The Big Dig Out: How Boston's Funders Are Handling the "Winter from Hell"

Around this time last year, I wrote about how Boston area funders were coming to the rescue of local residents struggling to keep food in their bellies and heat in their homes. During the brutal 2013-2014 winter, the Boston Foundation awarded $392,000 in grants to provide for basic local needs during particularly cold and snowy times.

Related: How Boston Funders Handled a Harsh Winter

But this winter has been even worse than last year in the Northeast. Since January 27, Boston has seen four blizzards and seven feet of precipitation. Roofs have been crushed, the transit system paralzyed, roads destroyed, and residents trapped in their homes. However, funders seem less engaged this time around. 

Sure, the Boston Foundation still has its emergency Food and Fuel Fund program intact, but Boston funders as a whole haven't marshalled a special effort that we can see. 

[UPDATE: After this piece went live, we learned that the Boston Foundation has indeed taken new action, telling Inside Philanthropy: "this winter, in addition to our regular grant making, we had special funding for the shelter programs that were jeopardized when the Long Island bridge was closed, as well as a second round of Food & Fuel grants that are in process right now."]

In recent years, the Boston Foundation has partnered with other local funders, such as the Yawkey Foundations, the Klarman Family Foundation, the Linde Family Foundation and the State Street Foundation, to tackle winter-related challenges. However, no one has really addressed the topic of emergency grants lately, at least not in public. Weather-related private and corporate foundation grants around the city have been few and far between, and, in fact, some funders are trying to change the topic entirely.

Mariella Puerto, senior program officer for the Barr Foundation, acknowledged that Bostonians were digging out of 60 inches of snow in less than three weeks on the foundation blog, but then used the situation to open up a conversation about climate change. Granted, extreme snow events can be an indicator of climate change, and so Puerto's point is well taken—but also seems a tad tone-deaf amid an emergency that, among other things, has dealt a devastating blow to the city's wage workers as a failing transit system stopped many from getting to work. As E. J. Graff wrote in The New York Times,

For workers paid by the hour, the impossibility of getting to work means disaster, especially since high housing prices have pushed poor people out of the city to outlying communities like Brockton, Lawrence and beyond.  

Since nearly everyone who works at a foundation has a salaried job, where the paychecks keep coming even if they can't get to work, you could see how the economic effects of what Graff calls the "winter from hell" might not fully register. 

Which is not to say that Boston's funders have hard hearts. Obviously they don't, as we report here constantly, which makes the inaction all the more puzzling as their neighbors try to keep their head above the drifts and gusts, day in and day out. Or worse. “People will be losing their houses,” a wage worker told Graff. 

It's worth noting that the philanthropic community is not the only sector that's mounted a lackluster response. Graff asks:

Where are the federal disaster funds, the presidential visit, Anderson Cooper interviewing victims, volunteers flying in, goods and services donated after hurricanes and tornadoes? The pictures may be pretty. But we need help, now.