Public Self-Interest

The HSDL blog today posts about an interesting recent report on the emergency preparedness (or lack thereof) of nonprofit groups in and around the nation’s capital. This report raises two interesting questions, at least to me…

The first is “how objective is this thing?”. You see, this report – on nonprofit organizations in the capital region, remember – was prepared by, um, the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington. Can you see any reason a group of nonprofits shouldn’t be completely objective in formulating a “strategic plan” to address the “unmet needs” of, um, themselves? I know I sure can’t…

The second question is an age-old one, and it concerns the role of nonprofit groups in emergency planning. I know, I know, “public-private partnerships” are all the rage in government circles these days, but where emergency preparedness is concerned, it seems both sides have dropped the ball. Government bodies rely on nonprofit groups to “pick up the slack” where government resources don’t reach, yet it’s clear that the public groups don’t have the desired capacity to do so for everyone, every time. Is that, though, because they truly cannot, or because the government hasn’t provided a clear goal for them to meet?

Disaster planning and emergency management are arts, not sciences, and anyone who has, Gods help them, been involved in either field should know that one of the least easily quantified aspects of such planning is the number of “potential victims” of any given event. The problem is not coming up with numbers – the problem is trying to stop coming up with numbers; you can easily generate five, even six “population estimates” for a given geographic area, and all of them will have equal validity, or lack thereof.

In an ideal world, you’d just work with the biggest number you could possible come up with – “it’s Mother’s Day, or Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or Cinco de Mayo, and everyone in the region is at home with their family; further, an additional so-many-thousand relatives have come to visit from out of the region, and nobody in the region, for whatever reason, has gone to visit relatives elsewhere; also, the hotels and motels are packed with visiting businessmen and women here for a convention” – and go from there. Emergency services can handle X percent of these folks, assuming all were displaced; the nonprofits should plan to handle everyone else.

Reality, however, doesn’t work that way. One of the big hurdles is that not all “victims” are created equal – that is, not all require an equal amount of assistance, public or private. In recent years, folks far smarter than I have tried to model this kind of thing, taking into account factors like age, income, and occupation to help fudge numbers around a bit. (For example, child, with his parents, needs less assistance, in whatever form, than either of his or her parents alone. Military personnel are frequently assumed to be either largely self-sufficient, or able to be supported by their branch of service; people with higher income can be more self-sufficient than those without, et cetera.) Not much progress has been made in this area, as far as I’m aware, but it’s an interesting field nonetheless.

Another problem is that these sorts of victim-projections don’t take time into account, or more properly duration. Say there’s a short-duration emergency – a chemical leak, perhaps – and a fixed number of people are evacuated – 10,000, let’s say. If they’re evacuated at, oh, 6pm, there are all kinds of logistical nightmares to work out fairly quickly: food, shelter, transportation, communication… the drain on public and private emergency services is fairly high. But suppose they’re evacuated at noon, instead, or 1pm. Schools, businesses, and restaurants are still open, and you’ve got half a day to arrange things like food and shelter, if they’re even required. People who work in the affected area, but don’t live there, can just go home, zero assistance required, while people who live in the affected area, but don’t work there, can stay where they are, at least temporarily. Strain on emergency services is a lot less than it otherwise could be.

The point is this: A group of nonprofit organizations says that they’re under-prepared (and, presumably, under-funded) to deal with more than five percent of an arbitrary number of “potential victims”. Whatever the methodology used to work out that number, it’s basically meaningless. The whole thing is even more meaningless, because as far as I can tell, the nonprofits don’t have a target number of people they’re “supposed to” be able to serve. They could say “we estimate being able to support so-many-thousand people in an emergency for so-many days”, to which the disinterested response is “Yay, you. Good job”.

What they’re saying is, basically, “statistically speaking, we’re pretty much useless without more money, please give us lots.” Yeah, it’s in their best interests to beg for money however they can, but telling lies with statistics isn’t the best route. If their “strategic plan” were serious about anything other than blatant fundraising, it would emphasize the financial advantages of supporting nonprofits: “We nonprofits provide better support to disaster victims than the government, at a lower overall cost-per-person. Funding us makes economic and humanitarian sense. Please give generously, the family you save from FEMA could be your own.” If they want to say they’re not meeting goals, that would be fine – but the goals they claim to be falling short of are meaningless and arbitrary. Want a “roadmap” for the future? Want handouts? Fine. First coordinate a meaningful, realistic target goal with outside partners, then assess how close you are to that goal. Then, maybe, people will take your plans seriously…

Published in: 'D' for 'Dumb', General | on October 27th, 2008| Comments Off on Public Self-Interest

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