Healing by Helping: Orlando's Strategy for Victims, Families, and Community

AP Photo/David Goldman

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, left, and Police Chief John Mina lay flowers at a makeshift memorial to those killed in the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Monday, June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Florida. 

In April, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer delivered his state of the city address. Dyer hailed Orlando as a 21st century urban exemplar bursting with the kind of dynamism that most mayors can only dream about: billions in transportation investments, a booming job market, new companies moving in, and some of the best first responders in the Sunshine State.

“How do we ensure that Orlando wins?” Dyer said. “That’s a question that we can answer with, one powerful word: connectivity.”

Today “connectivity” in Orlando is taking yet another form: the millions in donations flowing into the city-backed OneOrlando Fund after the shootings at the gay nightclub Pulse to help heal the city’s psychic wounds. Thanks to an innovative funding mechanism modeled after those used by other cities following similar tragedies, the money is going to community organizations as well as to the people directly affected by the killings. 

The OneOrlando Fund is a stark reminder of one of the most difficult choices that municipal leaders ever have to face: how to best channel the money that pours into a community in the aftermath of a heinous episode like the Orlando nightclub killings. Do city leaders focus exclusively on victims’ families, survivors, and their loved ones, or do they also attempt to try to help the wider community?

In Orlando, a small group of city officials faced an eerie set of facts. Omar Marteen, the Orlando shooter, had called Dzhokhar and Tamelan Tsarnaev his “homeboys.” In April 2013, the two Massachusetts brothers placed homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and nearly 300 people were injured. An MIT campus police officer died after being ambushed by the two men several days later.

After that tragedy, then-Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (who died the following year) and Governor Deval Patrick decided that the victims’ families, the survivors, and their relatives would be best served by the establishment of an innovative funding mechanism that could get donated money out fast.

In a January Harvard Business Review look-back, Mitchell Weiss, Menino’s former chief of staff, described the “lessons learned.” The Boston mayor made a deliberate decision to get a no-frills, PayPal-driven website online the day after the massacre. Menino said in a 2013 statement that he got calls from businesses “within an hour” of the fund’s creation. Weiss noted that other funding drives established in the aftermaths of killings in Columbine, Newtown, and Aurora took months to distribute funds to eligible people. The One Fund Boston took about two and half months to get the money out.

The fund’s overseers made other critical decisions to assure that the funding recipients could spend the monies on whatever they deemed important, including medical expenses, scholarships, and the like. Bureaucratic hurdles, such as IRS regulations, where handled with a “hack the bureaucracy” strategy that relied on some creative interpretations of federal tax regulations. The fund wrapped up its operations almost two years after it started accepting funds.

To Weiss, the defining lesson was that creating new, place-specific tools worked better than jury-rigging something designed for a private company, or for use elsewhere under a different set of circumstances. Newer municipal-backed funding drives like the one established by Charleston after the shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last year tend to zero in on getting money quickly to affected individuals and families, rather than trying to meet specific community needs.

The Orlando effort builds on earlier efforts and adds place-specific features. Earlier this week, Dyer announced that the Central Florida Foundation, a regional charitable organization that oversees hundreds of other funds, would administer the OneOrlando Fund. Where the Boston fund focused on distributing money directly to affected people without restrictions, the OneOrlando Fund monies will be distributed through nonprofits to support the victims and families as well as to LGBTQ, Hispanic, faith, and other affected groups.

The dollars will be also available to area organizations that plan to study the underlying causes of the tragedy and to address other, as-yet-unknown community needs. Central Florida Foundation president Mark Brewer told the Orlando Sentinel, “The nagging question we'll have to address in all this is: How did this happen? What is going on in the community that made this possible, and what can we do to prevent it?”

Like the Boston effort, the OneOrlando Fund has set high expectations for the business community. To date, the fund has pulled in about $3.6 million. The area’s marquee company, Walt Disney, the owner and operator of Disney World, contributed $1 million and pledged to a dollar-for-dollar match from “eligible donations” from Disney employees. Comcast NBCUniversal also donated $1 million.

Two other funding drives, helmed by the National Compassion Fund/Orlando and by statewide LGBT group Equality Florida plan to steer money directly to affected families. The LGBT group’s GoFundMe drive that has pulled in $5 million and counting, the crowdfunding site’s most successful fundraising campaign ever. Scams, too, have multiplied—suggesting, regrettably, that such efforts demand special vigilance.

Dyer’s vision of connectivity resonates in a new context. Orlando residents have been brought together by one of the most chilling events imaginable. The city will find out in the months ahead whether the OneOrlando Fund can satisfy the two powerful, but potentially conflicting impulses of municipal leaders: To care for those who experienced the horror first-hand, and to calm the fears of residents living in a walking nightmare. There are no easy philanthropic solutions for Mayor Dyer or for the community leader who will be seeking his advice after the next mass killing.

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