Madison Muskopf/shutterstock

Madison Muskopf/shutterstock

Community foundations exist to improve the quality of life in a defined location. They are all about supporting nonprofits that serve a whole city, town or region. So what happens when a community foundation is challenged to take care of individuals, to create programs for direct giving without the usual mechanisms of proposals and grants and evaluation? 

The challenge has become all-too-real for dozens of community foundations across the country in the wake of mass shootings While these tragic events have fueled a noisy debate about how to stop them, lost in all the clatter is an important question: What can philanthropy do to help the victims? Is there a role for community foundations other than jumping into the politics of guns? 

The answer is yes—but it’s a lot more complicated than just another funding program. 

Tragedy Comes to Dayton

A small city in mid-America offers up a revealing example. Dayton, Ohio doesn’t come up on the national radar very often. But that changed August 4 of 2019 when a shooter in the Oregon historic district killed nine people and wounded 17 others—thrusting “Gem City” into the painful spotlight of gun violence.

Mike Parks, president of the Dayton Foundation—a $600 million community foundation created in 1921 by NCR founder and chairman John Patterson and his family—remembers the morning after the Saturday night shootings. “That Sunday morning our staff huddled on the phone, and we were trying to figure out how to help. We knew we should help, and we knew we could help because of the work that we did with the tornadoes.” (The foundation created an emergency fund after 15 tornadoes hit the area on Memorial Day.)

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley knew that the foundation would be the right organization to take the lead. “I think the foundation had such a strong presence in the community that it was able to do this and hold this leadership in a way that no other organization really could,” she says. “They had those national connections to find people that would do this work pro bono.”

Whaley was right to count on national support. Parks remembers: “That morning, the Council on Foundations in Washington and other community foundations began to reach out to us. They said, ‘We know you haven’t been through this, we know you’re unclear what to do, but here’s how you do it.’ And they told us all the do’s and the don’ts because there is no manual, there are no guidelines. There’s no book you can read about how you do this.”

Community foundations are designed to accept contributions from a variety of donors, but not to offer the general public a way to make immediate gifts to individuals who have been the victims of a tragedy. What was clear from the start was that the foundation would have to devise a system for collecting individual donations that would be intended for people, not for community nonprofits. 

Creating a New Fund

Parks and his staff had to create a way for people to donate. A mechanism for contributing to the Dayton Oregon District Tragedy Fund was announced on August 16, on the foundation’s website and in press materials. The foundation invited checks or credit card donations and waived all its normal processing fees so all the money could go directly to victims’ families and survivors. Dayton’s print and broadcast outlets began to publicize the fund.

The fund became the epicenter of Dayton’s fundraising push, ultimately attracting 4,000 individual donors. Dr. Gary LeRoy, a family doctor and educator who chairs the American Academy of Family Physicians (and is a former chair of the Dayton Foundation’s board), remembers “every kind of traditional and social media, and creative media that you can think of. Everybody was talking about the Oregon District Tragedy Fund. You couldn’t turn on a radio or turn on the TV or look at a newspaper or anything. It was just all over the place. And then, every time you turned around somebody would say, "We’re having this activity to raise money for the Tragedy Fund."

Fundraising also got a big boost from a benefit concert hosted by comedian Dave Chappelle and featuring Stevie Wonder and other performers. 

“We Didn’t Know What to Do”

As donations poured in, the foundation had to build a mechanism for getting them out to the people violated by the attack. 

Managing pooled resources after disasters or tragedies is often the business of United Ways or the American Red Cross. Could a community foundation do the job? Mike Parks admits that he and his colleagues confronted the question as soon as they agreed it was something they wanted to do: “What we weren’t clear on is how in the heck could we set up a charitable fund that would benefit individuals? We really hadn’t had any experience with that. We didn’t know what to do. We were huddling on the phone trying to figure it out.”

Advice from other community foundations and the Council on Foundations led Dayton to Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney who served as “special master” for the distribution of funds after 9-11 and who has worked on cases like the Boston bombing, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and other high-profile settlements.

Feinberg and his partner Camille Biros have helped several community foundations create and carry out “disaster funds” following mass shootings. Parks is grateful that “Ken and Camille stood by our side the entire way, and we’ve talked to them multiple, multiple times. We absolutely couldn’t have done it without them.”

Feinberg and Biros, and the other foundations with experience told Parks that an essential first step was to get solid and reputable input from the community. Dayton convened a group of 15 local community leaders to help develop protocols for the fund. Parks says “their job was to help us figure out the fairest, most equitable, and quickest way to get those charitable funds to those that have been impacted. And they actually had their first meeting about 10 days after the shootings.” 

The committee was co-chaired by Brother Raymond Fitz, the former president of the University of Dayton, and Dr. LeRoy. Their committee colleagues included ministers, business owners, community organization leaders and consultants.

Gary LeRoy acknowledged that “this is not something that you have some sort of preordained skillset for. You know, you don’t go to school to learn how to do this. It’s unfortunate that we would even have to put together such a committee.”

A Formula for Giving

The advisors helped the foundation staff develop protocols for how the money was to be allocated and distributed. They held public meetings, invited comment and tried to make the process as transparent as possible. 

One of the thorniest issues in setting up the parameters for distributing money was whether or not the awards should be based on the needs of the shooting victims. In Dayton, the nine fatalities ranged from a 22-year old about to graduate from college to an unmarried father of four young children. 

Ken Feinberg’s counsel was to avoid a “needs test” for making the awards and to come up with a different set of criteria. Dayton agreed and opted for a needs-blind set of criteria. Instead of the socioeconomic status of each victim, the distribution formula was based on the severity of the impact on each victim. 

Seventy percent of the funds will go to families of those who were killed. Twenty percent will go to shooting victims who were hospitalized for longer than two days. And the remaining 10 percent will go to those who were treated and released in less than 48 hours.

 It was Ken Feinberg who cautioned “whatever decisions you make, you’ll be criticized.” And the Dayton Foundation has heard some pushback. A shooting victim said, “if you’re going to divide the money, do the right thing and divide it evenly.” And proposals to award funds to the family of Megan Betts created a critical whirlwind because her family is also the family of the shooter, her brother. 

Community foundations—and most grantmaking organizations—are generally in the business of addressing community issues, strengthening organizations, building up the social sector. They are not “gift-givers.” But the Dayton Oregon District Tragedy Fund was different. As Gary LeRoy tells it, “this is a gift from the community and we have to respect the donor intent and the wishes and the expressions of love, collective love that was given by the folks that donated unselfishly to this fund as a gift, not as compensation because no amount of monetary compensation can substitute for a life lost.”

A Growing Set of Lessons

Not all situations are alike and not all community foundations are ready to be both solicitors and managers of individual gifts. In Aurora, Colorado, the movie theater shooting triggered $5 million in contributions from around the country. The Community First Foundation created an Aurora Victim Fund but made its first distributions to local nonprofits. 

Victims’ family members protested and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper called in Ken Feinberg, who reports “we went out there, and we set up a system where the money was transferred to a state government account and distributed to the individuals. Nothing to the community.” 

Dayton has followed that example and will distribute all the funds to individuals. The protocols call for evidence and procedures in place to support claims–e.g. guardianship protections for minor children, hospital records to document length of treatment. The Feinberg formula: “Treat every death the same regardless of financial need. And treat every physical injury the same tied to hospitalization. Hospitalization is a pretty good barometer surrogate for seriousness of injury.”

That’s the same approach the Ventura County Community Foundation took late in 2018 after the Thousand Oaks shooting. Foundation head Vanessa Bechtel took an immediate action that the tragedy demanded. “First, we recognized that it’s a crime scene and people are left without their purses, their keys, their wallets, their shoes, clothing, access to anything, right?”

“Their cars, everything is confiscated. So what we did first was we awarded $75,000 worth of $500 prepaid Visa cards so that people would have access to some form of transportation if they needed to get their keys remade, if they were left without any access to their banking.”

The Ventura approach underscored the formula laid out by Feinberg and Biros: “This is not based on need,” Bechtel says emphatically, “This is not the time to start making judgments on [whether] this person’s financial situation is better than that person’s financial situation. This is based on the severity of injury and everybody gets treated the same.”

Ventura County went one step further by funding Give an Hour, the national nonprofit that provides weekly counseling and therapy sessions, free of charge, to victims of disasters. And the foundation funded support groups for groups of survivors’ families. These grants were segregated from the donations people meant for individuals. “The Conejo Valley Victims Fund was entirely committed to cash assistance,” Bechtel says.

“We spent $12,000 with an independent CPA firm to do an attestation that 100 percent of the contributions did, in fact, go to their intended purpose to the individuals. And we made sure that they verified, yes, we followed the guidelines, our protocols. And then we published that attestation report on our website. And the reason why that is so important is because, first of all, the response is so large and we also saw huge instances of fraud and abuse out in the community.”

The United States is now dotted with community foundation-sponsored “victim funds” tied to mass shootings. Wherever they are (Dayton, Ventura County, El Paso, Gilroy, and many more) they are being asked to carry out a kind of philanthropy community foundations were never designed to do.

They need to collect a lot of small donations from individuals in a hurry. They need to create a transparent process for making decisions about who gets the money. They need to reach out to the public and invite comments, suggestions and yes, criticism of their ways and means.

How did things work out in Dayton? Mayor Whaley summed it up: “I never thought that the community would be as generous as they were, so I think that was amazing. Secondly, I thought that the foundation did a really nice job of allowing public transparency, but also holding that “this is a gift. This isn’t supposed to be something that takes care of all issues.”

Maybe what’s most important is the long-term intention of the foundation. Ventura County’s Vanessa Bechtel spells it out by affirming “there are major needs that come. When you’re working with young people in school, they may not have had jobs and they’re not really in a position to be able to go out and work and balance school and deal with the mental and emotional stress. And so there’s very limited social safety net for a number of those that were impacted.       

“This isn’t something that you do and you go away. You have to continue to help find resources, help bridge those gaps. This is a long-term commitment, and I feel people need to make that commitment until the very end.”

Dayton’s mayor Whaley puts the demand squarely in front of local philanthropy: “I think that’s why these community foundations are so important, because they provide really important leadership, especially in midsize cities. When you see the loss of leadership across the country, community foundations and nonprofits are having to really step in.”

“These really challenging times make us all grow in different ways. So, I think it’s made the foundation grow, too. To be able to move that quickly, and be fast-acting, and still provide expertise in this area I think it’s been good for all of us.”

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