Alarms sounded in local fundraising circles recently when a major local company raised the specter of a relocation to Houston. Tidewater Inc. has been a fixture in New Orleans since its founding in the 1950s by brothers Alden and John Laborde. During the subsequent decades, as it grew into the world’s largest provider of transportation services to the offshore oil industry, it also joined the ranks of the city’s most important corporate citizens.

BIZ: The kindness of strangersThe danger to New Orleans in a relocation by Tidewater is not just the loss of local jobs. What also worries local nonprofit organizations is the impact of losing Tidewater’s top management.

Typically, the primary target of a company’s philanthropy is the city or area where its corporate headquarters is located. If Tidewater Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dean Taylor moves his management team from downtown New Orleans to Houston, the company’s charitable giving could shift as well.

Ironically, while the local business community has sustained some losses as a result of Hurricane Katrina – the relocation last year of International Shipholding Corp. to Mobile, Ala., for example – philanthropy in the local area overall has been remarkably vibrant in the last two years. A big reason is that the city’s enjoying unprecedented good will from businesses and foundations around the country and even the world.
Some corporations that operate in the local area, such as major oil companies and refiners, have stepped up in a big way. Chevron Corp. last year committed $12 million to its Energy for Learning program in Louisiana and that followed the company’s promise of $8 million in short-term relief and reconstruction assistance. ExxonMobil Foundation made a similar commitment, pledging $10 million to public education in the metropolitan area.

Grants and donations have poured in from major foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates, Rockefeller, Ford, Charles Stewart Mott and Kellogg foundations.
“It’s been unbelievable,” says Ben Johnson, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, a nonprofit that has played a key role in putting charitable dollars to work. “I don’t know of a foundation that’s not still sending grants, staff for technical assistance and forming partnerships to help rebuild our community. The national resources that are coming to our region are just spectacular.”

Johnson says the foundation’s funding, which normally averaged between $9 million and $11 million annually, rose to $16 million in 2005 and soared to $29 million in 2006. The foundation is on track to equal that sum this year and has doubled its staff in order to handle the growing responsibilities.

The Greater New Orleans Foundation and other local nonprofits have partnered with individuals, corporations and foundations to leverage dollars and put them to work efficiently. Locally, for instance, Baptist Community Ministries and the New Orleans Business Council joined in to help fund a recent study of the New Orleans Police Department by Brown Group International.

Local arts organizations also are benefiting from the influx of good will. Johnson notes that organizations including the Arts Council of New Orleans, the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art have developed strong relationships with national donors. The assistance not only is helping arts organizations to get their programs up and running but also to expand services and amenities.

The Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF) has served as a funnel of sorts for a good deal of the charitable funds that have flowed to the city. In some cases, the foundation receives the first call from an out-of-state donor and ends up referring the resources to other appropriate nonprofit organizations. Or GNOF may partner with a donor to target certain priority needs such as housing, public education and workforce development.

“In order to bring families back into the community, they need housing, jobs and schools for their kids,” Johnson says.

Given the range of needs in the local area, many donors and grant-making agencies find it difficult to narrow their targets. But one area they’ve settled on is education.
“Almost everybody’s putting education high on their list,” Johnson says. “I’ve never seen as many sectors of a community focused on the public school system as we have right now in New Orleans.”

The virtual implosion of the New Orleans public school system after Katrina created what many people regarded as a rare opportunity to revamp the system utterly. The development of a group of new charter schools, for instance, opened the door for parents and other interested parties to assert greater leadership in the governance and operation of the schools. Donors also are injecting new resources into development of quality day care operations, after-school activities for students and early childhood education, all with a goal of improving the learning environment and raising the educational bar for public school students.

While the surge of altruism into New Orleans is promising, local nonprofits realize that it won’t continue indefinitely. Recipients of the funds will need to demonstrate that they’ve put the money to good use and that they’re making progress toward becoming self-sustaining for the long term.

Johnson says GNOF encourages all major donors to make a five-year commitment to the city, with donations broken into annual increments. This allows recipients to create a long-range plan for their particular project or need and assures them of funding as they build the stability they’ll need to keep programs running on their own. “The next three to five years,” Johnson says, “ are going to be critical.”