, including donations from individuals, corporations and private foundations. Unlike public agencies, nonprofits are flexible in their ability to use these funds to pursue new programs, and they are free to develop innovative ideas and solicit contributions to support them."
Take for instance, the New Jersey State Police Office of Emergency Management, which turns to nonprofit partners in its efforts to provide training to the state's Citizen Corps. In a recent statewide exercise, for example, nearly 1,000 people enjoyed daylong meals at Salvation Army mobile kitchens.
Certainly this assistance helped keep costs in line. "Financial resources are always strained, and whenever we can do something in a more cost-effective manner, that's the way we like to go," said Howard Butt, emergency response specialist of the NJSP's Office of Emergency Management.
But it's not just the budgetary concern at play here.
Equally important is the mere ability to get to those needed resources in the first place. "Spending either federal or state dollars from any source is an art form in and of itself. It takes a lot of knowledge of the system and a lot of ability to move things through a bureaucratic network that sometimes is not user-friendly," Butt said. By rolling in hot meals on its own wheels, the Salvation Army saves planners untold time and effort.
That ability to streamline makes nonprofit partners highly attractive, said David Miller, the administrator of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division. Miller maintains relationships with a range of nonprofits through the Iowa Disaster Human Resource Council, a collection of community and faith-based organizations. In times of crisis, "I do think they can be more nimble," he said. "Because of what they do, they are usually active in the communities before we are and so they can act very quickly."
Back in Florida, Hernandez said his relationship with the Red Cross serves a number of valuable functions.
First, it's great to have an extra pair of hands to assist with what might otherwise be an overwhelming task. Though his department has two dozen employees, an