This story was co-published with The Denver Post.
Susan Windisch was mid-divorce when the Marshall Fire took her Louisville home. Her insurance payout was split between her and her ex-husband, as was the money from the sale of their burned lot. She’s now living in a rental without enough to rebuild, looking “farther and farther” from her community to find something more permanent she can afford.
“I’m faced with a really horrible housing market,” said Windisch, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her struggle with lupus lets her only work part-time. So she sought financial help from the Community Foundation Boulder County, which administers the Boulder County Wildfire Fund.
Windisch said she was told “if you’re not rebuilding, there’s nothing we can do,” a response that puzzled her, especially because the foundation has raised more than $43 million to help fire victims, and still has about half left.
“I would definitely qualify for a rebuilding grant from the Community Foundation,” she said, if she had the means.
Meanwhile, Judylynn Schmidt is rebuilding. Her new house will rise where the last one burned. Schmidt’s outlook is brighter. She easily qualified for $20,000 in rebuilding assistance, and more, since she’s a senior.
Schmidt said the money she received from the Community Foundation paid for her new basement. “It makes a huge difference,” she said.
Schmidt is not alone in getting help from the Community Foundation. But 16 months after the Marshall Fire razed more than a thousand homes and damaged hundreds of others, some survivors are bumping up against the limitations and rules of charity, despite the massive outpouring of donations after Colorado’s most devastating wildfire on record.
The Community Foundation Boulder County raised $43.3 million from more than 82,000 donors. In the first weeks after the fire, the foundation sent money flowing back to survivors almost as fast as it came in. Households of one or two people were given $2,500. Homes with three people or more received $5,000. The goal was to provide cash for a security deposit on a new rental, or a deposit on a new car to replace that burned in the fire.
Combined with money spent on mental health support and funds to help victims navigate the complexities of insurance, almost $10 million was “out the door” in the first 90 days, Tatiana Hernandez, the foundation’s CEO, said.
“Philanthropic dollars are always meant to meet a need,” Hernandez said. “And in that moment, everyone had a need.”
Yet after that initial push, the Community Foundation pumped the brakes and turned its attention toward longer-term efforts, like funding those rebuilding on their same lots.
This decision frustrated some survivors, like Windisch, and also Megan Schuler, who lost her Coal Creek Ranch home in Superior. Schuler and her husband decided to forgo the challenge of rebuilding on their charred lot and instead build on a new plot in nearby Lafayette. She reached out to see if she could access funds her former neighbors had secured, but was told she didn’t qualify since she was building somewhere else, albeit still in Boulder County.
“My house is gone, just like everyone else’s,” Schuler said. “It seems kind of unfair to put parameters around this money that our friends, our neighbors, our community gave thinking it would help everyone.”
Those involved in disaster recovery say two main factors can explain what seems like a clash of expectations around philanthropic spending. The first is that the amount of charity raised was significantly less than what’s needed to meet survivors’ needs. The second, more difficult point to make, is that there’s a misperception about the role of local disaster philanthropy.
When a disaster like the Marshall Fire strikes, there are immediate needs apparent to everyone: food, shelter and clean water. Victims also need mental health services — immediate and long term — to deal with the trauma, and they need to get back to work. What isn’t as obvious are the needs of long-term recovery that can drag on many years, experts say. For a community to rebound, philanthropic organizations try to ensure someone is financing long-term recovery.
“They’re still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, they’re still recovering from Superstorm Sandy,” said Sally Ray, a director at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “I live in Texas, we are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.”
Ray said the Community Foundation Boulder County was able to “get money out the door quickly, but then also to be smart and strategic about recognizing the long-term recovery.
“There are things that could be done better, certainly, but that’s everywhere.”
Part of long-term recovery is rebuilding. After the immediate push to get cash to survivors, the Community Foundation looked at underinsurance figures provided by the Colorado Division of Insurance. What it found was that hundreds of millions of dollars lay in the void between what people were covered for and what it would cost them to rebuild.
The foundation didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars, but it decided to dedicate about half the wildfire fund, $20 million, to help lure the community back. If fire victims are rebuilding on the same lot where their home burned, they’re entitled to $20,000. If they’re low income, they get an extra $10,000. Seniors, single heads of households, and those with kids also get extra. If all the extra criteria are met, a rebuilding family could receive almost $50,000.
Those dealing with catastrophic smoke damage now also qualify. Renters and those not rebuilding get a much smaller portion of the fund.
“There are secondary consequences to losing that many homes in an already housing-constricted community,” Hernandez said. “Focusing on fire-affected lots meets donor intent, and meets the community’s need for housing stock.”
All questions from Boulder Reporting Lab to the Community Foundation’s board were directed to Hernandez.
Losing more than a thousand homes all at once has implications for a community’s tax base and school enrollment, affecting the economic vibrancy of a town. The goal of the Community Foundation was getting back 75% of these homes, much higher than the national average rebuilding rate. According to Boulder County’s recovery website, more than 300 rebuilding grants have been approved so far, pulling more than $7 million from the rebuilding allotment. In total, almost 500 rebuilding permits have been approved in Boulder County accounting for about 45% of the structures lost to the fire. That includes those not receiving, or not yet approved, for the foundation’s funds.
At a recent townhall, Hernandez said, if need be, the foundation will tap the $7.5 million of unallocated funds to fill gaps in the rebuilding fund down the road.
She also said the foundation is holding those unallocated funds in case community members are still in between homes when their Additional Living Expenses (ALE) insurance runs out this coming December. Most insurers agreed to extend ALE from the normal 12 months to 24. It’s unlikely they’ll extend again.
A case study in complexity: ‘More intensive needs than we expected’
The Community Foundation’s response to the Marshall Fire is a case study in the complexity and hard decisions for philanthropic organizations following a disaster. Dona Dalton from Lutheran Family Services, the nonprofit in charge of recovery navigation that directs fire victims to resources and financial assistance from the foundation, said “more-intensive needs than we anticipated” and “many moving parts from day one” made a challenging task even more difficult.
“Because of the unique and larger-scale approach to provide services to all, there was no established staffing model,” Dalton said, “and our projections have proved inadequate to meet all of the needs and respond as quickly as we would have liked.”
Understanding how different communities handle such disasters — like learning about staffing needs for recovery navigation — is essential, because climate disasters are increasing. For Western communities, many of these disasters will take the form of wildland-urban fires or extreme floods that strain government and philanthropic systems. Lack of money is compounded by inequitable systems of aid. Inadequate funds available to rebuild often miss those who need them most.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published a report in 2021 acknowledging that the way it responds to disasters often heightens economic and racial disparities. In disasters, those with less property and income tend to lose a higher percentage of their overall resources. And when funds are distributed, at-risk populations often receive less money. More simply, the way disaster relief is distributed makes poor people poorer and wealthy people wealthier. GoFundMe campaigns may contribute to this disparity, as they benefit survivors who have sprawling, affluent networks.
FEMA grants for individual assistance in the Marshall Fire totaled $4.3 million, less than even the immediate aid provided by the Community Foundation. (This does not include SBA loans, which have totaled about $108 million. Nearly $100 million was for home loans with some $8 million going to businesses.)
Increasingly, the hundreds of community foundations in the U.S., especially in well-resourced communities like Boulder County, are having to step in to try and fill some of this shortfall and safety net gap.
But as Hernandez said, Community Foundation Boulder County isn’t primarily a disaster response vehicle, nor does it want to be.
That doesn’t change the fact that victims of disasters are looking for help, and when there’s a lot of charitable money on the table they understandably see it as a way to solve some of their problems. And the money keeps coming. The foundation said it recently received a $50,000 donation.
Left: Damage from the Dec. 30, 2021 Marshall Fire. Credit: Anthony Albidrez. Right: Houses under construction along McCaslin Blvd. in the burn area in February 2023. Credit: Don Kohlbauer
“There’s more than 1,000 families who lost homes, more who have partial losses, and still more who were renters,” said Reina Pomeroy, a board member for Marshall Together, a nonprofit helping fire victims heal and rebuild. (Marshall Together received funding from the Community Foundation.) “So people are looking at that pot of money saying, “Wait, why am I not getting, I don’t know, $45,000.”
‘If you want your money to go to immediate relief, donate to the Red Cross’
This feeling is not unique to Boulder County. California, no stranger to wildland-urban interface fires, has many community foundation leaders thinking through this dilemma.
“One of the biggest challenges early on was public communication and perception,” said Jovanni Tricerri, vice president for the North Valley Community Foundation. “People would say, ‘Why are you struggling to spend your money?’”
North Valley Community Foundation is one of the main organizations that helped respond, and is still responding, to the Camp Fire, a 2018 blaze that burned more than 18,000 structures in Northern California. At least 85 people died in the fire that covered almost 240 square miles. The foundation raised $70 million following the Camp Fire — a huge amount, until you realize the fire caused about $16.5 billion in damages. Like in Boulder County, the foundation wasn’t struggling to spend its money but was allocating funds so it would have enough to help aid its community in recovery long term and be ready for the next disaster.
“We would tell donors, ‘If you want your money to go to immediate relief, donate to the Red Cross,’” Tricerri said.
When long-term recovery is the goal, careful allotment of funds is necessary. Because there’s not enough money.
Even when a disaster like the Marshall Fire or the Camp Fire upends a community where a robust community foundation raises tens of millions of dollars, it’s a fraction of what’s needed. Insured losses alone from the Marshall Fire likely surpassed $2 billion. The $43 million raised by the Community Foundation Boulder County is just over 2% percent of $2 billion. As climate change fuels more extreme weather disasters, the gap between damages and funds available to recover will likely expand.
“There aren’t enough financial resources to deal with the financial need in this disaster,” said Katie Arrington, a recovery and resiliency project manager for Boulder County. “There’s just not enough funds.”
But charity is about helping those most in need with what’s available. And many question whether this is happening.
Laura Seaman, CEO of the League of California Community Foundations, said the challenge of looking out for our highest-risk citizens is not FEMA’s alone. She said she’s heard from a lot of community foundations that there aren’t enough resources available “to make sure [vulnerable populations] aren’t falling through the gaps.”
Seaman said vulnerable people, who have fewer resources to start, can be wary of government and relief agencies, and less assertive in advocating for their needs.
In Boulder County’s case, there’s no clear census data on the Marshall Fire, making it harder to ensure equitable outcomes. To provide for renters or homeowners who aren’t rebuilding, the Community Foundation set aside $2.5 million in an “unmet needs” fund. This money is to help fire victims with rent assistance, medical bills, replacing work equipment lost in the fire and other uses. Though $2.5 million is considerably less than the $20 million available for those rebuilding, Hernandez said this is because the Community Foundation estimates that less than 10% of the population affected by the fire was low income, or 50 to 100 families out of the roughly 1,100.
So far, $625,000 has been distributed from the unmet needs allocation. As of early May, 146 applications had been approved for the funding.
According to information Boulder Reporting Lab obtained through a public records request to FEMA, of the 2,185 individuals who submitted for assistance after the Marshall Fire, 897 were renters. That means roughly 30% of those who applied were renters and would not qualify for any of the $20 million rebuilding fund. Additionally, data from the Boulder Valley School District shows at least 20 children affected by the fire remain either homeless or without a stable place to live.
Ray, of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, reiterated that one cause of inequitable funding after disasters is a wariness towards big organizations from people who need help the most. Seaman from California said our “undocumented neighbors” often fail to get aid they need. The same is likely true in Colorado.
To remedy this, trust needs to be built with those communities before disasters, not after.
“The best thing a community foundation can do is be connected to those [vulnerable] populations through whatever trusted organization works with them prior to a disaster hitting,” Ray said.
Ray added that this connection is vital, because “anything that is already an issue in the community is going to be that much worse after a disaster,” like housing and food insecurity.
“People think renters didn’t lose a lot,” said Charla Harvey, a photographer and graduate student at Naropa University, who was renting at the time of the Marshall Fire and lost her belongings. “It was everything we had. It just wasn’t a house. I don’t know what that’s like. I’ve never had a house.”
She received $5,000 from the Community Foundation and was also offered money for furniture. At the time, she didn’t have anywhere to put it, and now thinks the offer has expired. Harvey said she appreciates the support — no one had to give her anything — but it wasn’t enough.
“It could have been better, and I also appreciate what it was,” she said.
Potential pushback after local disasters for philanthropic organizations
Sister Carmen is a local non-profit that helps those struggling to pay their bills. Suzanne Crawford, Sister Carmen’s CEO, said the post-disaster increase in economic insecurity has certainly affected Boulder County, where evictions are rising.
“There are people who were already struggling to make ends meet because it is so expensive in this area,” Crawford said. “Since the fire, that’s even more true than it was before, because rents have continued to go up.”
When people came in after the fire, Sister Carmen sent them to the county’s Disaster Assistance Center, where, among other things, they could get some of the immediate assistance money offered by the Community Foundation. This is different from North Valley, where money was mainly given to local nonprofits.
“We didn’t have the infrastructure to determine who was going to get funding or not,” Tricerri of the North Valley Community Foundation said. “But we would fund organizations that did that professionally. And we would empower and strengthen their ability to do that.”
Though the Community Foundation Boulder County has given money to local nonprofits like United Policyholders and Jewish Family Services, it’s mainly working directly with residents.
Hernandez said the foundation was doing everything it could to ensure it was still reaching those who might be nervous to advocate for themselves.
“I was probably on Spanish TV daily for the first month to make sure members of the Spanish-speaking community knew they were protected,” she said. She added that the Community Foundation was also in touch with local nonprofits, including Sister Carmen and I Have a Dream, letting them know, “If people come to you with fire-affected questions, and they’re not comfortable coming to recovery navigation, meet their needs and let us know what those needs are and we’ll fill it in on the backend.” The Community Foundation Boulder County approved $600,000 out of the fire fund for that purpose.
Ray of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, however, said she got the sense some nonprofits in Boulder were wary of entering the fray of the recovery process because of potential ramifications. “There has been a tremendous amount of political pushback in previous disasters that have made some organizations wary of throwing their hat in the ring,” she said.
Ray cited Foothills United Way, the nonprofit that led recovery efforts after the 2013 flooding in Boulder that no longer exists. Many believe this was due to its handling of the flood recovery.
“It is not uncommon for leadership to change hands after a major disaster, because the population thinks they didn’t do things right,” Ray said. “But there’s also instances where the success of a recovery is celebrated, those [leaders] are lauded, and the organization becomes a key factor in any preparedness planning and resilience.”
With climate change, ‘there’s just not enough money’ will become more prevalent
The reality of climate change is that disasters are going to continue to occur, and with greater frequency. As economic impacts pile up, it’s likely the amount philanthropic organizations receive for each disaster will go down. There will simply be too many causes to donate to. The phrase “there’s just not enough money” will become more prevalent.
So how should community foundations distribute these limited funds for the greatest long-term impact? Tricerri thinks investing in community resiliency is a good bet.
“When people think about the next disaster, they think about having a go bag or about the things to make their home safe,” he said. “But communities really need to build trusted relationships now to prepare for what’s coming. We’ve got to be able to trust each other when a disaster hits.
“And quite honestly, as a society, that’s probably getting worse than better.”
John Herrick and Claire Cleveland provided reporting for this story.
This story is part of a series examining the Boulder County Wildfire Fund, the single-largest source of disaster and recovery philanthropy for those whose lives were shattered in the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history.
It was reported through a fellowship supported by the Lilly Endowment and administered by the Chronicle of Philanthropy to expand coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. Boulder Reporting Lab is solely responsible for all content.