Natural disasters devastate communities and leave their deepest wounds in already unstable low-income neighborhoods. Physical destruction, displacement, homelessness, poor health, and economic instability further fracture communities that face great challenges even before a storm hits. 

Amongst the rubble and disrepair, leaders from within these unstable communities step forward with passion, dedication, and a fierce will to co-create recovery alongside external partners. But despite having weathered the storm, and actively sought recovery for themselves and others, their voices are often absent from conversations about how best to move forward. Insights from these communities are essential to successful efforts to rebuild; they advance collective knowledge about how marginalized groups experience disaster and uniquely define recovery. 

In the fall of 2012, Super Storm Sandy laid bare and further aggravated hardships facing under-served groups, forcing New York City and other regions to once again confront societal inequities that existed long before the storm. As the sole foundation in New York City dedicated to funding that prioritizes the impact gender plays in life opportunities, we created the Sandy Response and Recovery Fund. As we aimed to build on understanding the layered barriers that constrict the vitality of low-income and marginalized women and communities in the face of disaster, we gained critical insights about how best to partner with community organizations and how they work to cultivate change. And in the process, we developed a number of principles to support the development of a roadmap, using a gendered lens of best practices for community-based organizations, government institutions, and philanthropies for sustained investment in relief and recovery, and a framework that accounts for both chronic and new barriers that inhibit low-income communities from thriving after a natural disaster.

What Made the Difference as a Funding Partner

We stayed. Our focus following Sandy was funding long-term, community-defined and -led recovery—versus short-term, traditional relief. By year two, we saw the great majority of other philanthropic and government partners divest as they perceived the effects of the storm pass. This departure meant programs that addressed deep, pre-existent challenges—such as mental health services—dissolved, leaving many unresolved problems. We have remained invested in long-term recovery needs and continued funding three years after the storm, through a gender lens that directly seeks to support strategies addressing under-resourced women that face different and greater barriers to safety and recovery following a disaster.

We were immediate. We responded immediately after the disaster by providing general support grants that targeted communities with the greatest need, and did not complicate use of funds through restrictions, complex applications, or inflexibility. Immediacy was feasible because of long-standing relationships with small, community-based organizations that had experience working with under-invested groups—such as LGBTQ homeless youth and undocumented immigrants—in their area. The trust, recognition, and value we placed in local expertise broadened our reach and enabled us to support populations typically excluded from traditional recovery efforts, many of which focus on rebuilding stable, homogenous communities. 

We acknowledged community strength. Change occurs when investing in the innate assets and strengths of people in communities—versus viewing them as resourceless victims who need external knowledge and resources poured in to “fix” them. We funded homegrown solutions and expertise by seeking authorship, leadership, and ownership of recovery strategies from grassroots organizations. While we were supportive thinking partners, we did not restrict or define the vision and path to recovery for communities. For example, we were the sole funder of a small, local advocacy organization that led the development of a community action plan; the organization is now known for its expertise in community recovery and partnership, and secured more than $150 million in recovery funding support for the city.

We employed a gender lens. A gender lens provides a richer understanding for shaping the character of investment in communities that must confront historically compounded and intersecting barriers. Funding solutions grounded in a gender lens creates a space for society to fully appreciate and address the realities of marginalized individuals through integrated strategies. For example, our relief funding for basic crisis intervention among public housing residents unearthed a persistent need for job training and employment among low-income women, and consequently funded a long-term recovery strategy addressing the economic instability that Sandy had further exaggerated. 

How Community Organizations Made the Difference

They were critical first responders’ and remain in place long after the crisis. Embedded within under-resourced communities, grassroots organizations were better equipped than larger institutions and government agencies to identify, understand, and engage resources, and immediately create innovative paths to support long-term recovery. Armed with local trust and deep community knowledge, they provided multi-faceted support, including crisis resources, preparedness training, and best practices for redeveloping under-resourced communities facing disaster. Local organizations also diversified and expanded the focus of recovery efforts.

Their work provoked new solutions. As relief needs waned and long-term challenges intensified, the community organizations we worked with employed diverse strategies to build on their expertise; they also experimented with new models and honed their skills to serve dynamic needs. Nimble but grounded, they leveraged community knowledge and applied grassroots approaches to design and implement recovery strategies. When they unearthed new or previously unidentified needs, they reshaped strategies to account for deeper understanding gained in the course of their work. A mobile health unit providing crisis health relief, for example, became a trusted conduit for addressing pre-existing health needs and connecting residents to previously non-existent medical homes. 

They bolstered community resilience. Strategies aligned to identify persistent needs, deepen community engagement, and develop local infrastructure demonstrated an ability to build sound resiliency. The continued relevance of disaster services often stretched thin the capacity of community organizations committed to supporting members in crisis, but they used resources to balance relief needs with a forward focus, as late-blooming challenges arose. This balance and local commitment paid large dividends in the community’s reciprocal engagement and network development. In one community, undocumented women living in unsafe housing became champions, testifying in city council for fair housing policy that would benefit women across New York City. 

They forged out-of-the-box local partnerships. Active investment in the development of community networks increased reach, and opened previously unimagined platforms for cross-cultural appreciation and community exchanges. This led to recovery strategies that reflected the values of diverse communities. Many new partnerships developed that would most likely not have emerged outside the context of disaster, with the unintended benefit of dismantling cultural stereotypes, stigma, and barriers between under-resourced communities. 

They activated women as leaders. Community-authored recovery strategies created opportunities for women within impacted communities to guide service provision and shape solutions. Women became leaders and advocates, influencing policy reform to increase access to much-needed resources for themselves, their families, and their communities. Women developed community-outreach, advocacy, public-speaking, peer-leadership, and crisis-intervention skills, and were recognized as leaders and knowledge-holders rather victims. 

These principles have reinforced how philanthropic partners can ensure that disasters do not permanently entrench low-income women and families in poverty by flexibly funding locally based, long-term strategies to recovery. Doing so will help shift the needle toward economic stability in under-resourced communities and beyond, both in the aftermath of extreme events and into the future. The character of recovery efforts and strategies will directly influence the quality of future community development. In turn, investments guided by the expertise of communities and that embrace the evolving, dynamic nature of local needs have the power to disrupt inequity and create cultural, political, and economic resiliency that can transform the systemic status quo.