'Tis the Season to Recognize Local Heroes

Lessons from post-disaster recovery suggest that donating to local social entrepreneurs can be a worthy endeavor.

With the holiday season upon us, many people will be looking to find ways to not only give gifts to their loved ones and friends but to also give back to their communities and donate to worthy causes. There are many options to choose from, including large multinational NGOs as well as local nonprofits and religious organizations, and determining where to donate your time and money is a difficult decision to make. However, lessons from post-disaster recovery suggest that donating to local social entrepreneurs can be a worthy endeavor.

Just over three years ago, Hurricane Sandy devastated the coast of Maryland, New Jersey and New York. The storm caused more than $60 billion in damages and displaced an estimated 37,000 primary residences in New Jersey and over 300,000 residences in New York. While much of the media coverage of the three-year anniversary focused on the role of government assistance in recovery, there have been fewer stories that show the efforts within civil society to provide assistance. Through our research on the ground after Hurricane Sandy, we saw that local community leaders and social entrepreneurs were critical to recovery.

For instance, in the Orthodox Jewish community on the Rockaway Peninsula, a local nonprofit, Achiezer, worked with local rabbis to distribute assistance to those in need. The Community Assistance Fund, which had previously been used to help community members during the recession, helped more than 1,000 families and distributed $11 million. It enlisted the help of rabbis and other members of the community to work as representatives who would help community members apply for funding. The 48 representatives, spread throughout the Orthodox Jewish community on the peninsula, helped people fill out and submit applications.

Its funding was distributed in three distinct phases. The first phase provided victims with emergency cash between $2,000 to $3,000. The second and third phases included larger payments for repairing and rebuilding homes.

Less than a year after the storm, Rabbi Bender expressed pride in his team's ability to raise and distribute the funds quickly and efficiently, "The staggering fact from this, which I am extremely proud of, [is that] … we raised it, $11 million, and we gave out $11 million and there was no overhead costs." Bender compares this to government efforts, which still have not succeeded in distributing aid to those in need.

In addition to providing the resources necessary to repair and rebuild damaged property, these local heroes help restore and replace disrupted social networks by connecting and informing residents, signaling that community rebound is likely and, in fact, under way.

Contact Us

To speak with a scholar or learn more on this topic, visit our contact page.