FROM HURRICANES TO HOPE: Southern Mutual Help Association's Rural Recovery Response

Organization Information:

Organization Name:
Southern Mutual Help Association, Inc.
City & State:
New Iberia, 
Organization Website:
Organization's Mission Statement

Southern Mutual Help Association’s mission is to build strong, healthy, prosperous rural communities in Louisiana. We have over 39 years’ experience in rural community development, with a special focus on women, low-income families and people of color. Since our founding in 1969, SMHA has grown to become one of the most recognized community development corporations in the country, with a proven track record in affordable housing development and comprehensive family and community development.

Submission Information

Impact Essay

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita changed the waters, land and lives of the people in Louisiana forever. The hurricanes delivered a disaster of biblical proportions—not just to New Orleans but also to the 11 rural parishes (counties) in coastal South Louisiana. In rural areas, where life and living are connected to the land and water, not only did people lose their homes, but in many cases their source of earning a living.

Within 48 hours of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in August 2005, Southern Mutual Help Association initiated the Rural Recovery Response.

To date SMHA has raised over $9 million, enlisted more than 6,000 volunteers and helped 1,011 homeowners, small businesses, fishers, farmers and churches in rural South Louisiana to recover/rebuild through the Rural Recovery Response. All of this was done without federal funds. And the work is on going. Through the Rural Recovery Response, SMHA provides families and businesses with grants, loans, lines of credit and volunteer labor. The value of volunteer labor alone now totals $5.6 million, and the Rural Recovery Response is projected to have a $96 million economic impact in rural Louisiana communities.

The Rural Recovery Response involves (1) a massive, labor-intensive, people-focused, in-the-field operation to help families and businesses recover/rebuild, (2) public policy, education and long-term development initiatives, and (3) raising funds, recruiting volunteers and enlisting support and expertise from networks and partners. (See 3-year progress report at

Everything SMHA has done and learned over the last four decades uniquely prepared us to create and implement the Rural Recovery Response. SMHA already had good management, financial and grants management systems and software in place.

However, the magnitude and urgency of the Rural Recovery Response required us to quickly find creative ways to develop integrated systems and tools to help meet the need for increased data to help raise funds, identify needs, track progress and ensure accountability to those we help and to our funders.

Fortunately, the innovative use of Microsoft technologies in almost every aspect of this project has helped: (1) to facilitate the expansion of services, (2) to ensure continued sound management and enhance accountability, (3) to maximize the capacity of SMHA’s 10 fulltime-equivalent employees to handle a project of this magnitude in addition to the organization’s on-going work, and (4) to more effectively communicate the need for funding and volunteers, resulting in significant increases in both.

Grants management was especially challenging because in addition to contributions from thousands of individual donors and volunteers, Southern Mutual received 100 grants for the Rural Recovery Response from about 60 different funders. Each grant has different specifications on how, where, when, for what and for whom funds are to be used. Thus a myriad of factors have to be considered when determining which funding source is most appropriate to meet the needs of each homeowner/business and allocating each of the thousands of invoices received for work in the field and programmatic areas to the most appropriate funding sources. Except in rare cases, the grants, loans and lines of credit SMHA gives to homeowners and businesses are in the form of vendor accounts. SMHA’s financial affairs staff maintains a running record of each expenditure by client, including the funding source to which each expenditure has been allocated and the client’s balance remaining. At the same time, this information is used to maintain a running record of what is spent from each funding source.

The early days were hectic and chaotic. Within a short period of time, the number of SMHA housing-related clients increased from an average of 35 per year to more than 800 in the 3½ years since Hurricane Katrina hit. Likewise, the number of volunteers swelled from an average of 20 per year to 6,000 in the Rural Recovery Response, and the number of grants from funders rose from an average of seven at any given point in time to 100.

This could have been a management and accountability nightmare had it not been for the innovative use of Microsoft technologies. We created:

· A specialized Rural Recovery Response (RRR) Access Database to help manage the project, track progress and provide needed data. (See attached.)

· An Excel spreadsheet to keep a running list of grants from funders on a grid with detailed information about how and where the funds are to be used.

· An Excel spreadsheet to track how grants to individual families/businesses are used. This spreadsheet tells us the balance remaining in a client’s account at any point in time as well as the funding source to which each expenditure is allocated. A complimentary Excel spreadsheet allows us to tell funders which families they helped and whether their funds were used how and where they intended.

· An Excel spreadsheet to track the number of volunteers who work on each home/business (including the name of the group, date, and number of volunteer hours by skilled, unskilled and professional workers) and to compute the value of volunteer labor contributed. The total hours and dollar value of volunteer labor for each home/business are transferred to the RRR Database quarterly.

· An Excel spreadsheet using data from the RRR Access Database to project the economic impact of the project overall and by parish.

· A MapPoint map pinpointing the location of each family/business in the Rural Recovery Response database. Being able to zoom in to the street level allows us to more efficiently plan in-the-field work by volunteers and staff and to plan routes for tours for visitors.

· A Picture Management System Access Database (created with the assistance of Microsoft Technical Support) to organize and identify thousands of pictures taken by staff and volunteers and upload them to an on-line system for easy retrieval.

· A monthly newsletter printed in-house using Publisher.

· Customized Certificates of Appreciation created through Publisher, complete with pictures taken of the work of the group or individual being thanked.

· Numerous PowerPoint presentations and handouts for groups throughout the country to visually communicate the devastation wrought by the hurricanes, the need for continued funding and volunteers, and progress made through the Rural Recovery Response. (See sample attached.)

· Hundreds of documents created in Word including an In-the-Field Handbook, a Volunteer Handbook, grant proposals, reports to funders, press releases, etc.

Because data and information can be easily transferred from one Microsoft program to another, we were able to create an integrated system that enhanced our existing financial and grants management software.

Submission Category
Optimize Mission Delivery