Non-profit organizations as the engine of recovery

Marking the third anniversary of Hurricane Maria, we spoke with Isabel Rullán, executive director of ConPRmetidos; Alma Frontera, director of economic development programs at Foundation for Puerto Rico (FPR); and Lucciano Díaz, business assistance coordinator for the Bottom Up Destination Recovery Initiative (Bottom Up) to learn about recovery efforts and the role of nonprofit organizations.

After the hurricane, El Colaboratorio became a command center for more than 180 organizations, since it had electricity and internet connection on the days of the event. ConPRmetidos, which began as a movement to unite the diaspora with development on the island, was a liaison to channel aid and delegated responsibility for managing immediate relief.

“Non-profits are agile,” says Frontera as the reason why they were able to work on immediate recovery efficiently. “We don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy and, of course, we have the will of the community. Frontera noted that the support provided by FPR and the group of volunteers organizing from the Colaboratorio focused on four areas: organizing a broad group of volunteers; creating Island Relief, which carried out more than 230 missions and direct rescue brigades for individuals and families; acting as a fiscal sponsor to local organizations that lacked the 501(c)(3) designation, which helped raise over $10M in donations; and designing and implementing long-term recovery programs, such as the Small Business Cash Grant Program (SBCGP) and the Bottom Up.

Aside from direct support, the organizations understood the need to support local businesses. Through various efforts and funds, such as FPR’s Hurricane Relief Fund that raised $4M, one of the most successful recovery programs was designed: the SBCGP, where FPR along with the Center for Entrepreneurs, provided financial grants and technical assistance to over 200 small businesses. ConPRmetidos donated electrical generators for the effort. It was a way to maximize the connections that had been created within El Colaboratorio.

“We were able to tour the island, the 78 municipalities, including Vieques and Culebra, twice in a month and a half,” says Díaz, who led the missions around the island, spoke with the mayors and gathered daily information for decision making. “We were getting to talk to the mayors and OME secretaries before FEMA,” Diaz says, and that the federal agency approached them to get the information gathered by the organization. After the organizations responded quickly and efficiently, they decided to act on a long-term recovery. With the creation of programs like Bottom Up, Díaz recognizes the importance of providing individuals, community leaders and small businesses with the tools they need to continue serving their community.

They all stressed the importance of decentralizing support from the metro area. 

"Coming to San Juan, it is difficult for a business owner, because a business is from the time you get up to the time you go to bed. Taking a day off to attend a conference or workshop, they have to weight it out," Diaz says as one of the lessons learned in Bottom Up.

Frontera emphasizes that “no one knows the needs of the community better than the community,” so you have to listen to people in order to assist them. Rullán stresses the importance of supporting community leaders in creating their own organizations and assisting smaller organizations around the island in strengthening their structures. “The hurricane brought to light many other smaller organizations and community leaders,” says the executive director of ConPRmetidos, who she says were key to the immediate recovery of the communities they served.

Today, both organizations continue to work on the recovery efforts. “We have focused on economic development programs,” says Rullán, who, through her organization, seeks to retain and attract Puerto Rican talent back to the island, starting with the technology industry which has more than 500 positions available.

There is still a long way to go. “Together we can do more,” Rullán emphasizes. We must continue working to make the processes more accessible and continue to explore opportunity areas from the third sector for a total and fair recovery.

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