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Add charity to list of changes Sandy wrought

Storm's legacy a 'very big concern' for nonprofits if donations should dry up

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First lady Mary Pat Christie at Martell's Tiki Bar, in Point Pleasant Beach, where repairs are under way. Her Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund has raised more than $32 million.
First lady Mary Pat Christie at Martell's Tiki Bar, in Point Pleasant Beach, where repairs are under way. Her Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund has raised more than $32 million. - (AARON HOUSTON)

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, another whirlwind was unleashed along the Jersey coast. This one, though, was philanthropic, and its name is Mary Pat Christie.

In the days after the storm created billions of dollars of damage in New Jersey, the first lady launched the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund, which has so far raised more than $32 million.

"I spent all my time calling CEOs and foundations and various folks that want to support us — it was a full-time commitment," said Christie, a managing partner at the private equity firm Angelo, Gordon & Co., in New York. She scaled back from seven to five days a week in January: "I needed to take a deep breath and see where the organization was, and get our ducks in a row, in terms of how we are ultimately going to distribute the money."

Now her staff is dispensing its first $1 million to about 10 long-term recovery committees — consortiums of regional nonprofits overseeing the rebuilding of homes destroyed by Sandy, and coordinating the work of volunteers eager to help.

"The important thing for people to understand is that we are not just a relief organization, we are a recovery organization," Christie said. "We expect to be around for three years, at least, to help people rebuild."

She said the fund will provide "gap" money for rebuilding expenses not covered by grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or by insurance claims.

"We will try to help as many people as we can, and we will help people who really need the help — the low-income and middle-income folks who otherwise would have to leave the state," Christie said.

And Christie will continue raising money, she said. The fund has gotten donated billboard space, and her husband, Gov. Chris Christie, was able to plug the fund during his Feb. 4 appearance on David Letterman's show. "We will continue to promote (the fund) and we are going to be clever about how we promote it, because there is such a huge need," she said.

Sandy is having a wide impact on New Jersey's nonprofit sector, experts said. For one thing, it spawned the new charity that, within days of the storm, began tapping into the powerful current of generosity that gets switched on when disaster strikes. But in addition to the $32 million raised by the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund, millions more were raised by existing charities like the American Red Cross and local food banks working on the ground to aid Sandy victims.

Nonprofits in Sandy's path suffered power outages and physical damage while continuing to serve people who rely on them. And some worry their normal fundraising will suffer if donors divert dollars to Sandy. That last point emerged as a "very big concern," in the annual survey conducted earlier this year by the New Jersey Center for Non-Profits, but the majority of nonprofits said it's too early to tell how Sandy will impact their budgets, according to Linda Czipo, executive director.

"Some nonprofits said their funding has already declined as a result of Sandy, but a few have seen their funding go up," she said.

Christie said that's something of which she's tried to be aware.

"When I spoke to CEOs and asked them to participate, a number of them indicated to me that (their donations to Sandy relief) would be above and beyond" their usual giving, Christie said. To avoid competing with local charities that raise money in New Jersey, "I reached out to CEOs all over the country; I did not just focus on New Jersey, because I did not want that to happen," Christie said. "I made a concerted effort to reach outside the state, and I still am."

The Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, for instance, has seen a 25 percent surge in demand for emergency food since the storm, according to Carlos Rodriguez, executive director. In what turned out to be miraculously fortuitous disaster planning, the Neptune-based food bank bit the bullet and bought a $100,000 generator that went live the Wednesday before Sandy hit. "We had 10,000 turkeys in the freezer, and the generator paid for itself in turkeys alone," Rodriguez said.

The food bank issued an emergency appeal for funds and food to meet the spike in demand, and now it's tackling long-term needs, Rodriguez said. Before Sandy, the food bank was serving 127,000 people a year through 160 soup kitchens and food pantries; the storm literally washed out eight sites, while nearly a dozen new ones opened.

"We will keep doing what we're doing, while preparing for unimaginable challenges" from the increase in joblessness wrought by Sandy, Rodriguez said. "The recovery phase is a marathon. It will take several years of rebuilding."

Several big corporate donors and foundations said they make disaster donations over and above their regular giving. Last year the Prudential Foundation donated $3 million to Sandy relief efforts, in addition to more than $25 million in grants to community nonprofits from the foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Newark-based financial services giant Prudential Financial.

"Given the history of the last decade or so — and the prevalence of these disasters — we wanted to be prepared to respond rapidly, so we have dedicated resources" just for disaster response, said Lata N. Reddy, vice president, corporate social responsibility for Prudential.

The $3 million for Sandy relief "represents our commitment to our home state of New Jersey and our headquarters city of Newark," Reddy said. "The disaster was right here in our backyard, and we wanted to provide a significant amount of resources to deal with the aftermath."

Wells Fargo donated $1 million to Sandy relief, and also launched an ATM Sandy donations campaign that raised an additional $1.3 million from Wells Fargo customers.

Deborah Smith, Northeast community affairs manager for Wells Fargo, said right after the storm, the bank gave $750,000 "to immediate needs — the feeding programs and shelter programs, things that have to happen right now." Now the bank is dispersing another $750,000 for long-term rebuilding and recovery.

Smith said Wells Fargo is part of a network of government funding and philanthropy "and we all come together to rebuild a community. How do we get small businesses back up and running, and get housing back to where people are able to go back and live? We are providing dollars and expertise — recovery is a collaboration."

Sandy is both a challenge and an opportunity for the United Way of Northern New Jersey, whose mission is to have a long-term impact on improving education, income and health for distressed families in its five-county territory, CEO John Franklin said. The United Way raises money from workplace campaigns, some of which were postponed due to Sandy, "and like many nonprofits, some funds that normally come to us have been diverted, because people want to help the most apparent needs, and that would be victims of Sandy. And we have embraced that."

He said Sandy may result in a few percentage points' decline in the group's $13 million-plus annual fundraising, but the storm also created opportunities to partner with other nonprofits on recovery projects. "All of a sudden we find ourselves immersed in disaster relief, and it has opened up new opportunities for us," he said.

The United Way of New York City and United Way Worldwide launched a Sandy recovery fund that has raised more than $9 million, with $272,000 going to the United Way of Northern New Jersey, the majority of which will go toward a Shore rebuilding program by college student volunteers. More than 100 students from 23 colleges will spend a week at the shore in March during the United Way's alternative spring break. The students will work on rebuilding damaged homes, and the funds will be used to house and supervise them, and to purchase building supplies.

Franklin said it's essential to strike a balance between addressing immediate needs like Sandy and maintaining long-term efforts — like the stipends United Way provides for early childhood education for 800 students a year, and its project to improve the culture and climate in public schools.

"If we continue to do things that have a long-term impact, we will be in a better condition to deal with disasters when they occur, and maybe in some cases prevent disasters," he said.

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @bethfitzgerald8

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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