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Deep Roots

February 21, 2012

Early one week in June 2008, local news outlets in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, began predicting minor flooding from the Cedar River. By mid-week, sandbags started to appear. Then came The Weather Channel’s severe weather team. By the end of the week, Cedar Rapids—and much of Eastern Iowa—was under water.

“It happened very quickly,” recalled Karla Twedt-Ball, vice president of programs for The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation. “By Wednesday, the gas company started calling. That was the moment that people realized that this was going to exceed expectations.”

Two days later the Cedar River in Linn County would crest at 31 feet, 19 feet above flood stage and 11 feet over the previous record. Eventually 7,000 parcels of land across ten square miles would be flooded, damage reaching an estimated $5.7 billion.

A major response was needed. The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation (GCRCF), recipients of AFP’s 2012 Award for Outstanding Foundation, went into action.

In a matter of days, GCRCF proved itself to be a trusted and agile force, bringing the community together—donors, charities, local business and government—to offer both immediate support to first responders and local charities, and sustained reconstruction funding long after the first responders were gone.

“It was unlike anything we had tackled before,” said Twedt-Ball. “We were learning as we went.”

Just days into the flooding, GCRCF established the Flood 2008 Fund. The aim: restoring the community—providing support to individuals most directly affected, making sure agencies skilled at relief work had the resources they needed and helping a  broad base of key service organizations open their doors once again.

As they initiated the fund, GCRCF staff had to evacuate their own downtown offices located near the west bank of the Cedar River, use personal cell phones and emails while without email or server access for one week and gathered at least weekly for application reviews and decisions, and make board decisions via email when there was no other option.

Within two weeks of the flood, the GCRCF started the process of distributing $290,000 from its own operating reserves to help 63 flood-impacted nonprofits get back in business. By the end of the year, GCRCF had granted more than $14 million—representing a $10 million increase from its 2007 grant making levels—with 55 new funds established by individuals, families business and foundations, many of them in response to the flood.

“The Foundation did an outstanding job finding and dispensing money very quickly when we and other nonprofits were in a state of shock from the awesome nature of the devastation and the challenge of getting back in business,” said Rich Patterson, executive director, Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. “Most of the money in the pipeline involved a lot of paperwork and a long time line. The foundation was there quickly with funds without a lot of bureaucracy. Their allocation was a morale booster. It meant a lot.”

“We had to collaborate,” said Twedt-Ball. “We weren’t smart enough to know what would need to happen Thursday when something happened Wednesday. We had to leverage resources, relationships and connections.”

The Irene W. and CB Pennington Foundation of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been through the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita just a few years prior. When the Iowa flood happened, this private family foundation sought out a community foundation to partner with in delivering flood relief. In GCRCF they found a worthy partner. They made a $100,000 lead gift to the Flood 2008 Fund and offered critical advice about handling natural disasters.

The Flood 2008 Fund ended in 2011. Downtown Cedar Rapids is once again beginning to flourish. By 2013, the downtown core will boast of new nonprofit offices, a new convention center and a new spirit.

“Our role as a community foundation it is to facilitate connections,” said Les H. Garner, Jr., the foundation’s president and CEO. “In a crisis, or any other situation for that matter, you can’t wall yourself off from those seeking funds. As a community foundation, we see our role as one of a facilitator among donors, charities, local businesses and the community as a whole. We want to be a convener and a catalyst to solutions. Sometimes it may feel that there is a firewall between grant seekers and grant makers. Our policy is that we’re always open to a conversation about how to make this community even better.”

In crisis, it’s not what you can do alone, it is who you can bring together to face an unprecedented challenge. What happened in the community of Cedar Rapids is a testament to the passion of many charitable organizations willing to get people the support they needed immediately and for years to come. The work of those organizations was channeled and amplified by the work of one very dedicated community foundation.

“GCRCF earns the outstanding foundation status daily through its accessibility, continuous improvement focus, passionate staff and forward-thinking board,” said Dawn Svenson Holland, past president of the AFP Eastern Iowa chapter. “Because we feel they embody the essence of a community foundation, AFP Eastern Iowa is thrilled to have our nomination of them accepted for this honor that will be bestowed in Vancouver.”

AFP will present the Award for Outstanding Foundation to the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation in Vancouver this March. To learn about all of the 2012 AFP Awards for Philanthropy recipients, click here.

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