In what certainly could have seem Rapture-induced (if that’s the way you like to believe), two of three of my family members lost their homes in the Joplin tornado on May 21.  The entire family, including out-of-town guests, were preparing for my cousin’s high school graduation.  The high school, which was badly damaged in the storm, was luckily not where the graduation was taking place.  The house where they all had gathered to celebrate was spared.  Everyone was safe.

Watching the scene from a TV in NYC, my stomach ached and my thoughts swirled.  For the class of graduates, how does this day change their lives?  For the community of Joplin, how do you even start to rebuild when so much is gone?  For my family, when you have nothing but your car, what comes next?  For all of the friends and family wanting to help, how?

I’m in the middle of an odd philanthropic-existential-crisis.  When disaster hits, philanthropy has an answer on how to help.  There are different takes on how to give, where to give, how much to give and when to give.  Usually, at the end of the day, the profession gives this general advice:

Do your homework, donate to a reputable organization (this being the Red Cross in many cases), and let the professionals do the work.

When people want to do more, this answer hardly suffices.  Yet we tell folks, as though we are certain, that this is the very best method and really, the only one.

When the tsunami in Japan happened, I wanted to do more than send money.  After living there for two years, I felt an internal connection that I hadn’t felt in other disasters.  Aside from some well intentioned emails, nothing transpired.  And I gave money.

With Joplin, that internal pull is intense.  My first reaction was to get on a plane and help.  That’s exactly what my field tells people not to do.   Then I started of thinking of all the home builders that I know (which is oddly an increasingly large number).  Yet, the sector provides me no guidance on if that’s a good idea.  My mind raced through thoughts of gift cards for hotels and stores, only to be stopped by the question of are the hotels and stores still there?

My aunt and cousins, in the midst of dealing with the new reality and while helping with the relief effort, have also been been providing guidance to us.  We are okay.  Here is our address.  Yes, there are still stores – nearby.  Yes, gift cards are best.  We are all living together in one house.   We are finding houses to rent.   Send us your prayers.

There is such power and relief in hearing directly from those affected.  It is this voice that philanthropy can’t quite seem to hear.  We’ve got our own answers, our own systems.  I’m certainly complicit in promoting them and the small range of options that they offer.  In disaster, we go to what is tried and true.  After disaster, we take a deep breathe and thank god that is over.  In between those times, we aren’t really coming up with better advice.  Not simply inventing new tools or new messaging for what currently exists, but really examining the whole system and asking, is there something we’ve been missing?

My little internal philanthro-crisis is nothing compared to what is happening in Joplin.  The proximity to my life has made me question the advice that the sector doles out.  When a disaster strikes and people feel moved to respond, telling them to “donate and we’ll take care of it” is condescending and demoralizing.  It’s no wonder that folks are fatigued with the top-down philanthropy system.

As social tools and real-time communication allow us to bring proximity to a disaster closer to our lives, there is no way that we will remain content with simply donating and watching events unfold on TV.  Communities, families, and friends will want to organize themselves to help where they can.   As a sector, there is room for us to think more deeply about how we can encourage & enable them to do so.

Photo of Joplin High School in upper left taken by my cousin Robert M.  Collection of photos found here.

(Originally posted at Ordering Cupcakes.)

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