One Year Later: A Look at OCCU’s Fund to Fight the Flames

Over Labor Day weekend 2020, 11 different significant wildfires — defined as burning 1,000 acres or more — broke out in Oregon. All told, these fires burned more than 721,000 acres of land, destroying thousands of structures and causing dozens of injuries and even death.

In response to the activity, the OCCU Foundation of Oregon Community Credit Union in Eugene launched a Fire Relief Fund on Sept. 8 to support those affected by Oregon’s wildfires. In addition to starting the restricted fund, OCCUF matched the first $100,000 donated.

Below, Laura Brown, OCCU Foundation Administrator, discusses her foundation’s quick response, its experience in establishing the fund, soliciting donations, the future of the fund, and more.

OCCU Foundation responded a day after the fires started in 2020. What was the situation on the ground?

Laura Brown: We could have given $100,000 to another agency donating funds, but we have a different perspective — we do and respond to things differently from other organizations — and here was a chance to do that.

Many organizations were responding to basic, immediate needs — money for gas, for groceries. We felt we could fund projects and services that come after those immediate needs are restored. Even when the initial hecticness of that time passes, there are still needs.

What were your initial expectations?

LB: With a lot of collaboration between departments, we beat our goal of raising $100,000. We’ve raised more than $150,000 and people are still contributing today.

Without that pre-existing architecture, where did you start? What did you do?

LB: I manage the OCCU Foundation, but I’m also on the credit union’s communications team, so I started by working with marketing to create a landing page for the website. I also worked with our digital services department to figure out what vendors we could partner with to quickly spin up a donation portal.

Although we launched a landing page and introduced the fund, we weren’t able to accept donations right away. There was procedural work with our accounting team to make sure we could seamlessly accept donations, whether cash or through a general ledger transfer, and track it all.

Do you have a sweet spot for the types of nonprofits or entities to whom you’re granting funds?

LB: It’s a pretty wide mix. We’ve given grants for basic needs but also environmental support. We tried to serve needs in different ways.

Some organizations are helping individuals clean up their properties; there are organizations that were burned themselves that need to rebuild. In our own community, a local community center was burned, so was a local library. Our grants helped them meet the need now as well as take steps toward rebuilding in the future.

It’s been a year since you introduced this fund. Are you still funding requests? What comes next?

LB: We’ve granted to 17 organizations so far, with the largest donation totaling $20,000 and the smallest $1,500. We’ve given away quite a bit of our tally, but we still have funds to give away. Applications are slowing but we’ll continue to make grants until those dollars run out. At that point, we might launch another fund should the need arise.

The OCCU Foundation was created to serve the credit union’s giving pillars of education and health, while also being responsible to emergent community needs — like fires or COVID-19. When it’s relevant to have another relief fund, I think we will, especially since we think we’ve had a great opportunity to make grants other organizations weren’t able to. For example, in the wake of the fires, many new 501(c)(3) organizations were founded. But some foundations can’t make grants to organizations founded within a certain period of time. We can and do.

What best practices or lessons learned from setting up this fund would you like to share?

LB: We’re working on finding a different way to process both the application and donation. We want to move away from a PDF application form because it didn’t work for everyone and ended up being somewhat technically inhibiting.

I also think we missed an opportunity with our donor relationships. Due to certain stipulations with our processor, we didn’t have permission to reach back out to the donors who contributed to the fund online. We moved fast and did the best we could, but I see those as two areas we could improve next time.

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Posted in Around the NW, CU Difference.