Nonprofit Response to Concurrent and Consecutive Disaster Events in Puerto Rico
Publication Date: 2021
Planning for post-disaster recovery is often assumed to be a matter of governmental action based on the assumption that governments are better positioned to provide recovery aid and act in the interest of the public good. However, research on recovery planning has shown that vertical and generally inflexible governmental structures are not always capable of meeting dynamic recovery needs. For catastrophic events, they may also lack adequate capacity to do so single-handedly.
Nonprofits have recently stepped into this breach and become prominent stakeholders in community-level disaster recovery. With their more horizontal and adaptive structures, nonprofits are better able to facilitate dynamic information flows, fill in critical service delivery gaps left by governmental structures, and mediate the connection between government and residents in recovery planning efforts. Despite their significance to recovery, however, we still lack evidence-based research on how nonprofits navigate multiple simultaneous (i.e., concurrent) or consecutive (i.e., one after the other) disaster events, which may have a compounded effect on their capacity to perform recovery functions or interact with other stakeholders such as governmental agencies and residents.
Research Questions and Design
This research addresses this gap by examining the activities and experiences of nonprofits in Puerto Rico, which has recently been impacted by multiple significant disasters, including the 2017 Hurricane Maria, the 2020 southwest Puerto Rico earthquake sequence, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We asked how consecutive and concurrent disasters affected nonprofits (e.g., their ability to serve target population, respond effectively, and prioritize)? Data collection was done through a combination of telephone and online surveys of nonprofits operating in Puerto Rico (n = 96, response rate = 41%), key informant interviews with nonprofit representatives (n = 18), and secondary data collection of Form 990 tax return information.
Our research found that nonprofits play an essential role in implementing health-oriented interventions and addressing the social determinants of health in their communities. This study highlighted the impact of compound and consecutive disasters on nonprofit agencies and their health-oriented initiatives. For example, during Hurricane Maria, the 2020 earthquake sequence, and COVID-19, organizations provided many services related to health—from the provision of emergency aid to ensuring survivors' physical and mental health.
We found that nonprofits often relied on extending their missions to justify why changing priorities due to a new disaster made sense. We also found that organizations were themselves impacted—at times, their office space was compromised, employees and volunteers were personally affected, and they often had less funding available to respond to emerging needs. At the same time, nonprofits reported that these consecutive and concurrent disasters helped them create systems for rapid decision-making, develop networks with other organizations, and develop emergency plans. In addition, many were able to extend their services and their target populations in a way that positively impacted the community, informing future operations. Overall, nonprofits reported becoming more resilient as they prepared for, responded to, and recovered from multiple disaster events.
The findings from this study highlight ways in which public health and disaster professionals can aid nonprofits in their capacity-building efforts. These include: (a) providing technical assistance to help nonprofits prepare disaster operations plans or write state and federal grants; (b) providing information on different types and sources of grant funding available to nonprofits; and (c) helping to develop networks among nonprofits, as well as between nonprofits and governmental agencies through recovery planning workshops. Additionally, by targeting these efforts in areas with fewer nonprofits—such as rural communities—public health planners and policymakers can also address issues of inequitable recovery.
Introduction and Literature Review
Disaster recovery research has historically been associated with governmental action as it is often assumed that governments are better positioned to provide aid in the interests of the public (Bisri, 20131; Carlson et al., 20172; Pathak & Ahmad, 20183; Phillips, 20154). Research has shown that hierarchical and rigid governmental structures are often not capable of meeting recovery needs and may lack the capacity to adapt to catastrophic events (Olshansky et al., 20125). For catastrophic events, they may also lack adequate capacity to do so single-handedly. As a result, nonprofits, with their more flexible organizational structures have risen to become prominent actors in local disaster recovery, especially in areas of the world prone to multiple hazards such as hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes, flooding, and now the COVID-19 pandemic (Chen et al., 20196; Chikoto-Schultz et al., 20197; Felsenstein et al., 20208; Izumi & Shaw, 20129; Ganapati, 200910; Ganapati, 201211).
For low-income and socioeconomically vulnerable populations, nonprofits often fill a gap between what they need and what government assistance can offer them to improve overall health and well-being (Hunter, 201712; Institute of Medicine, 201513). Nonprofits often serve populations that experience food, medical, educational, and housing insecurities—due to lifetime disadvantages in accumulating educational attainment, employment, income, and wealth—and, as a result, also have disparities in health (Davis et al., 200514). All the above services are critical social determinants of health that the civic sector must deliver in partnership with others, including the health sector, and local, state, and federal governments (Erickson & Andrews, 201115). In the recovery scenario, nonprofits also provide emergency assistance and services to individuals and communities, build infrastructure, empower individuals to get involved in recovery and advocate for services (Lewis, 200916; Streeten, 199717). Nongovernmental organizations are associated with a range of disaster response and recovery activities including (1) promoting environmental protection, (2) providing of housing and shelter and, (3) training in the areas of microfinance, emergency and economic development (Dreier & Hulchanski, 199318; Benson et al., 200119; Kapucu, 200620; Chikoto-Schultz et al., 2019). Nonprofit organizations also lead local community rebuilding efforts that relate to healthcare and community development sectors—they train staff, partners, and others to build their capacity, engage in local advocacy, and impact policy decision-making (Benson et al., 2001; Erickson & Andrews, 2011; Institute of Medicine, 2015).
Not all nonprofits are equally capable of performing these recovery functions, however. In catastrophic events, locally based nonprofits may be disaster-affected themselves, having received damage to their own building, utilities, or staff members’ homes, or reduced donations due to broader economic impacts on the surrounding community (García & Chandrasekhar, 202021). A nonprofit’s capacity to perform recovery functions in such conditions depends on a range of factors related to organizational profile, ability to raise funds, and networking with other organizations. For example, research shows that organizations with larger assets; those who actively participate in networking, and those who participate in local recovery planning are more effective in their post-disaster recovery operations (García & Chandrasekhar, 202022; Chandrasekhar et al., 2021; Creech & Willard, 200123; LeRoux & Feeney, 201424; Liebler & Ferri, 200425; Acosta et al., 201826).
Networking, particularly, is also shown to promote better mental health and well-being of nonprofit staff—an important challenge to its recovery operations. The presence of robust social networks, social support, and social capital broadly has been shown to alleviate anxiety and stress in the post-disaster context and to help disaster workers manage and resolve stressors under various contexts and circumstances (Neria et al., 200827; Bryant et al., 201728). All this implies that for nonprofits to support community recovery, they must either have the capacity to do so or build this capacity through organizational improvements (McDonnell et al., 201929; Olshansky et al., 2012). We continue to lack evidence-based research on how concurrent and consecutive disasters—which can have a compound effect in economic, social, and health disruptions—affect the service delivery of nonprofit organizations. We especially lack information on how nonprofits navigate multiple simultaneous (i.e., concurrent) or consecutive (i.e., one after the other) disaster events, which may have a compounded effect on their capacity to perform recovery functions or interact with other stakeholders such as governmental agencies and residents. Previous research in Puerto Rico shows that demands on nonprofits increased after Hurricanes Irma and Maria even as the organizations struggled to recover themselves (García, 2020). There is a critical need to examine the impact of multiple disasters on nonprofit capacity and what interventions can support their work—which is to deliver hyperlocal and culturally competent assistance that improves the health and quality of life of low-income and vulnerable populations (Saadian et al., 202030). This study furthers this line of inquiry by examining the challenges and opportunities posed to the work of nonprofit organizations in the context of concurrent disasters. As we detail in later sections, the findings of this study not only inform capacity-building actions of nonprofits themselves, but also actions of disaster and public health officials that can support a nonprofit’s capacity-building efforts.
As described in the literature review, nonprofit partners are essential in times of disasters, we continue to lack critical insights into the actions of nonprofit organizations during the post-disaster response and recovery process. Specifically, there is limited research on several questions:
- How do the challenges brought about by (or made worse by) the prior extreme weather and geohazard events or the recovery process compound the effect of a public health disaster (or vice versa) on nonprofits?
- How do nonprofits resolve competing priorities when extreme weather and/or geohazard events or the recovery process occur simultaneously with a public health disaster?
- How does nonprofits’ public health disaster experience help their abilities to serve their target populations as they prepare for, respond to, and recover from other hazard events (or vice versa)?
The first question highlights the compound effects of interacting disaster events on nonprofits in Puerto Rico. While answering the second question, we specifically look at the adaptive response of nonprofits, namely how they have prioritized their mission and goals (and, therefore, their involvement in different disasters), programs/activities, target audience, and staffing when faced with the 2017 Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the 2020 southwest Puerto Rico earthquake sequence, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The third question helps us understand how nonprofits in Puerto Rico can capitalize on their COVID-19 experience for extreme weather and geohazard events (or vice versa). It also provides insights on nonprofit capacities, strategies (e.g., networking, resource sharing) or staff skills that may be transferable from one disaster type to another.
A rising number of nonprofit organizations are building partnerships with the government in recovery efforts and disaster risk management programs (Luna, 201331). In Puerto Rico, the two main plans put together by the Governor’s office (RAND Corporation, 201832) and Vivienda, the local Housing Authority (Puerto Rico Housing Authority, 202033), detail the nonprofit sector’s role in post-disaster recovery. They also mention that much of the estimated funding that will come to the island, $94 billion, could be managed by nonprofits. Further details on nonprofit involvement in recovery from Hurricane Maria can be found in García & Chandrasekhar (2020) and Chandrasekhar et al, 2021).
However, most nonprofit organizations on the island face capacity-related challenges, including heavy reliance on membership dues as the primary source of funding, having a small staff, relying on volunteer work, and having staff or volunteers with insufficient skills for the scale and nature of the work needed (García, 2020; Streeten, 1997). While some of these challenges (e.g., funding) are like challenges faced by nonprofits in other contexts (García, 2020), other challenges may be unique to the Puerto Rican context. Previous research (García, 2020), for instance, has demonstrated that nonprofit staff in Puerto Rico developed post-traumatic stress disorder after the consecutive disasters of Hurricanes Irma and Maria; and that such challenges undermined nonprofit service provision due to reduction of staff hours or losing staff altogether.
Data Collection Methods
The study’s data collection methods include a survey of nonprofits in Puerto Rico, key informant interviews with nonprofit representatives, and a review of secondary sources.
We administered the survey in Spanish both via telephone and online. A total of 96 nonprofit organizations participated in our survey. Of these, 78 were phone surveys and 18 were online surveys. For sampling purposes, we developed a master list of 1,422 nonprofit organizations registered in Puerto Rico through: (1) a 2005-2017 database of registered nonprofits in Puerto Rico compiled by the Nonprofit Evaluation & Resource Center Inc.; (2) an Internal Revenue Service. Form 990 dataset compiled by the National Center of Charitable Statistics; (3) a list of organizations that have attended the Center for Puerto Rican Studies conferences; and; (4) an internet search for nonprofit organizations and their contact information (i.e., phone numbers, email addresses, and addresses). Of these 1,422 nonprofit organizations, we contacted the 911 organizations that had a telephone phone number listed for the survey. Métrika, a Puerto Rico-based survey company, conducted the phone-based survey from February 18 to June 16, 2021. The company contacted the working nonprofit numbers three times. The phone survey was more challenging than expected, in part due to high-level nonprofit employees working at home due to COVID-19, office assistants refusing to provide cellphone numbers of potential survey respondents, as well as disconnected or wrong numbers.
Métrika reported that, of the 911 organizations that had a phone number listed they could call, a total of 564 were disconnected; and 110 of those who answered the phone said that it was the wrong number. There were a total of 237 possible organizations that could have answered the survey using this method. Table 1 shows the results of Métrika’s phone contacts. Upon conclusion of the phone survey, we contacted the nonprofits via email, inviting them to take the survey online via Qualtrics, an online survey platform. The contacted nonprofits were those that Métrika was not able to establish a contact with as part of the phone survey or that had email addresses but not a phone number listed. We received a total of 96 responses using the telephone and online survey method, resulting in a response rate of 41% (96/237).
We asked the respondents of the survey and online survey two screening questions prior to implementing the survey. Due to the focus of the study, the first screening question confirmed that the organization has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and at least one other disaster (e.g., the earthquakes or Hurricane Maria). The second screening question ensured that the respondent is an executive-level employee of the organization who is knowledgeable about its operations. If not, the respondent was asked to connect the research team with another employee in the same organization.
The survey instrument itself covered a number of topics, including: (1) organizational profile, including location, registration status, and institutional structure (e.g. presence of a board); (2) the impact of Hurricane Maria, the earthquakes, and COVID-19 on nonprofits, including on their funding, staff, office space, and service delivery; (3) the impact of concurrent and consecutive disasters on nonprofits (e.g., on mission and vision, funding, and managing staff and volunteers); (4) perceived organizational performance; (5) the impact of COVID-19 on organizational disaster preparedness in the short and long term; and, (6) nonprofits’ post-disaster networking with other stakeholders, including nonprofit organizations that conduct work within Puerto Rico, in mainland United States, and internationally, as well as local, state, and federal agencies. The instrument concluded by asking respondents if they would be willing to participate in an in-depth interview for the study or recommend others from the same organization for an interview.
Key Informant Interviews
We conducted in-depth interviews with two groups of nonprofit representatives: (1) executive-level employees of the organization who were in charge of decision-making processes (e.g., Executive Director, Vice-President, Chief Operations Officer); and (2) frontline workers who were knowledgeable about the ground operations. To date, we have interviewed 18 nonprofit representatives. The interviewees had either taken the survey or were recommended by survey respondents. Our interviews started in March 2021 and are still ongoing. Our goal is to complete a total of 30–40 interviews, depending on theoretical saturation.
The interviews have a semi-structured format with open-ended questions. They are conducted in Spanish either via face-to-face, Zoom or the phone, depending on the respondent’s preference. The interview instrument covers the following topics: the organizational profile (e.g., mission) and involvement in different disasters; the impact of the concurrent COVID-19 pandemic and earthquake sequence on the organization and its operations; how the impact from the 2017 hurricanes has affected their response to the ongoing earthquake sequence and pandemic; what measures nonprofits have adopted in response to concurrent and consecutive disasters; and how nonprofit organizations could be made more resilient in the face of multiple disasters. The instrument also includes a demographics section for the individual respondent (e.g., age, gender, education, rank). The interviews are audio recorded.
Review of Secondary Sources
We are in the process of supplementing the survey data with nonprofit data from Form 990 returns, in part to address the recall bias. Form 990 data include: tax exempt status (e.g., 501(c)(3), 501(c)), form of organization (e.g., corporation, trust, association), number of voting members, total number of individuals employed, total number of volunteers, total revenue, grants, total expenses, total assets, total liabilities. Such data is available from 1998 to 2019 through GuideStar (https://www.guidestar.org/) and is available to the researchers free of charge through the University of Utah.
The study’s unit of analysis is the nonprofit organizations. For this report, we analyzed the survey data in the statistical software program Stata using descriptive statistics (e.g., mean, median, standard deviation). After completing the online portion of our survey and merging survey data with Form 990 data from GuideStar, we will recalculate the descriptive statistics in addition to using inferential statistics. We transcribed the interview data verbatim in Spanish. For this, we first used the automatic transcription function in Sonix (https://sonix.ai/). We then edited the transcript manually for accuracy. We translated the quotes used in this report from Spanish to English. Once we conclude our planned interviews, we will export all our interview data to Dedoose, an online qualitative analysis software. We are currently in the precoding stage of our interview data analysis. This stage includes identifying “codable moments,” significant passages that capture the attention of researchers (Boyatzis, 199834) and that directly relate to our stated research questions. Next, we will conduct first and second cycle coding (Saldaña 201335): the former includes initial coding of data while the latter goes beyond coding data to reorganize, synthesize, and capture the relationships between different concepts and building theories.
Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations
Team members García, Rivera Miranda, Fagundo-Ojeda, and Velazquez-Diaz were responsible for interacting directly with interview participants. Being Puerto Rican themselves, they understood first-hand how Hurricanes Maria and Irma had affected the island communities. Chandrasekhar and Ganapati are also minority researchers that have considerable experience working with marginalized populations affected by disasters in the United States and abroad. In addition, García and Chandrasekhar have previously conducted research on nonprofits in post-hurricane Puerto Rico and have conducted workshop courses on the island. Ganapati is a member of the Social Science and Behavioral IRB at Florida International University and has been conducting research in Latin America and the Caribbean region since 2010. She is currently part of a 17-country study funded by the National Science Foundation to understand public perception of disaster risk reduction initiatives in the region.
The team took several of the CONVERGE Training Modules as recommended by the Natural Hazards Center. All the principal investigators will be equally involved in data reporting and reciprocity activities. Besides this report, we also plan to share the results of this study with our study participants and local community stakeholders as detailed in the Dissemination of Results section of this report.
The following sections describe our survey and interview findings related to our three central research questions, namely, how nonprofits have been affected by these concurrent and consecutive disasters; how they resolve competing priorities in the face of these events, i.e., their capacity for adaptive response; and whether their past and current experiences have resulted in greater awareness and institutional learning regarding disaster preparedness.
Survey respondents were found to be representative of Puerto Rican nonprofits in terms of sectors of service. There are 25 National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) sector nonprofits present on the island, and our survey was representative in 17 of those, with slight overrepresentation in three, and underrepresentation in five (see Table 2). Survey respondents indicated that they had an average of 43 full-time employees, 16 part-time employees and 63 volunteers, indicating that most nonprofit organizations were medium-sized.
Interview respondents were mostly in executive positions within the organization, although about 20% also worked in the field as a regular part of their job. The median age range of interviewees was 45–54 years, about 77% were female and 57% had worked for the agency for over 10 years. All interviewees were of mixed race and Hispanic. A total of 10 out of the 17 nonprofits carried health-sector NTEE classification (see Table 3).
Impacts of Concurrent Disasters on Nonprofit Organizations
The majority of our survey respondents reported having provided services during Hurricane Maria (99%), the 2020 earthquakes (64%), and COVID-19 (93%). Given that only 14% of our survey sample were officially classified as health sector organizations per NTEE, this implies that more nonprofits are involved in responding to public health disasters than just health sector organizations.
Initial hints of adverse disaster impact on nonprofits emerged during our survey data collection. The project team had conducted a similar telephone survey of the same nonprofits in 2018 and garnered double the number of responses. This indicated that nonprofit capacity, including capacity to participate in research, may have been greatly affected by the concurrent disaster events in Puerto Rico. Our current survey results support this finding. In terms of impact on the organization, most survey respondents reported high impacts from the 2017 Hurricanes and COVID-19 (x̄ = 8.12 and 8.23 respectively, on a scale of 1–10) and moderate impact from the 2020 earthquakes (x̄ = 5.36) which could be attributed to the fact that the latter were concentrated in the southwestern region only. In terms of challenges posed to the organization (Table 4), the 2017 hurricanes affected the respondents more, with mean results ranging from 5.60 (office space) to 7.93 (funding) with COVID-19 coming a closer second with mean results ranging from 5.50 (access to information) to 7.79 (service delivery). Earthquakes appeared to pose the least significant challenges with mean results ranging from 3.69 (office space) to 5.54 (bureaucratic hurdles).
While nonprofit organizations reported experiencing different challenges depending on the disaster event, red-tape and funding emerged as consistent challenges across all disaster events. Respondents identified funding, service delivery and bureaucratic hurdles as top concerns post-hurricane (x̄ = 7.93, 7.66 and 7.24, respectively); bureaucratic hurdles, funding, and access to government assistance as top concerns post-earthquake (x̄ = 5.54, 5.43 and 5.07, respectively); and service delivery (x̄ = 7.49, 7.07 and 7.06, respectively), bureaucratic hurdles, and staff and volunteers as top concerns during COVID-19.
In terms of impacts due concurrent disasters, respondents generally agreed that facing multiple events had had a significant negative impact on the organization (avg. level of agreement being 7.87 on a scale of 1–10), their employees and volunteers (8.12), and service provision (7.96). In terms of effects of one disaster event affecting service provision in subsequent events, respondents somewhat agreed that challenges caused by Hurricane Maria affected services after COVID-19 (x̄ = 5.811) and after earthquakes (x̄ = 5.875), but somewhat disagreed that the effects of the earthquakes had impacted the services provided after COVID-19 (x̄ = 4.792). This latter result is likely also tempered by the geographically focused nature of the 2020 southwestern earthquakes.
Our interview findings support many of the survey results on organizational challenges but also shed light on how specific challenges—such as funding, staff retention, and mental health—have compounded over time and across different disaster events. The funding issue is well-illustrated in this excerpt from an interview with a nonprofit worker in the health sector:
Let’s talk about resources! In terms of resources, we are behind, and we are not moving forward. We do not have the resources now (during the pandemic) to continue working. But we have not stopped working. On many occasions, money is not needed to work, but on many occasions, it is needed. Because if we have to serve a person and their health plan does not cover a drug, we need to buy the drug. We have a vehicle, and you have to fill it with gasoline. Maintaining the vehicle is expensive, tires, or whatever the vehicle needs. Well, we have not progressed. We have fallen behind in funds to maintain the organization. But we haven’t stopped working.
Mental health of staff was of particular concern for many of the organization, with one study participant saying, “The earthquake thing was something ... you see people’s anxiety was through the roof. The people in the clinic were very stressed because at any moment there could be aftershocks, even when we were dealing with patients and doing procedures.”
Others were equally concerned about their ability to retain staff and recruit volunteers, although different nonprofits had different perspectives on the root issue. One executive of an education-sector nonprofit related the issue to the prolonged loss of utilities after the 2017 hurricanes which was then compounded by COVID-19, saying:
The most difficult thing was losing employees. A lot of our employees left to the United States after Maria because they could not deal with their living situation, not having water and electricity. Finding employees during that time was impossible since no one could have access to the internet or communicate. Not being able to promote a position, conduct interviews, and use the methods that you usually use to make the process more agile. Then, during COVID, we could not pay our teachers at all, because we were not working.
Other nonprofits related the differential impact of each disaster to its specific characteristics. For instance, a representative of a nonprofit in the community development sector described how the hurricanes and COVID-19 had had a very different impact on volunteerism:
After the hurricane a lot of people volunteered to work at our organization because a lot of them wanted to help. When COVID came, a lot of them either found jobs working for the State or just didn’t want to be exposed to the virus.
Still others viewed staff retention as a matter of decades-long outmigration exacerbated by each subsequent disaster. As one nonprofit representative working in the childcare sector said, maintaining employees has been “the greatest impact, of course…there has been staff that had emigrated outside of Puerto Rico for many years.”
Adaptive Response in the Face of Concurrent Disasters
Our study aims to understand the capacity of nonprofits to adaptively respond to competing priorities in the face of multiple concurrent disasters, each of which may create new service conditions requiring a shift in mission, services provided, and target service populations. Overall, our results paint a picture of nonprofits being quite capable of adaptive response to emerging conditions. Our survey results show that nonprofits experienced only moderate changes in their mission and vision, populations served, and services provided after all three disasters (see Table 5). Service provisions appeared to have the highest amount of change with a mean of 6.64 for COVID-19, 6.53 for Hurricane Maria, and 5.16 for the earthquakes.
These moderate levels of change on mission and services, especially during COVID-19, sits in strange juxtaposition with the fact that most of our surveyed nonprofits worked in non-health sectors (86%). At least part of this unexpected finding could be explained by examining how nonprofits rated their own ability to respond to multiple and different disasters. Most nonprofits in our survey strongly agreed that their agency was able to respond to unexpected events (x̄ = 8.021, rated on a scale of 1–10); that their agency was able to expand their unusual responsibilities during a disaster (x̄ = 8.177); and that people within their agency had a clear idea of their role within disaster situations (x̄ = 8.229). Most nonprofits also felt their organizations had done a good job responding to these critical disaster events: the average rating of performance (rated on a scale of 1–10) was 8.34 after the 2017 hurricanes; 8.75 after the 2020 earthquakes; and 9.00 after COVID-19. These high ratings combined with the low impact rating suggest that nonprofits were able to respond with relative ease to new and different disaster response needs.
Our interviews add to this picture of adaptive response in the face of concurrent disasters. Speaking to impact specifically, one nonprofit worker noted that because the pandemic affected the whole world, it was harder to get resources for Puerto Rico than it was when Hurricane Maria hit or the earthquakes, which were even more localized. Another described the inevitability of change in the face of such a resource crunch, saying:
The financial impact of these disasters has made us rethink our mission and our role in our communities. Because there is less money available to us now (during the pandemic), we have had to choose which aspects of response and recovery are more important for the communities within our organization’s capabilities. We certainly have to close certain programs and think more about who in our community needs more help.
For some however, the changes they experienced were not changes of mission per se, which they broadly conceived as helping local communities, but of specific services provided. This distinction between mission and services allowed them to justify their expansion of services without necessarily compromising their core missions. As one nonprofit worker said when asked about whether their mission changed in response to each new disaster: “No, our mission hasn’t changed. We continue with our mission of improving the lives of people, but we have made some changes in the services we provide now.”
This sentiment was echoed by other organizations that also conceptualized their mission broadly as helping the community. For example, an organization that works in the mental health advocacy sector described their non-health response efforts after Hurricane Maria as:
When we went to the homes to take care of the health of the patients, we also identified people to bring them [aid] supplies. After the hurricane, many supplies began to arrive. We also offered large activities to help families that needed [help] even if they did not receive our services.
The same organization, recognizing the connection between mental health and overall health, also eventually went on to provide other types of health services, saying:
We also addressed the accumulation of water and debris. We were handing out repellent for the mosquitos and educating them…there was so much debris from the hurricane…Until people could clean the debris, the mosquito population grew very fast.
Not all organizations were purely motivated by the need to serve emerging community needs, however. Some nonprofits also reported making changes to their missions and services to qualify as service providers for specific disaster aid programs, which highlights the ways in which broader policy environments also drive the work of nonprofits during recovery.
Organizational Learning for Future Disaster Response
Experiences with dealing with multiple and concurrent disasters had a range of effects on the future disaster operations of the nonprofits we studied. Having experienced loss of utilities during both the hurricanes and the earthquakes, some nonprofits responded by switching to alternative means of energy supply such as solar and wind energy and going “off the grid.” Others, having seen disaster response plans being developed at the municipal level, were inspired to create their own disaster operations plans. Others said their experiences had led to changes in their staff hiring process. One participant described how their organization was now, “…[looking] for people who have experienced disasters,” saying, “[it is] important for us that our staff knows how to respond to any eventuality.”
Organizational learning also extended to matters of organizational management, information-seeking, and network-building. One nonprofit worker described having had to “restructure the organization” after Hurricane Maria by:
…[developing] a more horizontal decision structure to meet the community’s needs. I think that by doing that, we were also able to be more agile when making decisions. We started doing focus groups and engagement exercises between the staff to get their feedback and understand how, as an organization, we can improve.
Others had realized through their multiple disaster experiences that access to information was critical to the continuation of their post-disaster operations. One nonprofit worker, while not mentioning their exact sources of information, said that for the next time “even if information is not provided to us, we can now know where to access it.” Many participants mentioned networking as an essential means to access information and build both organizational and community capacity. One nonprofit worker described the value of networking:
Education has been crucial when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. We have teamed up with doctors, nurses, and health professionals from across the island to educate our communities on caring for themselves and their loved ones. We could do this because since the hurricanes and earthquakes, people feel more committed to their communities and people from these communities listen. These connections between different people have been crucial to providing education.
This supports findings from an earlier study that showed that nonprofits on the island depended significantly on each other and social media for news and information during recovery after the 2017 hurricanes (García & Chandrasekhar, 2020).
Networking was also essential to continued service provision when donor contributions were reduced owing to the economic impact of concurrent disasters on the surrounding communities. “We cannot refuse or deny help to anyone who deserves it,” said one nonprofit worker, then going on to explain that “[if] we do not have the resources, we look for resources from others. We look to other organizations to provide resources that we cannot provide.” At least one nonprofit worker also indicated that the experience had encouraged them to seek connections in new places, such as other Caribbean nations, which indicates the possibility of having new sources of aid and support for future disasters.
The survey results generally support this picture of organizational level learning due to past disaster experience. Our survey respondents strongly agreed that previous disaster experiences had helped their organization prepare for COVID-19 (x̄ = 8.29, rated on a scale of 1–10). The results were even stronger for the application of this previous disaster experience to managing short-term challenges presented by COVID-19 (x̄ = 8.32) and long-term recovery from it (x̄ = 9.03).
In terms of applying lessons from the pandemic to future disasters, here too there was evidence of organizational learning. Our survey respondents strongly agreed that their experiences with COVID-19 would be helpful in preparing for hurricanes and earthquakes in the future (x̄ = 9.021), to addressing short-term challenges emerging from these events (x̄ = 8.865), and to recover from them in the long-term (x̄ = 8.594). Finally, our survey asked organizations what aspects of their organizational lessons learned from COVID-19 would be most useful in the future. Top-rated lessons included: services offered (88%), employee and volunteer management (83%), and resource sharing (83%). Although still relatively high, lower-end responses included: identifying populations to serve (77%), grant writing (74%), and advocacy efforts (74%).
Discussion of Findings
Our study paints a picture of nonprofits as being both resilient and vulnerable agents of response and recovery, especially in the context of concurrent disasters. Nonprofits in Puerto Rico have consistently provided services to local communities regardless of the nature of the disaster, its specific response needs, their own specific missions, or indeed, the disaster impact to their own organization. This ability to shift focus, or pivot, to meet new emerging needs in the community appears to be helped partly by nonprofits’ broader-than-expected conceptualization of their own missions, and partly by the organization’s perception of its own ability to adjust to new conditions.
Yet, nonprofits are not invulnerable to the effects of concurrent and consecutive disasters. Our study shows negative impacts on their ability to retain and manage staff, recruit volunteers, and to raise funds to continue response and recovery operations. These issues were further complicated by public health concerns about operating during COVID-19 (such as social distancing and masking), by the general downturn in the economy which has limited charitable giving at the grassroots, by bureaucratic hurdles specific to Puerto Rico’s governance system, and, to some extent, by long-term development trends within the island.
Learning from their past experiences and applying these lessons to future actions provides one way for nonprofits to build their resilience capacity. Organizations reported having applied lessons learned from each disaster to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the next disaster. These lessons were more impactful in the areas of service provision and staff management than grant-writing and ways to identify populations to serve. Their past experiences had demonstrated the need for “horizontal” decision-making, which involves shortening feedback loops between on-ground fieldworkers and decision makers at the executive level, in the face of quick moving disasters. They had also realized the importance of developing disaster operations plans, including plans to upgrade infrastructure in the face of potential and extended power loss. Lastly, nonprofits in our study showed considerable interest in networking with other organizations, both locally and abroad, to increase access to aid and to information during recovery. The implications of these findings to recovery governance and specifically public health practice are described next.
Our study reaffirms that nonprofits are, and will continue to be, critical agents of post-disaster response and recovery at the community scale. As we show here, their role is even greater in the context of concurrent disasters that could potentially overwhelm a local government’s ability to respond to the community’s disaster needs. Nonprofits can adapt their operations to meet differing needs of different disasters, regardless of the nature of their central mission. However, as we also show here, this comes at a cost.
Nonprofits are likely to face staff retention and mental health issues, can struggle to maintain consistent funding, and are sometimes weighed down by local bureaucratic procedures that hinder their adaptive response capacity. Organizational learning in terms of better planning for post-disaster operations, fostering more agile organizational decision-making, networking, and grant-seeking offer potential ways for nonprofits to improve their capacity to provide response and recovery services in the aftermath of a disaster.
While relevant to operations of nonprofits, these insights also offer potential ways for local disaster planners and policymakers to help nonprofits in their capacity-building efforts. These could be done, for example, by providing technical assistance to help nonprofits prepare disaster operations plans or write state and federal grants; by providing information of different types and sources of grant funding available to nonprofits; and by helping to develop networks among nonprofits as well as between nonprofits and governmental agencies through recovery planning workshops.
Implications for Public Health Practice
This study informs public health practice at two scales. At the organization level, it points to the need for nonprofits to have disaster operations plans in place, to address staff mental health issues by providing counseling or other support, and to foster agility in internal decision-making by increasing frequency of contact between fieldworkers and executives. The study also points to the value of networking and learning from past experiences for the organization. Nonprofits may wish to build in time for organizational reflection and strategic planning within their recovery work, and certainly before the next disaster strikes.
At the scale of public health planning and policy, this study shows that after public health disasters more nonprofits are involved in serving than just “health” sector organizations, and not engaging with them constitutes a lost opportunity for public health practice. More efforts should be made to reach out to all nonprofits operating in affected areas and to build partnerships where possible. Second, given how important nonprofit capacity is to their ability to operate, public health planners and policymakers should consider offering training (both pre- and post-disaster) to these organizations to create disaster operations plans, to understand the landscape of governmental grant-funding, and to assist with the intricacies of grant-writing, grant administration, and grant reporting. By targeting these efforts in areas with generally fewer nonprofits, such as rural communities, public health planners and policymakers could also address the issue of inequitable recovery in these communities.
Dissemination of Findings
We will share the results of the study with all participating nonprofits via email. We will also present the results at multiple nonprofit management conferences and share them with major nonprofits both on the island and in the diaspora, including NeighborWorks, Enterprise, Hispanic Federation, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and Oxfam, among others. The team will invite all participant organizations to these presentations to make sure they can hear the findings. The team will also video record presentations where possible and post them on Facebook and YouTube for general viewing.
We will host a three webinars on the Planners for Puerto Rico network, each focusing on different results from the study. The first one was already hosted on August 5, 2021 (https://youtu.be/n1lmOMK0vhc). This is a network of over 30 individuals and more than 150 listserv subscribers involved in recovery planning both on and off the island facilitated by principal investigator García. The network currently conducts a webinar every first Thursday of the month on different topics associated with mitigation or disaster funding opportunities, the recent pandemic, and the impact of concurrent and consecutive disasters. The webinar events will be between August and October 2021. In addition to the listserv subscribers, the webinars will be advertised through the IdeaComún initiative of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (which has about 500 subscribers and 100 members) and Enterprise (800+ members and thousands of subscribers). The datasets produced through this study will also be shared with DesignSafe, a web-based research platform of the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure Network for use by other researchers based within.
The results of this study are limited in a few key aspects. First, our low response rate to our telephone survey, possibly owing to work-from-home policies, affects the overall generalizability of our survey results. We are continuing our online survey efforts to address this issue. Second, the underrepresentation of health sector organizations in our survey limits our ability to draw comparisons between health and non-health sector organizations—a key aspect of this study when it was conceptualized. We hope to also address this issue through the new online survey, but also by increasing the number of interviews within the health sector organizations. Third, we have not yet compiled organizational profile information for the survey respondents using Form 990 data, which limits our ability to compare survey responses based on characteristics such as organizational size. We are currently in the process of adding this data to our dataset. Lastly, our survey required respondents to hold executive-level positions within the organization, which limits perspectives on impact and capacity to that level of operation. We hope to address this issue by increasing the number of interviews of fieldworkers within these organizations who may offer different perspectives on the matter.
Future Research Directions
Within the scope of this study, we aim to complete our survey efforts by the end of July 2020, supplement the survey data with longitudinal data from Form 990 returns, and conduct statistical modeling of the survey dataset. We also hope to compare the results of this survey to a previous survey research of nonprofits in Puerto Rico conducted in 2018 (García & Chandrasekhar, 2020) as well as explore the potential of using photovoice to capture the work of nonprofits in the post-disaster period.
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