months after New Orleans became an international symbol of governmental
neglect and racism, the city remains in crisis. Students are still without
books, healthcare is less available to poor people than ever, public
housing is still closed, and infrastructure is still in desperate need of
repair. In an open letter to funders and national nonprofits released on
15 December, a diverse array of New Orleanians declared, "From the
perspective of the poorest and least powerful, it appears that the work of
national allies on our behalf has either not happened, or if it has
happened it has been a failure."
In conversations this week with scores of
New Orleans residents, including organizers, advocates, health care
providers, educators, artists and media makers, I heard countless stories
of diverted funding and unmet needs. While many stressed that they have
had important positive experiences with national allies, few have received
anything close to the funding, resources, or staff they need for their
work, and in fact most are working unsustainable hours while living in a
Research backs up the anecdotal reports. A January 2006 article in The
Chronicle of Philanthropy argued that the amount given to post-Katrina
New Orleans was "small-potato giving for America's foundations, which
collectively have $500-billion in assets." The article also asserted,
"just as deplorable as the small sums poured into the region are the
choices foundations have made about where the money should go." In other
words, very little of the money had gone to organizations directed by or
accountable to New Orleanians. In discussions this week, one prominent New
Orleans-born advocate and lobbyist called this phenomenon the "Halliburtization
of the nonprofit sector."
A February report from New York City's Foundation Center points out that
the Red Cross, which raised perhaps two billion dollars for Katrina relief
despite widespread accusations of racism and mismanagement, "ranked as by
far the largest named recipient of contributions from foundation and
corporate donors in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita," receiving
almost 35% of all aid. At the time of the report, another 35% of the money
the foundations designated had not been spent. The Bush-Clinton Katrina
Fund, Salvation Army and United Way together made up another 13%. The rest
was generally spread between other national relief organizations.
After nearly fifteen months of shuttered storefronts, a block of
Black-owned businesses in New Orleans celebrated a rebirth this week. The
street, on Bayou Road in the seventh ward neighborhood of New Orleans, is
a hopeful sign in a city where 60% of the population remains displaced and
many businesses are shutting down or moving. As recently as August, most
of the area remained shuttered and empty. Now, almost every shop is open.
The Community Book Center, a vital neighborhood gathering spot in the
middle of the block, reopened this week, despite still having no front
windows and a floor in major need of work. "Step carefully," Vera
Warren-Williams, the owner, warned guests as they entered the store during
the reopening celebration.
Neighborhood spaces like the Community Book Center have long been a vital
part of New Orleans organizing, serving as a gathering place for people
and ideas. The revitalization of Bayou Road is just one example community
pulling together -- friends and strangers coming by to help gut houses,
clear debris, cook food. Anything to help, as the people of New Orleans
struggle together against incredible odds in a city that was already
devastated by poverty and privatization and neglect pre-Katrina.
Although Community Book Center is a crucial resource, spaces like these
have received little outside support.
Foundations, according to the Chronicle article, "seem to have been
preoccupied with the issue of accountability. Many foundations wondered
how they could be certain that grants to local groups would be well spent
and, therefore, publicly accountable."
While those are reasonable concerns, many in New Orleans see a double
standard in this view. The Chronicle writer goes on to state, "the
question of accountability didn't seem to bother the large foundations
that gave so generously to the Red Cross, which had a questionable record
of competence to begin with and attracted even more criticism in the
aftermath of Katrina over its unwise use of funds, high administrative
costs, and lack of outreach to minorities."
Many feel that the message from major funders has been that New Orleanians
cannot handle the money appropriately. "Twenty seven years running a
business, and they don't trust us with money," Jennifer Turner of the
Community Book Center, comments, when asked about her feeling towards
national funders. "They think we're all stupid or corrupt."
In the aftermath of Katrina, the people of New Orleans were depicted in
the media as "looters" and violent criminals, or as helplessly poor and
ignorant. In other words, as anything but a trustable partner in the
rebuilding of their city. Even today, many news stories about New Orleans
post-Katrina focus on FEMA payments that were misused or obtained through
fraud, rather than the bigger story of corporate fraud.
Many feel this media depiction, and the bias and racism that it in many
cases reflected, is in part to blame for the reluctance of major funders
to give money directly to the people most affected.
"They figure if they give poor people money they'll buy crack and
cigarettes," People's Organizing Committee and People's Hurricane Relief
Fund co-founder Curtis Muhammad summarized.
MONEY AND RESOURCES
At a small corner bar in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood, community
activists and organizers from grassroots base-building organizations such
as Critical Resistance, the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition and Safe
Streets/Strong Communities gathered to celebrate a victory. After a year
of organizing, protesting and lobbying, Safe Streets won city funding for
an independent monitor over the city's notoriously corrupt and violent
The Safe Streets victory is the result of several years of struggle by
many organizations and individuals. More importantly, it is a part of an
overall effort grounded in, and led by, those most affected. While there
has been some funding for base building organizations such as those listed
above, it has been pennies compared to the hundreds of millions directed
For a region of the country that has been historically underfunded, these
issues are nothing new. "I'm very much afraid of this 'foundation
complex,'" civil rights organizer Ella Baker said in 1963, referring to
the changes happening then in the structure of grassroots movements.
In an article in an upcoming South End Press anthology about New Orleans
post-Katrina, members of INCITE Women of Color Against Violence write,
"Though hundreds of nonprofits, NGOs, university urban planning
departments, and foundations have come through the city, they have paid
little attention to the organizing led by people of color that existed
before Katrina and that is struggling now more than ever."
Echoing this analysis, the Chronicle of Philanthropy article
complains of a "long-term lack of concern and neglect that foundations
that operate nationally and in the Gulf Coast region have shown for poor
and minority Gulf Coast residents, even as some grant makers proudly
strutted their awards to national antipoverty and antiracism programs."
The INCITE authors posit that successful organizing is rooted in the
community and takes long time to bear fruit. Mainstream funders don't
appreciate this, and, "a look at who and what gets funding in New Orleans,
from foundations to support work, reveals the priorities of these
foundations and the entire nonprofit system. Organizations that represent
their work through quick and quantifiable accomplishments are rewarded by
the system. Foundations are not only drawn to them but are pressured by
their own donors to fund them."
For many in the nonprofit field nationally, post-Katrina New Orleans has
been an opportunity for career advancement. While local residents have
been too overwhelmed by tragedy to apply for grants, a few well-placed
national individuals and organizations have not hesitated to take their
place in line. Although some have no relation to New Orleans, they often
have previous relationships with the foundations, as well as resources
that translate into easier access to funding, such as development staff,
website designers, and professional promotional materials.
Foundations are not to blame for the continuing crisis in New Orleans, nor
do they possess a special responsibility to help the city. However, many
foundations have expressed a desire to support New Orleans' recovery, and
funding is desperately needed on the ground. Because of this, their
actions have taken on added scrutiny from people in New Orleans.
Foundations are an integral part of the current structure of US
nonprofits, a system that INCITE has called the Nonprofit Industrial
Complex, to emphasize the intersecting, dependent and corporatized ways in
which the system is constructed. It is a system in which organizations are
frequently pitted against each other for funding, where organizers are
discouraged from being active in their own community, and where
accountability to and leadership from those most affected has become
increasingly rare, and in many cases, the priorities of the "movement" are
guided by those with money rather than being led by those most affected.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of Katrina for people concerned about social
justice is that the structures of US movements are in serious crisis. As
the director of one base-building organization posed the question, "what's
wrong with the 501c3 structure that everyone could come down for a 5-day
tour but no one could come to actually do the work for a month? What's
wrong with a 501c3 structure where everyone is already so under resourced
and then tied to projects and promised outcomes that the biggest disaster
this nation has seen in decades occurs and no one can stop what they are
working on to come down and help? What's wrong with the foundation world
that they have to produce 207 fancy glossy interview reports to their
board in order to shuffle a few thousand dollars our way?"
One thing that is clear is that the current paradigm simply doesn't work.
Without community accountability, projects aimed to bring justice to that
community are weaker and sometimes counterproductive.
Writing in the South End Press book, INCITE members argue that the
structure of a non-accountable movement stopped organizations from
responding more capably to the disaster when it happened, and that a
movement more responsive to local community would have been more
effective. "Community organizing and community-based accountability are
the things we have left when the systems have collapsed," they argue.
Many organizers told me that, in dealing with foundations, they were
expected to be responsive to the foundations instead of to any concrete
needs on the ground. "Its not just that you have to jump when they tell
you to jump," the manager of one organization told me, "you also have to
act like you wanted to jump anyway."
Again, these issues are not new -- more than forty years ago, Fannie Lou
Hamer, civil rights leader and co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom
Democratic Party, complained. "I can't see a leader leading me nowhere if
he's in New York and I'm down here catching hell."
"What's wrong with our movement and our organizations," the director of
another grassroots organization asked me, "that they couldn't collaborate
and coordinate and offer us some organized plan of assistance instead of
asking us to do more and more to help them help us? What's wrong with
funders that they couldn't coordinate, the way they ask us to, so that
they could come down once, together, and not on 15 separate trips?"
When asked for solutions, many in New Orleans called for allies to bring a
deeper respect for the experiences of the people on the ground. Others
expressed an overall need for movements to move away from reliance on
foundations and large donors.
Several organizers highlighted the examples of positive experiences.
"National Immigration Law Center (NILC) came here in a principled way,
looking to hire someone local, and to support already existing local
projects," Rosana Cruz, who works with NILC and the New Orleans Worker
Justice Coalition, explained. "Advancement Project does litigation led by
and in support of grassroots organizing campaigns. OXFAM is a major
international organization, but they came in and worked responsibly with
small organizations on they ground they had previous relationships with.
And they made multi-year commitments. They didn't just come and dump money
-- or worse, come and promise money then disappear, as some did."
"Ironically, many of the folks who have come through for us are Southern
groups, who are themselves under resourced," the managing director of one
organization told me. "Organizations like Project South and Southerners On
New Ground (SONG) have been stronger allies than many larger national
The Chronicle article asks foundations to play a role in
"strengthening nonprofit organizations that serve low-income people and
African-Americans, as well as other minorities . . . America's foundations
need to move from a policy of neglect of the nation's most vulnerable
organizations to one of affirmative action, an approach that will mean
changing the way many foundations do business."
"I would ask national organizing groups to send a staff person down for
6-12 months," begins the executive director of another organization, "I
would also recommend all progressive and liberal foundations with Katrina
money to do an analysis of funding and jointly release the results along
with the plan for funding in 2007 and 2008."
Others listed specific needs they felt were unmet. "We need seed money,
technical training and leadership development," explained Mayaba
Liebenthal, an organizer active with the New Orleans chapters of Critical
Resistance and INCITE."
The stakes are far beyond New Orleans. This is a struggle with national
and international implications. If the people of New Orleans are supported
in their struggle, it will be a victory against profiteering and
privatization. Questions of race, class, gender, education, health care,
food access, policing, housing, privatization, mental health and much more
are on vivid display. "Everyone is here right now, or has come through,"
Curtis Mohammed comments, referring to the vast array of organizations and
individuals who have visited the city. "If the movement continues to grow,
New Orleans will be seen as a turning point." But, despite all of the
resilience on display here, the people of New Orleans can't do it alone.
is an editor of Left Turn Magazine and a community organizer. His
previous articles from New Orleans are at
Left Turn. He can be reached at:
myspace. You can also listen to his
Resources Mentioned In Article:
Letter From New Orleans Grassroots
(Note: Letter will soon move to: http://www.leftturn.org/NewOrleansLetter.htm)
Katrina: What Foundations Should Do," Pablo Eisenberg, in The
Chronicle of Philanthropy
Foundation Center report
Other Articles by Jordan
Crisis in New Orleans' Schools
Lessons From One Year After The Devastation of New Orleans
* The Katrina
* The People
United: Worker’s Rights Organizing in New Orleans
on the Mississippi
Stops Mardi Gras
Imprisoned in New Orleans with Tamika Middleton
and Displacement at the Calliope with Jennifer Vitry