The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 2, 2017

Can nonprofits and philanthropy help fill gaps in the crisis response for Puerto Rico?

October 2, 2017

The situation in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria has become a humanitarian crisis. Home to 3.4 million American citizens, the island remains largely without power, and residents are still navigating limited access to essentials like food, fuel, and water. Given the level of devastation, many people are looking for ways to donate and help get relief to the island.

The immediate federal response to provide aid and humanitarian relief to Puerto Rico has been rife with delays. This has placed increased pressure on philanthropy and nonprofits to meet humanitarian and recovery needs.

While nonprofits play a pivotal role in in responding to disasters, they may not initially have the staffing structure or organizational capacities in place to meet the immediate pressing need that arises after a large-scale disaster, especially if they themselves were affected by its impact.

In 2015, there were 500 nonprofits in Puerto Rico, with $2.8 billion in revenue. Houston, in contrast, had 4,500 nonprofits in 2015, generating $24.6 billion in revenue. Assuming most of Puerto Rico’s local nonprofits have also been impacted by Hurricane Maria, whether the sector currently has the infrastructure to rise to mitigate the level of devastation that has taken place remains unclear, especially when its capacity may have been underdeveloped in the first place.

For reference,  Hurricane Katrina was also characterized by a weak initial state response, and the nonprofit sector had neither the organizational structure nor the resources to meet immediate needs. However, the level of donations and support post-Katrina helped drive overall nonprofit growth in New Orleans and bolster the sector’s role in rebuilding efforts. In 2012, Urban Institute found that one in seven New Orleans nonprofits were started in direct response to Hurricane Katrina.

So, as notable public figures step up to donate significant contributions for Puerto Rico’s recovery and many organizations and local groups coordinate funding efforts to provide more aid and support, it is important that donors and the public maintain reasonable expectations of nonprofits in alleviating the effects of disasters.

  • Nonprofits and philanthropy cannot do it alone. Recovery work cannot occur on the same scale without philanthropy, but rebuilding requires resources from all sectors. After 9/11, philanthropy contributed 10 percent of the resources made available to recovery efforts. The remaining 90 percent—approximately $27 billion—came from public funds.
  • Zero in on capacity and funding weaknesses. The nonprofit sector in Puerto Rico will need adequate resources to provide critical services at an unprecedented scale. To bolster the capacity of the local sector, donors should be strategic about expanding operating support and providing resources for organizations to build infrastructure. 
  • Recovery is a long-term philanthropic commitment. After disasters, nonprofits often collect large-scale resources for immediate relief, in contributions of money and time. Hurricane Harvey has already seen businesses donate over $157 million toward relief efforts. But long-term recovery efforts will require philanthropic investment in the region for years to come.

Although immediate needs continue to emerge from this crisis, the catastrophic damage demands a comprehensive and timely ongoing response to ensure Puerto Ricans can rebuild their communities and lives with dignity and with the resources they deserve.

It is important that philanthropists, foundations, and the public donate and drive resources to disaster-stricken areas like Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. But the nonprofit sector functions most effectively in responding to disasters as a complement, not a substitute for government and private efforts.

The scale of the crisis facing Puerto Rico requires a response that marries and engages advantages across sectors and functions with real partnership between philanthropy, nonprofits, government, and the private sector.  

People carry water in bottles retrieved from a canal due to lack of water following passage of Hurricane Maria, in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, on September 25, 2017. Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.


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