Corporate Philanthropy Institute Q&A: American Red Cross Silicon Valley leader talks corporate disaster response

Ken Toren - Red CrossKen Toren, CEO of American Red Cross Silicon Valley

Corporations can play a unique role in helping their communities recover from disasters. How can they make sure they are contributing where their help is most needed – and not inadvertently making recovery operations more difficult?

Ken Toren, CEO of American Red Cross Silicon Valley, knows both the for-profit and the nonprofit worlds well. He has served as CEO, COO, board member, co-founder and advisor for start-ups, private and public companies and nonprofits.

Toren will be speaking on a panel called “Responsiveness: Corporate Engagement in Disaster Response and Disaster Risk Management” as part of the 2018 Corporate Philanthropy Institute, coming up Feb. 12 in San Francisco. The CPI event is co-sponsored by SVCF and Northern California Grantmakers.

In this Q&A, Toren offers insights into what companies should – and shouldn't – do to help both before and after a disaster.

SVCF: What does corporate disaster relief typically include?

Ken Toren: There are many ways corporations can get involved in disaster relief. Most commonly, corporations engage through financial support, volunteering (paying employees or giving them extra time off) or in-kind donations.

Other options include:

  • starting a giving campaign or hosting a disaster response page
  • investing in critical disaster risk-reduction activities
  • designating a disaster response team trained in first aid and CPR
  • offering empty offices or warehouse space that can be used as an operations headquarters, warehouse or kitchen site
  • donating staff who possess certain skill sets based on specific disaster needs

Is sending money always best, or can in-kind donations be helpful?

Generally, money is best. Nonprofits can buy items on a wholesale level, and so disaster relief organizations can take the dollar that someone might spend on a single can of beans or case of water and turn it into potentially five to 10 times more of that item.

However, certain in-kind donations – those that relief agencies solicit when they need specific items - can be helpful. Most commonly needed are the basics to run shelters – food, cots, blankets, toiletries. For example, Budweiser has donated emergency drinking water and shipped it around the country accordingly. As another example, FedEx uses its vast transportation and logistics resources to deliver emergency supplies and equipment to relief organizations, such as the American Red Cross, that are responding to disasters on the ground.

At best, in-kind donations of new bulk items augment official efforts and provide the locals with some additional comfort, especially when those contributions come from nearby, and the company has checked with the relief organization to determine there is a need.  

At worst, disaster zones become dumping grounds for inappropriate goods that delay actual relief efforts and harm local economies. While ostensibly free, donated goods raise the cost of the response cycle: from collecting, sorting, packaging and shipping bulky items across long distances to, upon arrival, receiving, sorting, warehousing and distributing them.

Unsolicited in-kind donations often not only fail to help those in actual need but cause congestion, tie up resources and further hurt local economies when dumped on the market.

In your work with the Red Cross, what in-kind donations have you most appreciated from local corporations after a disaster?

Dell was kind enough to provide office space for a district headquarters during the Hurricane Harvey response. The Culinary Institute of America provided wonderful meals for our shelter residents during the fire in Napa County.

Other types of donations that are always priorities: Culturally appropriate hot meals prepared for diverse communities in Red Cross shelters, as well as volunteers to help with managing shelter operations and distribution of emergency supplies.

Donated space is extremely valuable. It could be an empty office building, part of a warehouse, or even a big parking lot. Good working locations convenient to disaster areas and not too far from staff housing are hard to find, and every dollar saved can be spent on additional help for those affected.

Are there pitfalls that companies should avoid in trying to help after disasters?

As I noted, unsolicited donations, as opposed to in-kind donations made in response to specific requests, are not encouraged.

Also, sometimes people are moved to show up at disaster sites to volunteer. While well intentioned, volunteers who are already trained are better prepared to provide services to the many people who need them.

What lessons have been learned about corporate donations after recent disasters like Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Jose?

Organizing teams of event-based volunteers for specific tasks that are well-coordinated by Red Cross and others disaster relief agencies and responders is critical.

The generosity of Red Cross corporate donors allowed us to more quickly and more effectively establish shelters, provide food and basic items, and offer mental health services when and where they are needed, as well as leverage technology and innovation to speed up financial assistance to those in need.

In addition to helping the communities affected by a disaster, companies and their employees may have their own needs after a disaster. What can companies do ahead of time, so they are ready?

A company’s first goal should be to keep the business running. Lost revenues plus extra expenses mean reduced profits. Insurance does not cover all costs and cannot replace customers that defect to the competition. A business continuity plan is essential. This may include backup sites in other regions.

For the immediate response, develop an organizational Preparedness and Disaster Response Plan for all local and external offices (evacuation plans, rally points, etc.). This plan should include a detailed emergency response process (who takes charge, who does what, who goes where, etc.). The Red Cross Ready Rating program offers tools, resources, and information that can help you achieve a higher level of preparedness.

Companies can also engage with each employee to prepare “go-kits” or “survival kits” and have them available in company locations, in vehicles, and at employees’ homes. Remember that the disasters we have are not always the ones we plan for. Build kits that will work for most situations and be prepared to maintain them.

Finally, companies can encourage interested employees to register for Red Cross volunteer training so they can assist with disasters, both local and far away. Skilled responders are extremely valuable, and it’s a win-win for everyone concerned.

Find out more about speakers at the 2018 Corporate Philanthropy Institute and register now.