KALAMAZOO — When a violent tragedy struck downtown Kalamazoo in late February, local nonprofits reacted swiftly to channel corporate and individual donations to the appropriate needs.
On the morning following a random shooting spree that left six people dead, Battle Creek-based Kellogg Co. (NYSE: K) contacted Brenda Hunt, CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation, to discuss options for aiding the victims’ families, as well as supporting long-term solutions to community violence.
“By late afternoon, they had made the decision to act and we knew we wanted to be in a position to respond other citizens, corporate or individual, that want to make a difference,” Hunt told MiBiz.
Kellogg’s initial undisclosed gift spurred the foundation to partner with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region to establish a collaborative fund called Help Now!. The partners set up the fund and its website in less than 48 hours.
The organizations’ leaders attributed the expedited formation to their longstanding connections and collaborations with other area institutions.
“It’s natural for us to turn to one another and share information about processes and insights,” said Carrie Pickett-Erway, president and CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. “Each of us as institutions has relationships throughout the community to help us reach that inclusion relatively quickly. Conversations that we’re having with the police department, the city, the mayor and others — we can leverage those relationships.”
Once established, Help Now! positioned itself as the primary venue for donations and assistance related to the crime. Within a week of the incident, more than 100 donors had contributed in excess of $55,000.
The fund’s organizers say they acknowledge that handling and distributing others’ donations requires strong stewardship on their part. They had developed a structure for allocating the funds by the time the website went live, just hours after the incident.
“The purpose of the fund as it was established allows for a phased approach. As we’ve been trying to respond to things, we’ve really had to triage and prioritize,” Pickett-Erway said.
Assisting the victims and their families became the collaborative’s top priority. The second phase is geared toward community healing, organizing vigils and counseling services. The third focus will be addressing violence and gun safety in the community at large.
Via the Help Now! website, donors can chose to direct their contributions to a specific phase, whether for long-term solutions or immediate assistance to the victims’ families. All unspecified donations will be directed by a collaborative advisory board to best meet the needs of the community.
Hunt of Battle Creek said that as those needs change, the members of the board may change as well in an effort “to be in concert with our communities.”
In handling donations of any size, the organizations need to maintain transparency, which is equally as important as the structure of the collaboration, said Mike Larson, president and CEO of the local chapter of the United Way.
“We take that responsibility very seriously. If anybody were to question how those dollars were used, we should be able to explain how they were invested right back,” he said. “I think the key is to be responsive while making sure you have a good process that you’re following, that you’re going to the right partners. There are so many people out there who want to help and everybody has the right intent, but in some cases, if we’re all coming from different directions, it can actually cause more issues than help.”
Beyond the financial side of assistance, the collaborative is also working to make the general public aware of mental health resources, such as Gryphon Place of Kalamazoo and Summit Pointe of Battle Creek, which provide crisis counseling for those struggling with grief, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.
Going forward, Hunt said that the community foundations and United Way will continue to collaborate while expanding the fund’s scope from the victims’ families and front-line agencies to long-term solutions for community violence and gun safety.
“Violence knows no borders,” she said. “We know that we have a tremendous problem of violence in society and clearly we have had it and continue to have it right here in our own communities. I think we’re all working to try and do our very best to address a horrible tragedy that we hope never happens again in any community, let alone our own.
“We owe it to any victim to find a way to reduce violence. That’s the highest tribute we can possibly come to in my mind.”