After a Crisis: Opportunities for Community Development and System Change

Disaster philanthropy

Community Development and System Change After a Crisis

Crises create opportunities

As many have said in different ways, a crisis is an opportunity to come out stronger. In responding to crisis, we re-invent, innovate and problem-solve.  Crisis creates opportunities for community development and system change.  We need these to increase our chances of survival the next time such a crisis happens.  It’s not only survival that’s at stake, it’s equity and community vitality. This was true after communities experienced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as I wrote about here, and it’s true for the Covid-19 pandemic now.

During and after a crisis, activists, including the general public, foundations, and nonprofits, can play useful roles in re-building ravaged communities.   Whichever crisis we are interested in addressing, sometimes it’s productive to focus on community development.  Other times it’s useful to focus on system change.

In a crisis, we must resist the temptation to rebuild those parts of the old system that create inefficiencies, inequities, and indignities.  Instead, we must prepare to reset the way things have been traditionally done.  And we must promote new growth by catalyzing new and better opportunities. This could well be the right time, perhaps even the best time, to give the forces of constructive change a major boost forward.  Foundation support for community development and system change after a crisis can create healthier communities and better systems of community support.

Grantmakers, Community Development and System Change

Foundations have the capacity to influence agendas and the flow of money, even though their own resources are a pittance compared to public dollars that are made available.  Nevertheless, foundations have many useful assets – purchasing power, influence and leadership, knowledge of communities, and development know-how.  We encourage foundations to use these assets creatively to aid a more equitable reconstruction of communities following a crisis.  Putting these assets together in a program of support for community development and system change draws on the renewed energies of activists, nonprofits, a range of grantmakers, and even evaluators.

But fast action is required, and this isn’t grantmakers long suit.  In this respect, board members with entrepreneurial instincts can be useful. Philanthropic assets can be used much more advantageously that we currently see. Of major value would be a shift in equity investments to support more companies operating locally, employing people locally, recycling the money and growth opportunities locally. But money’s not the only useful asset of a foundation or nonprofit; their Boards have far more influence and leadership potential than they use.  Foundations can deploy these assets of influence at many local levels to catalyze new healthy recovery.

The entrepreneurial world has learned to create upgrades quickly: Try things, assess consequences quickly, upgrade quickly, try more informed, improved things.  Even from the get–go there are opportunities to do things better.  Staff can re-calibrate grant application protocols for greater speed and volume without sacrificing too much in cost– and quality–control. This is a good time for foundations to respect their strongest, most life–supporting grantees.  Foundations can ask these nonprofits to triage their situations and re–order their priorities, and then fund their operations to take them to an even more responsive level of effectiveness. Trusted grantees don’t need new “projects,” they need to re-establish themselves and move out on what they do best.  Remember, crisis creates opportunities for community development and system change.

Activists, Community Development and System Change

Activists, working through a variety of community organizations, have to insist their constituents get a righteous piece of the redevelopment opportunities. My original article (After The Flood) highlights what these opportunities could be.  The Covid pandemic is different in that its reach ranges from global to very local.  As the community–level shutdowns have disrupted national and international supply chains that dramatically affect the nation’s vitality, place matters more. There are opportunities to grow and sustain more regional and local efforts in economic and community development. There are many signs of fresh green growth at the local and regional levels.  They need more support.  Their efforts to produce and distribute life’s necessities are quicker and can employ people in commerce and assistance.  They can reduce inequities, recycling and multiplying local dollars and other benefits.

New kinds of partnerships are suddenly opportune. Millions of people with skills and good intentions have been cut loose from their organizational moorings, their skills intact.  They are  connected digitally to networks and resources in ways the world has never seen before.  They too know crisis creates opportunities for community development and system change, and need access to what foundations and nonprofits can provide.

Nonprofits, Community Development and System Change

Nonprofits now have the perfect opportunity to partner differently with foundations and other sources of redevelopment dollars – especially if they’re interested in re-forming the nonprofit marketplace.   Every organization’s flip chart of SWOTs has been completely remade, so now is the time for out-of-the-box thinking and new paradigms. [Please forgive my dated enthusiasm.] Foundations can now take steps to make sure the people they care about get a righteous piece of the redevelopment opportunities. Help people and organizations draw on new–found digital capabilities, connect with their people, support new networks and linkages, and push out on greater mission performance.

Evaluators, Community Development and System Change

Evaluators can help develop “before and after pictures” of life in their regions, using a variety of data, stories, pictures, indicators, etc. And Evaluating for system change is entirely different from Evaluating for Community Development.


My original publication, “After The Flood: Some Out-of-the-Box Options for for Foundations” can be downloaded here.  It focuses on the opportunities for community development and system change following the flooding on the Gulf Coast following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey.  The article brings out many lessons…:


Some additional resources:

“Covid-19 is a wake-up call for systems change.”

“Disaster Philanthropy Playbook”

“Reconstruction of New Orleans after Katrina: A Research Perspective”


Originally appeared: Website of the Effective Communities Project

Number of pages: 1

Original date: October 2, 2005

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.

Effective Communities Project
Minneapolis, MN