The night Superstorm Sandy was pounding the coast of New Jersey and New York, I was glued to the news.
I doubt that I was alone, but the channels I was watching weren’t CNN or NBC. I was watching the very local websites in the communities that were being inundated, which were providing vital information to the people they serve.
These sites represented very different models and approaches. Some were sites run by local newspapers. Others were created by local news entrepreneurs, who were posting news updates on the storm even as their own homes were filling with water. One channel, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, was started by Justin Auciello on social media before Hurricane Irene and had grown into a bottom-up , citizen-informed social media news outlet.
I doubt that I would have been aware of the rich news ecosystem that was feeding information to residents at a time of disaster before my work with the New Media Journalism Initiative. Our work with a wide range of local news models, with a special focus on both intensely local startups and the power of collaboration, had shifted my perspective.
It is from examining the connections we make in our work that we see opportunities for new impact. And so it wasn’t long after the winds had stilled that we began conversations at The Patterson Foundation about how to leverage the connections in our work to create new realities in the areas devastated by the storm.
The connections were, in many ways, a very natural fit given two of TPF’s areas of focus: new media journalism and disaster response and relief.
As a journalist, I’ve covered 15 Florida hurricane seasons, and I know that reliable news and information is a vital piece both of immediate storm response and of long-term recovery. People need information they can count on to help them get back on their feet and to help them make decisions about the shape of the recovery, on both a personal level and as a community.
And I also knew that that, given the diminished resources in traditional journalism, communities can no longer assume that reliable news and information will always be there for their citizens. In the face of disaster, communities have to develop both new methods and new connections to ensure that they have the information they need to engage in recovery.
In its philanthropy work following disasters, TPF has focused on exploring ways to reduce the chaos that often accompanies a disaster and help communities make more informed decisions together. The emphasis in this work has been on helping existing organizations to work together to facilitate both greater cooperation and deep, substantive impact.
In both of these initiatives, we had developed enough experience to be patient. Rushing in with an immediate response often means rushing in with the wrong response. So we watched and we thought and we considered how we could partner to best be of service.
It didn’t take long for the opportunity to present itself.
On Nov. 15, the Community Foundation of New Jersey announced the creation of the New Jersey Recovery Fund, launched with a $1 million lead gift from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Other non-profits and foundations also were contributing to serve specific needs, including the Knight Foundation’s $250,000 gift to focus on community information needs. That gift was contingent on generating matching funds.
That was the launch of what has become known as the Inform and Engage Fund. It was a fund that would aim to create long-term impact by providing communities with that reliable information so necessary to successful public deliberation and decision-making. It was an idea born out of the desire for collaboration, to leverage the strengths and talents and money of funders to create something none of them could do on their own.
It was a chance to help a community touched by disaster to live its own new reality. And we knew we were in, with a contribution of both $100,000 in funds and our expertise in both effective disaster response and leveraging media as a community utility.
We’re almost six months into this journey, and an exciting new phase is about to open. The real work is about to begin, and we’ll share more about what that looks like in our next post.
Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.
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