August 2010


Like so many others across the nation, the stories and images of the devastation wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the subsequent levee failures in New Orleans profoundly impacted Surdna Foundation board and staff.  As a result, in 2007 we began to take a careful look at whether and how the Foundation might deepen its engagement in New Orleans in support of the city's long-term rebuilding and resiliency efforts.  After a series of learning sessions and visits to the region over the course of almost a year, board and staff agreed that the moment was ripe for Surdna to join the work there in a fuller way than we had prior to the storms.  In 2008, after much deliberation and consultation, the New Orleans Fund was established with a budget of $5 million, $1 million per year over five years.

From the outset, Surdna board and staff saw it as critical to draw on the expertise of all of our (then five) program areas for the work in New Orleans.  A cross-programmatic Working Group was formed, and developed a collaborative and holistic grantmaking approach, drawing on a shared understanding of how the particular needs of the Gulf region fit the mission of the foundation.

As the Working Group became better acquainted with the array of environmental, economic and cultural issues facing New Orleans in the rebuilding process, a palpable groundswell of activism was occurring among New Orleans residents.  This shift presented a critical opportunity to nurture and strengthen citizen engagement, weaving a tighter civic fabric and countering a decades-long social and political culture characterized by a dearth of authentic resident involvement.  After much discussion, we determined that strengthening and amplifying citizen participation and voices, particularly those from historically excluded or disadvantaged communities, in the rebuilding process was an area of focus where the Fund's relatively modest resources could have the greatest impact.


Members of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana participate alongside Representative Walt Leger III and Senator Cheryl Gray Evans on a panel at the Central City Youth Summit in October 2009 which JJPL co-hosted.
In the first year of grantmaking (2008-2009), the New Orleans Fund was characterized by exploration, working to strike a balance between pressing "on the ground" needs and the type of support - longer-term, rather than disaster relief - that Surdna is best positioned to provide.  The Fund allocated $1 million dollars to 11 grants with an average grant size of $100K in 2008-2009 (download grant list for 2008-2009).  These grants supported work in diverse issue areas - housing renovation and support services to facilitate artists' return to and involvement in the city, resident participation in the City's Master Plan design process, and a communications plan for youth organizations, among others.  Our largest investment in that first year was to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana in support of a formal collaboration between four local organizations and three national environmental groups to engage residents in developing policies and mechanisms for comprehensive coastal restoration..

The Fund's first year of grantmaking provided the Working Group with ample opportunity for reflection both internally and externally.  The realities of a post-disaster city proved to offer a new understanding of what civic engagement could mean as rebuilding from the ground up allowed for residents' voices to be heard from the nascent stage of policy and program development.  Internally, the cross-programmatic work resulted in richer, more substantive discussions about prospective grant proposals, and the grantmaking process evolved to be more authentic, collaborative and collegial.


The second year of the New Orleans Fund coincided with internal changes at Surdna.  The Working Group revised the Fund's program framework to align with the Foundation's updated mission and new program areas: Sustainable Environments, Strong Local Economies and Thriving Cultures.  Nonetheless, civic engagement continued to resonate as the overarching theme for the Fund, and the Working Group made refinements to the framework based on the first year of grantmaking and what we were learning "on the ground."  A multi-issue approach to resident engagement continued to enable the Working Group to be responsive to a constantly changing landscape and engage new and evolving areas of concern for residents.

Because of the five-year time limit on the fund, our initial intention was to provide catalytic support for projects and programs that needed a one-time boost to achieve greater impact.  During the first year we found that model was not the right fit in all cases.  Although some grantees benefited from this approach as they migrated to Surdna's main program areas for ongoing support, we found that the lack of philanthropic support in the region paired with a nonprofit sector in recovery mode meant many grantees faced enormous long-term sustainability challenges.  Consequently, the Fund renewed support to several grantees in year two, opening the door to renew grants to other organizations in the future to shore up their civic engagement work.  We have found that this flexibility around grant renewals has enabled us to respond to the economic challenges organizations are facing in this difficult economy, and thus better serve the goals of the Fund.

In 2009-2010, the New Orleans Fund made nine grants, totaling just over $1 million dollars with an average grant size of $120K (download grant list for 2009-2010).  The work of the second year was influenced by deepening relationships, greater flexibility and increased collaboration with local funding partners.  New to the Fund was our support of nonprofit investigative journalism promoting transparency in civic matters, nurturing an emerging youth organizing movement, and investing in parent and student involvement in a comprehensive, citywide process to develop a shared vision of excellence and equity for public education - all fostering a stronger civic fabric in New Orleans.

Just as our 2009-2010 grantmaking cycle was nearing a close, the BP oil spill began to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico.  The Fund responded with supplemental support to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health (GCF) - both local organizations poised to respond effectively to the disaster with clean-up, water testing, policy and prevention measures.  In the case of the Gulf Coast Fund, our support augmented GCF's regrant funds to smaller local organizations that could efficiently engage the community in disaster response with small sums of money ranging from $2,000-$3,000.


Participants in Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute 2010.
As we enter into the third year of the New Orleans Fund, the Foundation is reflecting on what we have learned through this work to date and on the current reality of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast - most notably the significant and ongoing impacts of the recent oil spill.  The Fund's explicit focus on supporting local groups and, on occasion, local partnerships with national groups, was affirmed in the wake of the spill.  Local groups that dealt with the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita have developed both capacity and local/regional knowledge, and were able to offer valuable and relevant expertise in the face of this new environmental, economic, and social disaster.  We consider these local organizations the "building blocks" of resilience for the region.  In the wake of the oil spill, we continue to explore ways to invest in these groups with renewed energy, along with other strategies for prevention and mitigation of future regional challenges.

We will continue to look to local and national funding partners for guidance in our long-term approach to regional concerns.  Local partners have expressed a need for increased support for advocacy, and several national funders are investing in education, housing, economic development and transit - all long-term strategies for rebuilding that align with the Fund's aspirations.  The BP oil spill and the myriad issues resulting from the catastrophe are a good reminder of the need for a strong civic fabric - to respond and rebuild, but more importantly to be prepared for what may come next in such an environmentally, economically and culturally vulnerable region.  The Fund has already provided ample opportunity to learn and think about the Surdna Foundation's work, and we continue to look to our grantees and funding partners for insight as we move ahead, investing in residents as they lead the process to rebuild and strengthen the great city of New Orleans.

Fostering sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.