In August 2005, the United States witnessed one of the most devastating and costly natural disasters in its history when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. First responders, volunteers, nonprofit service providers, businesses, and philanthropists rushed to the aid of the affected communities.

In Santa Barbara County, The Orfalea Fund asked the question, “If a disaster of that magnitude were to happen here, are we prepared?” A civil grand jury investigation and comprehensive needs assessment concluded that the answer was no. Although our community has tremendous vulnerability to natural disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes, the individuals and organizations responsible for responding to and recovering from those disasters had a long way to go toward working together in a systematic and coordinated manner.

To change this, the fund, the global consulting firm James Lee Witt Associates, and the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management developed the Aware & Prepare Initiative. Launched in 2008 with the support of a collaborative of local foundations, the public-private partnership committed to enhancing capacity of government agencies and nonprofit organizations to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. Grants were soon distributed to support resource acquisition, emergency and business continuity planning, emergency communication systems, and public education programs. Most important, mechanisms were put in place through which government agencies and nonprofit organizations can share information and collaborate on countywide projects.

Seven years later, the partnership has grown to include more than 45 organizations and community leaders. Various committees and subcommittees meet regularly to identify priorities, develop and implement programs aligned with those priorities, and assess their progress against designated benchmarks.

What is the secret to this partnership’s success and sustainability? It’s the understanding that strategic philanthropic funding can facilitate strong relationships and organizational partnerships that increase the effectiveness and efficiency of emergency response and recovery, along with lessons learned in hindsight from disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Philanthropy was the catalyst for facilitating this level of collaboration, highlighting emergency preparedness as a priority for our region, and providing the resources necessary to enhance organizational capabilities. But it is the passion of our emergency management professionals, community organizers, and the people who provide nonprofit services who work every day to ensure the safety of our residents that makes the initiative a positive example of how our communities can benefit from multisector engagement.