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Working after Harvey: nuts and bolts

We recently kicked off an experimental project in and around Houston to let folks give directly to people affected by Harvey.  (See here for more on why, exactly.) This is a good new challenge for our team: we know we can get money to remote villages in the middle of Ugandan swamps, but can we do it in Texas? Here’s how we’re tackling the big decisions so far.

How do we decide who to enroll? We’re first locating low-income, hard hit communities using a mix of independent data sources and some site visits to sanity-check ourselves. In these neighborhoods, we’re doing door-to-door damage assessment in neighborhoods and enrolling everyone that meets residency requirements and has direct indications of home damage.

How much should each household get? We’re giving $1,500 each, which is enough to cover one or two larger assets purchases (e.g. mattresses, washer/dryer, fridge) or a portion of the costs for materials/labor required to fix a typical damaged home. We got to this number by benchmarking against other programs, median income range, and the cost of assets in local market, but don’t think there is anything magical about it.

How do we transfer funds? We’re issuing pre-paid debit cards. These work fast and well for people who don’t have bank accounts (often the poorest recipients) and reduce the need for us to request sensitive information, which drives our retention / security costs and recipients comfort level. Other options we considered (PayPal, ACH/wire, physical cash) weren’t as attractive. And mobile money sadly wasn’t an option.

How do we engage with local communities? In smaller towns, the process is actually quite similar to the one we follow in East Africa: we meet the mayor, hold a townhall meeting organized by the mayor to explain the process, and throughout the process use “ask a neighbor” techniques to locate hard-to-find people. In urban areas there are more differences, as the mayor’s office will have larger departments with whom we can coordinate and town hall meetings aren’t a relevant way to engage with residents. Another interesting difference is the way we’re able to use social media to get the word out to local residents.

Overall, operations have been smooth thus far with efficiency tracking for a number in the 88%-90% range, though this could drop depending in part on how hard it is to track down families who have been displaced entirely from their homes by flooding. Recipients are also working really hard – “mucking” or tearing / clearing out damaged homes is the top priority for many right now, and specialized community groups have popped up to help with this (e.g. West Street Recovery). And like in East Africa, people are often suspicious at first when we tell them we’re giving out money with no strings attached. For folks used to getting whatever stuff donors happen to think they need, it sounds too good to be true.