Accountability for Donations After Disaster: Steps Taken in Faulkner County

LITTLE ROCK, AR - Sunday marks three months since a deadly tornado struck Central Arkansas. Countless opportunities to donate goods and money arose in the aftermath. Now, nonprofits and local officials are working to put systems in place on how to spend those remaining funds as folks offer feedback on response in the immediate aftermath. 

Those living in Vilonia, one of Faulkner County's cities hit by a deadly tornado in April, live a reality of clean up, rebuilding and long-term recovery. 

KARK randomly polled half a dozen people in the community regarding response efforts, donations and their feelings regarding the help that was offered in the aftermath. 

All of those individuals have either received donations or know someone who has. 

"The churches the schools the communities and our families, even those not related to us by blood kin, have helped us," said Carrel Wade, whose daughter lost her home and the majority of her belongings. 

"There were gift cards sent in,  I know of people who received gift cards," said Bud Simmons, a tornado survivor. "I even received donations myself. The local Church of Christ came to my home offering help and wouldn't leave until I accepted."

In the days following the storm, countless opportunities to donate goods and money arose. 

"On a disaster, there's just a giant landscape of issues and needs, problems and resources," said Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson. "There's never one stream of funding or donations. There are always going to be off-the-grid entities, so to speak like churches, nonprofits, local businesses that pitch in to help." 

According to Dodson, those off-the-grid donations have no doubt helped in the community, but he added that the donations aren't part of local government oversight and where it all goes is up to the individual organization. 

"In terms of financial donations that's not going through the county or any other government agency," he said. "For accountability purposes, those nonprofits are subject to the laws and reporting practices that pertain to them. For county government we're accountable to the Inspector General for funds we receive. 

Smaller groups we spoke with said they had donated the funds and materials they received directly to impacted individuals or fed their donations into larger charities. 

American Red Cross reported that as of May 16, it had spent $1.8 million helping Arkansans with hotel stays, financial assistance, personal care kits and other items. The Red Cross reported it had received $1.6 million in donations designated to the storm. 

"Red Cross has been right here, I don't know how many times. They brought us meals three times a day sometimes," Simmons said.

Salvation Army reported it had distributed more than $35,000 dollars in gift cards, served 11,000 snacks or meals and provided spiritual guidance and counseling to hundreds. 

"Red Cross was here maybe at first," Wade said. "But as far as helping my family, Red Cross and United Way have not done anything for them."

According to the United Way of Central Arkansas it has received more than $78,000 in donations, which will be spent for longterm recovery. Where the money will go will largely be to needs identified by the newly created Longterm Recovery Advisory Board appointed by Judge Dodson. 

"Determining where donations go, I don't feel like that's the role government should play," Dodson said. "But if we can get a group of local, well-respected people who are essentially subject matter experts to help identify and put people in touch with resources they need, I feel like that's a good use of nongovernmental talent." 

According to Dodson he's not announcing all the members of the board, yet. United Way of Central Arkansas Executive Director Maret Cahill has confirmed United Way would be a member of the board. Dodson said the group will function as a non-governmental nonprofit. 

"It will not be quasi-governmental. It will not prepare reports to the county," he said. "But it will be organized as a 501c3 and it will have bylaws and be subject to the laws all other nonprofits are subject to."

In the meantime, the United Way is training organizations and government agencies on how to use a new service it has subscribed to known as Charity Tracker. 

The online tool allows member organizations to sign up, build profiles that include services offered, and also enter information on individuals helped and how. 

"That would allow organizations to see that John Doe came in and said they needed help with this amount of money," Cahill said. "The member group could then record what, if any or all, of the assistance was provided. So, if that person moves on to the next charity and asks for the same amount or same help, the group will know." 

According to Cahill, the United Way had mulled over the idea of Charity Tracker prior to the tornado, but the disaster highlighted that it was a necessity to coordinate available resources and offer a way to protect organizations against those who would abuse the system. 

"It's an assistance and we want it to be used for that," Cahill said. "But it will also be used to police those that would misuse the resources in our community. If someone who doesn't really need assistance is receiving the resources, that means someone who is truly in need can't. "

As for those KARK spoke with living in the impacted areas, accountability is something they want to continue to see in the weeks to come along with rebuilding what was lost. 

KARK wants to hear from those who were affected by the tornado. Did you or someone you know receive assistance? Do you feel that donations have been used appropriately to make a difference? Answer our online poll, here. Feel free to comment on why you responded the way you did on our Facebook post here

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