Julie Hitchins, Executive Director
Community Foundation of Marshall County
On July 19, 2018 the community of Marshalltown was devastated by an EF3 tornado that plowed through their town. In the days that followed the tornado, the Community Foundation of Marshall County worked quickly to establish a fund to accept donations to assist the community in the recovery and rebuilding process. Now, a year later, Julie Hitchins, Executive Director of the Foundation, shares how the Rebuild Marshalltown Fund is helping the community restore itself, and what they have learned as an organization this past year about how to best respond to a disaster in your community.
I joined the Community Foundation of Marshall County almost six months after the tornado. When I started, the disaster grant making process was in full swing: grant guidelines, grant cycle timelines, application, and the grant agreement were all being developed. A grant review committee was formed which was made up of nine community members who have grant making experience and/or are associated with another tornado recovery organization. To best serve our community, we are utilizing a letter of intent process with an invitation to complete a grant application that is concluded with an in-person interview with the grantee organization.
Our first funding cycle concluded on May 2nd with $100,000 grant awards to the City of Marshalltown for the renovation of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Habitat for Humanity of Iowa for their Marshalltown Hammers Back project. We are currently in our second funding cycle with grant award announcements planned for September 3rd. Following the September grants, we will have one more funding cycle in 2019.
There is a lot to learn as you go through a disaster grant making process. I’ve compiled a list of what I believe are some of the most important things I’ve learned since beginning this work:
- Quickly establish a fund: You need to establish your fund quickly after the disaster to capture donors and accept online donations. We have had over 240 donors from 26 states donate more than $800,000. Most of the donations were made soon after the tornado, but interestingly two of our largest donations came in the 1st quarter of 2019.
- Continue to tell your story: Thanks to an ICoF Idea Implementation Grant we received after last year’s Connect Conference, we were able to engage Wild Key Creative to assist us with fund marketing which included social media templates, a flyer and a marketing plan. One of our strategies is to continually tell our story. We have received donations recently due to the fact they heard about the Rebuild Marshalltown Fund on the radio, read it in the newspaper or saw it on social media.
- Host Foundation expertise: Utilize the expertise at your Host Foundation to assist you on this new journey. We were very fortunate to have the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines at our side. They have given great guidance, provided resources and helped us tell our story by including the Rebuild Marshalltown Fund in their annual report.
- Collaborate: It is extremely important that you communicate (formally in meetings and informally) with tornado recovery organizations to assure there is not duplication of efforts. It is important to define each funds’ role, collaborate, and update the recovery efforts. We also structured our grant review committee to include individuals from other organizations engaged in recovery efforts.
- Marathon: It’s a marathon (maybe a super marathon) not a sprint when it comes to disaster recovery grant making. The Veterans Memorial Coliseum was “shovel” ready before the tornado and rebuilding is part of Habitat’s mission. In the second funding cycle we are seeing some requests for repairs, but we know there are many projects that are still in the planning phase and not ready for application. We believe this fund will exist for up to ten years.
- Donor Stewardship: One of our marketing strategies was to continue to communicate with donors and share how their donations are helping Marshalltown rebuild. It is our hope that seeing the grant making results will spur more donations. Below is an excerpt from the anniversary letter that was mailed to all donors:
“One year later, July 19 at 4:40 p.m., Marshalltown residents gathered in front of the beloved Marshall County Courthouse for the first anniversary of the EF3 tornado that ripped through the heart of our community. We celebrated the miracle that no lives were lost during those frightful 23 minutes. There was silence as we reflected on the events of the past year, followed by the ringing of church bells and the collective cheer, ‘Marshalltown Strong!’”