How Collaboration Jumpstarted Rebuilding Efforts on St. John Island After the 2017 Hurricane Season

By Tony Connor, Director of Marketing, Public Interest Registry

No matter the amount of forethought or planning, the impact of a natural disaster just can’t be anticipated. But when you’re a small island separated from the resources that are readily available on mainland, it’s even harder to implement effective disaster planning and response. Communication is absolutely critical.

For the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John, September 2017 left the community of approximately 4,000 people in devastation after two category 5 hurricanes hit the island exactly two weeks apart. On September 6, Hurricane Irma swept through with wind speeds reaching more than 200 miles per hour, followed two weeks later by similarly powerful Hurricane Maria. The storms left the island’s infrastructure destroyed, but heightened its community spirit.

While the U.S. government sent troops to assist organisations on the ground with recovery efforts, local organisations started to collaborate to share resources and support. Most nonprofits and NGOs are unfortunately all too familiar with disaster response, as these organisations are typically the first to step in to assist their local communities. The response effort on St. John was no different, with the St. John Community Foundation (SJCF) stepping into a community convener role to help streamline rescue and recovery coordination. SJCF was created in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo hit the island, and since then the organisation has provided services including after school programs, anti-crime initiatives, youth and senior programs, community facility enhancements, recycling, community sports and arts programs, and support for social service programming island-wide.

Knowing collaboration among all recovery efforts would be key to an effective response, Celia Kalousek, executive director of SJCF, immediately established communications with FEMA, St. John Rescue, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Red Cross, Love City Strong, Chesney’s Love for Love City, the National Park Service and others, and coordinated daily outreach to residents. On a weekly basis, SJCF led check-ins with involved organisations to discuss progress and challenges with on-the-ground efforts.

With clear channels of communications established, Celia’s second priority was establishing a financial flow to the island and to partners involved in recovery efforts. In times of disaster, local currency – and access to it – is critical as it can be used immediately by organisations to purchase supplies and by those affected by the disaster for basic necessities. Thinking quickly, Celia proposed participation in Giving Tuesday, with SJCF leading the effort on behalf of St. John’s nonprofit community.

In fact, the community spirit behind the global Giving Tuesday movement – which uses the power of social media to bring together for one day individuals from around the world to support nonprofit organisations – was a perfect match for the collaborative efforts that were taking place on St. John. It was also a strong channel for raising awareness of the destruction and resulting need throughout the island, as well as for raising U.S. currency for relief efforts.

Once the decision was made to participate in Giving Tuesday, Celia and her team of three – including Rachel Rachfal and Jon Eichner – had five weeks to pull together resources. The first order of business was to review a Giving Tuesday webinar on Giving Tuesday best practices – which was hosted by Giving Tuesday organisers, Nonprofit Tech for Good and our team at Public Interest Registry earlier in the year – and leverage the information to design a campaign.

The next step was determining an appropriate overarching brand to encompass the St. John nonprofit community. The team selected “STJAngels” to represent all of the island’s nonprofit community participants. They then decided to direct all STJAngels Giving Tuesday campaign traffic to one spot: a landing page on SJCF’s existing .org website, to capitalize on the strong reputation the .org domain holds for supporting non-commercial endeavors. They also set up a STJAngels Facebook page, Instagram account and Twitter handle to communicate stories of relief workers and organisations under the broader umbrella.

While there are many social media and donation platforms available to support online giving campaigns, Celia and her team wanted to tell their story on their own website. (Consider reading more about the pros and cons of using social media as your primary web presence in this February 2018 blog post.) Celia and her team’s decision to anchor the Giving Tuesday campaign under the new STJAngels brand, yet established SJCF .org website provided a uniting factor for the island community, and a clear understanding for donors providing support. In the short amount of time the team had to develop the Giving Tuesday campaign, a new brand logo was created, new social media platforms cultivated, influencers identified and approached to amplify support, and email databases were merged to alert collective lists of St. John stakeholders prior to day-of campaign efforts. Celia and team also worked very hard to develop content that would tell the daily stories of relief workers on the island.

The hard work paid off. On Giving Tuesday, STJAngels raised more than $30,000 in a single day, making a difference for more than 50 nonprofits and the St. John residents they serve. The campaign also effectively raised awareness around the work being done to rebuild the island and community of St. John, which poured in prior to and after Giving Tuesday.

The St. John Community Foundation story is proof that online giving campaigns can be successful on many fronts, not just in raising monetary donations. By tapping in to the trust the .org domain brings to mission-based organisations, as well as the reach Giving Tuesday (also on the .org domain) provided to this small, location-challenged non-profit, SJCF was able to establish and brand an evergreen movement that it can continue to build upon as needed. You can read more about the initial results of the SJCF’s STJAngels campaign, stay up-to-date on recovery efforts and see how the STJAngels brand has evolved at: http://thestjohnfoundation.org/stjangels#works.

The #ORGinAction series highlights how organisations who trust the .org domain are using it to anchor their communication, networking and advocacy efforts online. Are you a #ORGinAction? Reach out to us via Twitter (@PIRegistry) and tell us how you use .org to amplify your organisation’s work.