13 Seconds in August

Two years ago today, the 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis.  As Minnesotans mourned for the families that had lost so much, we also mourned that we had lost our belief in our state's infrastructure. Things that were seen as strong and unmoveable were no longer trustworthy. Immediately after the bridge collapsed, I wondered what philanthropy's role should be in this type of crisis. For the next few weeks, I worked that issue out with my colleagues at the Saint Paul Foundation and with an amazing partnership of grantmakers. Our foundations acted as a central repository, as people turned their mourning into action. We collected over $1.2 million dollars from institutions, everyday people, community bake sales, memorial concerts, and lemonade stands. We were presented with big oversized checks and glass jars full of change.

We met as grantmakers and made tough decisions about how the first dollars would go out. We made the easier choice first, we send money to nonprofits that immediately helped after the crisis. I think each of us had our own way of dealing with the weight of responsibility that came with those first choices. I read each of those applications over and over again. I talked to my step-dad, who is a firefighter and who worked many long days after the collapse on the rescue and then recovery efforts, to see how he felt about the mental health providers who had claimed that they were reaching out to the first responders (he gave them a glowing report card). I asked a friend who's children were on a school bus on the bridge during the collapse if he was getting the support he needed from a nonprofit that was requesting funds (his family was). I asked myself if I had lost a loved one in the collapse, which institution would I turn to or help, and would that be a different agency if I was an undocumented immigrant, a stay at home mom in the suburbs, or  an executive's husband. The choices that we made were tough but fair and the grants that we made during that process are the ones that I have been most proud of during my career. We got the money out quickly, with as little paperwork as possible. I am even prouder of the next phase of grantmaking, because we understood our limitations as funders and charged the United Way's 211 line with the task of coordinating services for survivors and families that had lost a loved one and provided financial assistance to those families. That phase of grantmaking paid for mortgages, wheelchair ramps, and a host of other things that we hoped would make the pain a little more bearable.

Participating in grantmaking of this magnitude and with so much pressure to do the right thing was a career changing thing for me. It taught me that philanthropy is just people reaching out to each other and hoping to make someone's life a little bit better. I also learned that relying on your instincts is an important part of the process, as well as talking to people who are closer to the issue than you are. I also found out that foundations can get money out quickly and with very little paperwork, there just needs to be the will to do that.

I'll say a prayer for the families tonight and another prayer for our field to have the wisdom and compassion needed to be the help our communities need.