Light in the Darkness: A Fundraising Campaign to Help Rebuild Puerto Rico

downed power lines in puerto Rico. photo:   RaiPhoto /shutterstock

downed power lines in puerto Rico. photo:  RaiPhoto/shutterstock

The rush of the daily news cycle can obscure the fact that to this date, millions of American citizens are still facing a humanitarian crisis. Puerto Rico’s path to recovery has been a slow one, exacerbated by a stuttering response from the federal government. Meanwhile, philanthropy hasn’t really stepped up either, at least not compared to the outpouring of support for Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

There have been exceptions. The response from many corporations was swift and significant in some cases. And in November, three major foundations—Ford, Rockefeller and Open Society—kicked in $5 million for rebuilding in Puerto Rico, with an eye on fixing some of the deeper problems that plague the island.

Figures from the arts world are also on board. Prominent among them is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who recently penned an ardent piece in the Washington Post urging Congress not to lose sight of the island. In addition to devoting his own money to the cause, Miranda’s using his platform to spur more individual donations.

Related: State of Emergency: Funders Join Forces to Aid Puerto Rico's Beleaguered Arts Community

The star playwright’s relief fund of choice is based at the Hispanic Federation, a national membership organization for grassroots Latino nonprofits. That’s no coincidence. Miranda has been close to this space for a long time, ever since his father, Luis Miranda, founded the Hispanic Federation back in 1990. But while Miranda’s support is invaluable, individual donors have been the star of this story so far.

To find out more about the Hispanic Federation’s effort, I spoke with its current president, Jose Calderon. Leading an organization with nearly 100 Latino community nonprofits in membership, Calderon has his ear to the ground on Puerto Rico fundraising. His take on the overall picture was predictably gloomy. “On the part of government, it’s been woefully inadequate,” he said. “If we’re going to get Puerto Rico back to where it needs to be, the federal government needs to create a Marshall Plan for the island. The governor has asked for $94 billion, and philanthropy can’t meet that alone.”

Calderon went on, “But that does not absolve philanthropy from stepping up and supporting the American citizens in Puerto Rico.”

The Hispanic Federation’s relief fund has raised over $22 million so far, of which the vast proportion ($19 million) has come from individuals. According to Calderon, more than half of that total has already been invested in immediate relief efforts, with a focus on “life and death” needs like food and water, medical supplies, solar lamps, batteries, and the like. 

Confronting an immense logistics nightmare made even worse by an island-wide electrical and communications blackout, the priority was to re-activate local distributors and establish relationships with aid groups on the ground. Calderon says his organization’s deep roots in the Latino nonprofit world were particularly helpful there. 

At the same time, Calderon’s hope is that once immediate relief is attended to—and that could take a while—long-term recovery projects can build a more resilient Puerto Rico, better able to face future threats without depending on an uncertain outside response. The Hispanic Federation’s fund has already dedicated $2.5 million toward that goal. 

Priorities there include better local agriculture, jobs and workforce development and improved water infrastructure. On an island plunged into "apocalyptic darkness," building up sources of local renewable energy, independent from a central grid, is especially vital. Each of these areas, Calderon says, represents a chance for philanthropy to engage. While institutional philanthropy has been “behind the curve” so far, his hope is that “as we enter a recovery phase, there will be a much greater effort on the part of foundations.”

To its credit, the private sector has had Puerto Rico’s back to a certain degree. We’ve written about logistics companies like FedEx and UPS pitching in, as well as banks like Western Union. Bank of America has been a very generous donor to the Hispanic Federation’s fund, with Google, the Bank of New York, ConEdison and Macy’s also contributing. 

Related: Here Are the Corporate Funders Stepping Up for Puerto Rico

Most of those companies gave general support, and that’s a point Calderon echoed while discussing the Hispanic Federation’s role as a grantmaker for community nonprofits. “The Latino nonprofit sector remains under-capitalized, under-resourced, under-staffed... The money that’s hardest to raise is money to build up infrastructure.”  Yet whether the infrastructure in question supports a small nonprofit or an entire island, funding it can pay big dividends down the road. 

The Hispanic Federation’s effort is laudable, as are similar projects to mobilize America’s Latino community. But what is $22 million, or even $200 million, next to the $94 billion Puerto Rico says it needs? As Lin-Manuel Miranda put it in the Washington Post, “There’s no shortage of compassion and goodwill for Puerto Rico among the American people. But it must be matched by the recognition of our government that the American citizens of Puerto Rico need, demand and require equal treatment.”