Corporate and Nonprofit Collaboration Is the Best Recipe for Disaster Response

With the fifth anniversary of Katrina upon us, we're reminded of the large role the private sector is playing in disaster relief, joining forces with nonprofit organizations to aid regions hit by natural and man-made disasters.
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While disasters are inevitable, unfortunately, effective response to them isn't. With the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, we're reminded of the increasingly large role the private sector is playing in disaster relief worldwide, joining forces with nonprofit organizations to aid regions hit by natural and man-made disasters.

Katrina challenged corporations, the American Red Cross and the nation as a whole, and provided an important opportunity to improve how we as a nation respond to disasters. While the American Red Cross and our nation are better prepared to handle disasters of this scale today, we all need to do even more to protect our families and make our communities ready.

Both business groups and nonprofits agree on the importance of preparedness and establishing strong cross-sector and public-private partnerships before a disaster strikes. By working together in advance we can better ensure that we're ready to respond to a major disaster and can help get affected communities up and running as soon as possible. While the private sector has a variety of vital resources that dramatically impact relief efforts -- from basic necessities to communications and technical expertise -- the challenge is how to best channel that expertise to do the most good.

After the 2004 Asian tsunami, CEOs saw a need to better coordinate how the private sector works with relief agencies to respond to catastrophes, and the Partnership for Disaster Response was born. Formed by Business Roundtable, an association of more than 180 CEOs of leading U.S. companies, the Partnership for Disaster Response harnesses member companies' expertise and capabilities to accelerate on the ground disaster relief.

Later, in the wake of Katrina, Business Roundtable also developed a unique public/private partnership called the Gulf Coast Workforce Development Initiative (GCWDI), conceived and led by Riley Bechtel, CEO of Bechtel Corporation and co-chaired by DuPont. GCWDI helped recruit and train 20,000 critically-needed new construction workers in the Gulf Coast region, providing education, long-term construction jobs and essential infrastructure development. GCWDI is a prime example of various sectors -- including government agencies such as FEMA, community trade organizations, academic institutions (notably community colleges) and the business community -- merging and leveraging resources and talents to respond to disasters.

Although there's no question the Gulf and our nation are better prepared today than before Katrina, there is still much work to be done in building resilient communities and readiness ahead of disasters of all kinds.

A key lesson the Red Cross learned from Katrina is that no organization, no matter how strong, can go it alone, and as result, it has strengthened partnerships with a number of national and community-based organizations. The Red Cross and Business Roundtable joined forces in 2007 through the Partnership for Disaster Response, and our relationship continues to serve as a model of business and non-profit sector collaboration. This collaboration includes several activities designed to help the private and nonprofit sectors work together to strengthen the nation's disaster response system.

Another Red Cross-business joint effort involves expanding the Red Cross' model workplace volunteer program, "Ready When the Time Comes," in which the Red Cross trains employees of local businesses who can then mobilize as a community-based volunteer force when needed.

After Katrina, many businesses were asking what their people could do to volunteer, but the employees simply weren't trained. The Red Cross recognized that even more trained volunteers would be needed to accomplish its vital mission. With W.W. Grainger, Inc., the founding sponsor, and support from numerous other companies across the country, the "Ready When the Time Comes" program has recruited more than 10,000 trained volunteers from nearly 450 businesses and organizations in 40 communities nationwide. These volunteers and their companies have become true partners with their local Red Cross chapters, working to find new ways to enable the Red Cross to be better prepared to respond to community needs.

We want to keep this momentum going by galvanizing the business community, encouraging companies to contribute their vast resources to lay the groundwork ahead of disasters.

The best way to look at this is to think of preparedness like a web, starting with individuals, fanning out to local businesses and schools, moving to local, state, national government, then to national non-profits and the largest corporations. And having a paper plan is not enough. Businesses, governments, nonprofits and other groups all must commit to practice our plans, communicate and work as a team to meet the threats to our communities.

Better prepared communities will create a better prepared nation. The passion to help is there; We just have to make sure we harness it properly. Putting the time, money and training in now -- together -- will save many more lives in the future.

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