Responding to COVID-19, and More, in... Nashville, Tennessee

This post continues a series highlighting the responses of SECF members to the COVID-19 pandemic in their communities. We will use this series to highlight partnerships, coalitions and innovative examples of giving that help those affected by this crisis. This installment was provided to SECF by Amy Fair, vice president of donor services at The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

If your foundation is involved in a program you would like to see highlighted here, contact David Miller, director of marketing and communications, at

Disaster Dispatch from Nashville: Tornado Recovery in the Midst of COVID-19

With the New Year being 2020 and the 10th anniversary of the historic 1,000-year floods in Tennessee, there were exhibits planned, news stories being prepared all around the city of Nashville, and an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Nobody Cared When Nashville Drowned” from Nashville-based author and journalist Margaret Renkl.

To commemorate this natural disaster’s impact on our community, we decided that we didn’t want our activities to join the chorus of those looking back, although we knew these reflective activities would be beneficial. Instead, we set in motion a plan to look ahead and plan for the next disaster – we just didn’t know it would arrive so soon.

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee’s history with supporting and funding disaster recovery in our community and elsewhere is nearly as long as our organizational history, which began in 1991. In partnership with donors, we have provided relief funding through the years for responding to disasters, including floods, hurricanes, mass shootings, tornadoes, typhoons, and wildfires. But our most significant role has been at home as a named partner in Metro Nashville and Davidson County’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP). In this role, we provided $15 million in funding in Nashville and surrounding Middle Tennessee communities for relief and recovery efforts following the May 2010 Flood over the course of two years.

We also participated as a member of our local VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster). VOAD continued to meet for several years after the funding of recovery was complete, but eventually went dormant when the concerns of disaster no longer felt like an immediate threat to our community, and when the members named in the CEMP agreement with the city continued to meet on a quarterly basis with Nashville’s Office of Emergency Management. 

So, our plans to commemorate the May 2010 Flood 10th anniversary with acts of disaster preparedness included efforts to reconvene the VOAD. With the passing of a decade, there were plenty of changes in the nonprofit landscape. But we knew the best place to begin was to enlist the assistance of some key partners.

We started by engaging our former director of communications, Rebecca Finley, who had a pivotal role in our work during the flood. She and her business partner, longtime local PR executive Greg Bailey, quickly set to work to schedule a meeting with key partners who worked with us in 2010.

No sooner did an initial meeting get scheduled when the 2020 tornadoes arrived in Middle Tennessee on March 3. A small initial VOAD reboot meeting took place in the first days following the tornadoes — not a moment too soon. A larger group of nonprofit representatives met at the Office of Emergency Management for a face-to-face meeting on March 13 to discuss the role of the new VOAD, just three days before Mayor John Cooper announced initial closures in the City of Nashville due to COVID-19.

The last two months have been like no other for our city and its residents, dealing with the impacts of two federally declared disasters in the tornado and COVID-19. It has been a one-two punch, followed by the knockout third punch of the financial disaster that has followed.

We have been asked many questions: 

  • How is this community dealing with the disasters?
  • How is the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down tornado recovery efforts? 
  • Have your donations for tornado recovery been affected by COVID-19? 

All are important questions, which we have answered with clear and direct answers and many that anyone reading this might expect:

  • Dealing with multiple disasters at once is difficult — it would be for any community.
  • COVID-19 indeed has slowed down the delivery of services that have to take place in a face-to-face context. So many nonprofits have risen to the occasion with creativity and passion for the community they serve, however, although definite frustrations exist of not being able to do as much or as quickly as they would like for their clients.
  • We have been gratified by the donations that have come in and continue to come in from far and wide in support of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. We know this is partly driven by the increasing interest and attention in Nashville during the last decade, and the role social media plays in spreading the message the way it does in 2020 as compared to 2010. We are continuing to receive calls about donations for tornado relief, so it has not completely been overshadowed by the 24/7 COVID-19 news cycle.

The question we haven’t been asked, but that has been on our mind daily is: What did we learn from the May 2010 Flood that will serve us in our March 2020 Tornado recovery efforts? Two answers that have become clear to us already are:

  • Coordination, collaboration, and communication among all involved in recovery — funders, government agencies and officials, nonprofits, and others —are key.
  • Building a network that is cognizant of ensuring inclusion and equity with participation from older, well-established nonprofits and young grassroots organizations is imperative to outreach efforts, especially in reaching disenfranchised and low-income communities.

Southeastern Council of Foundations
100 Peachtree Street NW, Suite 2080
Atlanta, GA 30303

Visiting SECF:
All staff are working remotely at this time but can still be reached via email and by calling (404) 524-0911.

Monday-Thursday from 9:00am–6:00pm (ET)
Friday from 9:00am–12:00pm (ET)

Phone: (404) 524-0911
Fax: (404) 523-5116

Mission: SECF strengthens Southern philanthropy, welcoming our members to listen, learn and collaborate on ideas and actions to help build an equitable, prosperous South.