Relationships Matter when Communities Need Support Most

Elizabeth Love

Strong relationships between program officers and their grantees are always important. But they’re especially important when disaster strikes.

Hurricane Harvey brought Houston nearly 51 inches of rain and some of the worst flooding we’ve ever experienced. The devastation was widespread, and the storm exposed — and exacerbated — pre-existing vulnerabilities in our community.

During the storm, rising flood waters made it clear that it was safest for us all to stay close to home. But as part of a foundation that seeks to improve quality of life for the residents of greater Houston, my program officer colleagues and I wanted to know what we could do to help. This is where our strong, trusting relationships with grantees and community partners were invaluable. 

As the rain continued to come down, our team reached out to grantees who were already working on the ground. Our conversations revealed that, in spite of all of the aid coming in from around the region and the country, there remained vulnerable communities unlikely to be served by other sources or agencies. Through these frank and honest conversations with trusted partners, we were able to quickly determine where our resources were needed most.

From our homes, some of them temporary, we established a rapid-response granting mechanism that would focus on systemic approaches to assessing needs and providing support. Here, again, our relationships with grantees proved invaluable: our strong partnerships allowed us to get funds out the door quickly and meaningfully.

One recipient of our rapid-response funds was the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC). Since 2013, when Houston Endowment helped to form it, the HILSC has brought together trusted legal and immigration service providers to help the many Houstonians who qualify for expanded legal protections to begin their pathways to a protected legal status.

During Harvey, the HILSC and its affiliated network of providers helped inform Houston’s 400,000 undocumented residents of their rights to assistance. With a rapid-response grant from us, the organization was able to provide technical assistance to local relief agencies on how to effectively reach and serve undocumented families, as well as seed a fund to help the immediate needs of this population.

Similarly, our partners in the environmental community, with whom we have worked for years, identified a lack of state oversight in environmental data collection and reporting during and after Harvey. With a rapid-response grant from us, the Houston Advanced Research Center was able to deploy staff to compile, analyze, and disseminate a range of environmental data related to Harvey — including data on air quality, water quality, and the status of toxic sites — that was being collected by local public and nonprofit partners. The resulting GIS application depicts the scope of Harvey’s environmental impacts, which has proven useful to local advocates in their conversations with public officials about minimizing environmental risks during disasters.

In the weeks since Harvey, strengthening relationships with our community partners and grantees has continued to be of the utmost importance. After all, only in working with our partners can we hope to leave the region stronger than it was before, and form a new legacy that recognizes the impact of the storm — but is not defined by it.

One part of that legacy will be the newly formed Harvey Arts Recovery Fund. Harvey inflicted an estimated $56 million worth of damages on greater Houston’s arts sector, which includes individual artists, small- and mid-sized cultural groups, and large anchor institutions alike. We realized, however, that the arts community would be an unlikely recipient of disaster relief funds. So the Endowment, along with a cohort of arts service grantees, consulted with more than 70 arts groups throughout the Houston region to assess the extent of damages, seed funds to address the immediate needs of the arts community, and begin the planning stage for a long-term fund to fill an expected three-year funding gap.

The example of an arts-specific recovery fund will set a precedent for collaboration that will have far-reaching impacts well beyond Houston’s arts community.

In addition to helping our grantees respond, we also realized post-Harvey that we have an opportunity to take bold steps to re-envision the future of our region — and limit the impacts of the inevitable next flood. Days after the storm, we, along with our colleagues at the Kinder Foundation and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, convened a group of area researchers with whom we have developed deep relationships over a number of years.

The expertise of researchers in this group ranges from hydrology and engineering, to climate science and coastal resiliency, to urban planning and equitable community development. Very quickly, this diverse group determined that collaborating to provide the most scientifically rigorous information to decision makers and residents alike will serve to strengthen our public officials’ deliberations about flood mitigation — from public risk education campaigns, to policy and regulatory changes, to developing new infrastructure, both “gray” and “green.”

At its core, this group, named the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, was born out of relationships and the desire to ensure that the best minds in the room have the opportunity to compile, analyze, and share a rich array of fact-based information to benefit the community. It serves as a model for what can happen when thought leaders are provided the space — and trust — to come together to tackle complex issues with the support of philanthropy.

All of this work in the aftermath of Harvey was possible thanks to strong relationships, both personal and professional, with our grantees and our community. Going forward, we will rely on these relationships to help us advance a more a resilient and equitable future for the people of greater Houston.

Elizabeth Love is senior program officer at Houston Endowment.

She is one of 11 program officers CEP interviewed for its new report, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success.

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