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Getting Flood Donations to the Right Place

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First came the torrential — and historic — inundation the night of Saturday, July 30, that dumped more than six inches of rain in just more than three hours to Downtown Ellicott City, including a period that accounted for more than 75% of the total in about 90 minutes.

The result was two deaths and to Main Street so damaged that it’s in the midst of an extensive, months-long renovation.

Thousands upon thousands of people experienced part of the flood or saw it on TV and knew they had to help.

And that’s where things can get complicated. So many people wanted to help that Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman had to request that the locals stay away from Main Street until the recovery effort could be organized.

The manpower and elbow grease was needed, but while such natural disasters often unite a strong community, they’re also a reminder that citizens need to think twice about where to direct their time and their financial resources, and to ensure that at least most of their donations get into the intended hands.

First Things First

On that note, Tom Coale, vice chair of Ellicott City Partnership (ECP) and a representative on the EC Strong Flood Relief Committee, reported good news about the amount of money that was raised in the wake of the flood.

Coale said the ECP’s effort “started with a goal of raising $500,000 by the end of August, and raised $650,000 in about three weeks,” via 3,500 contributions from banks, rotaries, civic organizations and citizens.

That’s great, but equally important is the 13-member ECP board deciding how the money will be divided and given to whom. “We’re consulting with other grantmaking organizations across the state and forming an application with EC Strong,” said Coale, noting that the ECP has not had to distribute grants before and that EC Strong will make recommendations concerning how to proceed.

“[The ECP is] unique, in that we’ll be able to give grants to individuals and businesses, whereas most of grantmaking organizations can only give to other nonprofits,” he said, adding that “an unlimited number of people can apply” for a grant, but their applications will need board approval before they receive any money.

Pointing out that there was “also significant flooding along Route 40 and in parts of Baltimore County,” Coale said the ECP fund will be directed toward Main Street Ellicott City, adding that, “ECP has been going to the fullest extent possible to instill trust in the community at large, manage it well and distribute it in a transparent, fair way for all involved.”

Charity Costs

ECP’s donors have the right approach about how to give, said Amy Coates Madsen, director, Standards for Excellent Program for Maryland Nonprofits, in Baltimore.

“The idea is to give to organizations that you can see in action,” said Coates Madsen, “and it’s always good to deal with one you know. Also, we advise folks to give to charitable nonprofits that are recognized by the IRS and are registered to solicit charitable contributions with the state.”

The public can learn about an organization’s financial state by asking for a copy of its annual report, which is a best practice, or by examining the entity’s tax forms, which are often on its web site or on GuideStar.

All told, Maryland Nonprofits lists 31,251 such organizations in Maryland, including 24,810 charitable nonprofits (the split in Howard County is 1,671/1,256; it’s 2,493/1,831 in Anne Arundel County) “and it’s almost impossible to estimate how many are involved in Ellicott City relief or in any other effort,” said Coates Madsen, as it is to decipher just how much of a donation goes to the intended recipient and how much might go to salaries, administrative costs, bulk mail, etc.

“When you see a percentage of how much money from a given organization goes to a relief effort, you can’t just look at that figure and know the whole story,” she said. “A variety of expenses usually go along with providing services.”

That said, it’s smart to be on the lookout for scammers after a natural disaster, said Jody Thomas, vice president of communications and marketing with the Better Business Bureau Greater Maryland.

“We haven’t received any local reports or caller inquiries about charity scams since the Ellicott City flood,” said Thomas, “but know that BBBs typically see charity and contractor fraud following large-scale disasters. We spotted a trend beginning with Hurricane Sandy (in 2012, which likely began earlier) concerning urls. Twists on hurricane names go crazy as soon as a storm becomes a blip on the weather map.”

On that note, Thomas checked the next storm up for the Atlantic (before press time), Hermine. “Hurricanehermine.com was reserved in 2002,” she said. “If it becomes a big storm, watch the url variations increase, along with the wind speed.”

New Funds

During times of trouble, it’s natural to think about organizations like the Community Foundation of Howard County (CFHoCo), which administers funding to a vast and varied roster of nonprofits. CFHoCo, surely enough, has a new fund that’s intended as a brace for future community tragedies.

“We set up the Howard County Community Relief Fund for circumstances such as the flood, but so far, it only contains $15,000,” said Beverly White-Seals, CFHoCo’s president and CEO. “We just finished setting it up, so organizations that work with us don’t have to go through the administrative setup twice” to respond when a problem arises.

Since the actual use of the new fund was triggered by the flood, the initial dispersements will go to Ellicott City residents and business owners via CFHoCo’s nonprofit partners,” she said, noting that Coale and others met with CFHoCo on Aug. 31 to discuss how ECP can take advantage of the existing infrastructure to distribute its wealth of donations.

Using the Community Relief Fund has another benefit that not all formal funds do.

“When nonprofits come to us, we have an expedited process to distribute the money, so we won’t be charging administrative fees,” White-Seals said. “[Recently], we sent notices to 500 county nonprofits to urge them to submit requests for aid, but we’re only accepting them from nonprofits who are engaged in short- or long-term relief efforts, like Grassroots, the Howard County Food Bank and Preservation Howard County.”

More Needed

White-Seals recalled the days after the January 2014 shootings at The Mall in Columbia, when the idea for the Community Relief Fund initially arose.

“At that time, we were thinking we’d engage corporate partners, and we’re looking to reach out shortly,” she said. “When tragedies occur, you want to be able to respond with resources quickly.”

However, such dire circumstances may not be at the forefront of the minds of many locals. That’s because many citizens who are not close to such a need may not understand it, White-Seals said.

“Howard County is not a place where people drive through a certain neighborhood and really see poverty, like they would in West Baltimore,” she said. “When I worked at the Rouse Company, I was on a tour that included a woman from Soweto [South Africa] who asked where she could see one of Columbia’s lower-income neighborhoods — and we pointed to one from the bus. And she said, ‘Behind the begonias?’”

The answer was yes. Literally.

“Right now, it’s more about the ECP and the United Way (representatives of which did not respond to requests for an interview for this article),” White-Seals said, “but we want to build our account so we’re ready with more money when the next disaster occurs. Just know that fundraising can often be more of a challenge when you serve such an affluent area.XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

United Way
Danielle Hogan 410-547-8000/443-986-1942 cell

Sandy Monck
Howard County Council

Jon Weinstein/Gary Smith 410-313-3110

Daskloff Consulting, Columbia
Debbie Daskaloff, 410-615-9606