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When Talk Becomes Action


Foundations can be notoriously slow-moving organizations. Under normal circumstances this doesn't undermine the mission. When disaster strikes, however, slow and steady doesn't necessarily work. We recently worked with the Council on Foundations to take a closer look at El Pomar's response to the Colorado wildfire outbreak with an eye toward providing some insight that could be helpful to other grantmakers. The post below, written by El Pomar Director of Communications Josie Burke, originally appeared on the Council's blog.

El Pomar Foundation began preparing to respond to one of the worst natural disasters in Colorado history 10 years before the first sign of smoke in Waldo Canyon. In June, 2002, the Hayman fire ripped through four Colorado counties, consuming more than 137,000 acres. While those flames were still active, El Pomar trustees established an internal fund from which to make grants related to wildfire response. Five million dollars was set aside for the newly-created Wild Land Fire Fund. Staffers, with checks in hand, made their way to the affected areas. They worked quickly to provide small grants to volunteer fire departments with immediate needs to cover damaged and destroyed equipment.

In the aftermath of the Hayman fire, the Foundation maintained the Wild Land Fire Fund, making grants in response to wildfires and soliciting grant proposals from volunteer fire departments that lacked the resources to replenish and update equipment.

In the spring of 2012, after two consecutive winters without meaningful precipitation, wildfire potential was a frequent topic of discussion. In fact, El Pomar chairman and CEO Bill Hybl called a special meeting of senior staff members on June 18 to hear an update from the Wild Land Fire Fund team.

Six days later the talk that had been what-if turned to what now? Early in the morning on Sunday, June 24, El Pomar trustees met by phone. A fire that had been spotted the day before and was clearly visible from the Foundation's executive offices, now had a name—the Waldo Canyon fire. The trustees discussed potential grants, approved several and gave their consent to move quickly with a coordinated response if things got worse.

Seventy-two hours later the trustees convened again via conference call. It was Wednesday morning, hours after all had watched in horror as part of the Foundation’s hometown had gone up in flames. This conversation concluded with a rare commitment. The trustees authorized $2.5 million in wildfire response funding. El Pomar's yearly charitable contribution is approximately $20 million. This was a bold step but one that all agreed was necessary and in keeping with the Foundation’s mission to enhance the well-being of the people of Colorado.

Several weeks removed from the worst night in the history of Colorado Springs, the Foundation continues to make grants on an as-needed basis and has already designated more than $500,000 of the $2.5 million pledge. This includes $125,000 that went to Pikes Peak United Way to establish a local fund that community members could support with donations to directly help their neighbors in need.

While El Pomar’s funding will continue for many months as the emergency response gives way to a rebuilding effort, several lessons learned are already apparent:

KNOW YOURSELF. Figure out if your organization is positioned to respond to a disaster that affects your service area. Not every foundation has a broad enough mission to encompass this type of grantmaking. Focus on funding areas that align with your mission.

PREPARE WHAT YOU CAN. If there is a specific danger that threatens your area, consider establishing a fund within your foundation with dedicated grant dollars that can be used for a quick response. Think about making grants that could help prevent or mitigate the disaster risk.

INVOLVE TRUSTEES. Have a process in place to reach your trustees quickly. Responding to a disaster shouldn't be about circumventing your typical system. Rather, your typical system should account for the potential to act quickly.

RELY ON EXISTING RELATIONSHIPS.  When making quick grant decisions, partner with agencies that you trust and have supported in the past.

LOOK FOR GAPS. When disaster strikes, there are many needs in the community that are not immediately obvious. Connect with government agencies, local foundations and nonprofits to learn where gaps in community needs exist and your foundation can make an impact.

FOLLOW THE MONEY. Make a point to understand the funding landscape beyond foundations. Government dollars will be available and understanding what they will fund can help ensure that charitable dollars are deployed more effectively in those areas where the government will not play a role. As an example, El Pomar found that volunteer fire departments usually don’t get the same government funding that local fire departments receive.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE. Community members will go above and beyond to respond in a time of crisis. Be ready and able to help guide those that want to make financial contributions to an outlet that will distribute them responsibly.