Checking Up on Faith Based Agencies (Guest Blog)

Natural disasters are increasingly becoming less ‘newsy’ and one would be forgiven for not keeping up with the number of disasters occurring across the globe.  The USA, like Australia, deals with its share of natural disasters and, in fact, averages at least one per week.  Currently, there are major fires destroying large portions of land in central Idaho.  Given the frequency of the disasters and their cost (the global damage bill in 2011 was nearly US400 billion), this issue calls for a serious strategy that is much more driven by collaboration and formal partnerships if we are to avoid further destabilisation of socio-economic life both here in Australia and globally.  This week’s guest blog is by John Berglund, a veteran of disaster management based in New York.  John shares a very nuanced view on how things should go forward.  A strong, timely and on the money message from a colleague from the other side of a now very small globe.  I have added a photograph of Syracuse (courtesy of David Lassman) which was recently named the safest city in America for refuge from natural disasters.  At the end of this blog is a poll to gauge how prepared we are for disaster.

The backbone of emergency relief efforts in the United States has always been the non-profit sector, and specifically, faith-based agencies that consider emergency relief in alignment with their particular mission.  That backbone remains intact, although without regular exercise, the appropriate nutrition, and regular check-ups, emergency relief efforts in America could easily wake up one morning to discover a deteriorating spine.

Beginning with the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, a series of national events have steered the advancement of emergency management, most notably the 9/11 attacks, the federal creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the embarrassing multi-sector response to Hurricane Katrina.  The inherent threat to the health of faith-based agencies engaged in disaster work is the reality that since 1995, the field of emergency management has become a billion dollar industry in the United States.  That fact alone has the potential to alter the healthy balance among the government, nonprofit, and for-profit sectors active in disaster.

The challenge is most obvious in the urban environments, where politicians and their emergency management appointees are highly scrutinized for their performance.  First and foremost, it is government’s job to provide preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery efforts for the people it represents.  Within urban environments, which usually house the national media as well as corporate headquarters, the overall risk seems to be higher on all fronts.

the safest

the safest

For an emergency manager working in such an environment, local capacity that is sustainable and dependable is of the essence.  If there is a sense that the non-profit sector is neither of those, then they have no choice other than to move those agencies into Plan B, and develop reliable resources.  And, can anyone blame the for-profit sector for realizing that emergency response to communities in crisis is good for its brand?

The impending threat for the industry is the imbalance among the sectors, mostly for one reason – the sustainability of government funding.  The political pendulum will eventually swing in the other direction, as it always does, affecting both government’s capacity as well as its ability to engage the for-profit sector.  Will the corporate community step up to the challenge, no matter the cost?  Some can and will, but not the entire sector, as philanthropy is not always a shared value, and a myriad of companies have incorporated specifically for one purpose – selling their disaster related products and services to the field.

Government is going to continue, if not enhance, its dependency upon the for-profit world because it’s good business for both.  But, the corporate community also has the opportunity to partner with and enhance its relationship with the faith-based agencies.  Faith-based mission and values go far in the humanitarian world, and often the extra mile beyond profit, marketing, and public relations.  Many corporate leaders are already there, although there is a need for more to come along side these agencies and invest in their overall capacity, whether through direct funding, professional volunteerism, or the donation of products and services.  Without these relationships, the multi-sector balance is weakened, which long term, is in no one’s interest, especially survivors of a catastrophic incident.

So, how do we prevent faith-based agencies active in disaster from suffering the pains of osteoporosis? Could it be as simple as regular exercise, the appropriate nutrition, and regular check-ups?

Yes, it could be that simple.

Faith-based agencies who wish to continue to serve on the disaster field need to identify their core competencies, and then exercise them on a regular basis.  They must honestly drill down on institutional intent, as the mission on a secular disaster front is always the provision of humanitarian aid, not planting a specific house of worship nor promoting a particular worldview.  Our job is to do the best we possibly can to demonstrate who we are by what we do for those we serve.

Once we agree on those core competencies, we have to commit dedicated resources to provide the nutrient dense nourishment required to keep those competencies strong.  And, we need to evaluate honestly whether we should remain involved with the work.  The outcomes of an annual check-up are always worth the time invested.

John Berglund is the Director of Emergency Services for The Salvation Army, Greater New York Division, US Eastern Territory.  He can be reached at  John.berglund@use.salvationarmy.org

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2 replies »

  1. IT is an interesting area. All organisations are facing risk, and particualrly for faith organisations, who through a degree of public trust, and their “faith” seemed to be immune from criticism. This is now changed, and so all not for profitis need to understand risk, in the same way government agencies have been managing risk for some time. A concern, of course, is that not for profits become risk adverse, and less nimble and able to serve the people that they are there to serve.

    • John, that is an interesting point. The balance between risk management and entrepreneurial approach is critical. I think a greater cross sector synergy is inevitable in the long run.


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