Unidos por Puerto Rico: A record in grants and donations

Unidos por Puerto Rico grew out of the pressing need to face the devastation caused by two hurricanes in one month.

Hurricanes Irma and María caused catastrophic damages in Puerto Rico not seen in nearly 100 years.

Since the 20th of September, when Hurricane María left a trail of destruction in its wake in all of Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra, Unidos por Puerto Rico has received hundreds of grant proposals and granted a record $20.5 million in Puerto Rico among 107 NGOs and through its generator initiative for small businesses as of March 22. These grants have the potential to aid 1,000,000 people.

Unidos is created

Initially, Unidos por Puerto Rico came about when the First Lady of Puerto Rico called on the private sector to aid Hurricane Irma victims after its powerful winds blew dangerously close to Puerto Rico on September 6t h and left 1 million people without power. A group of top executives of leading companies in Puerto Rico responded to the First Lady’s call soon afterward. Initially, the group’s objective was to organize a telethon to raise funds for hurricane victims. Yet, plans changed when Hurricane María thrashed the island.

“We quickly understood that to address the massive destruction of property and infrastructure an urgent monumental effort would have to be coordinated among our citizens, municipalities, the state and federal government, foundations and the private sector,” said Aurelio Alemán, Chairman of the Board of Unidos as well as CEO and President of FirstBank.

Alemán and a group of executives accepted the responsibility of being part of the board a of new organization and moved to quickly establish a governance structure to support Unidos por Puerto Rico.  They drafted the new organization’s mission as being one to aid individuals and small businesses through nonprofit organizations.  The objective was to accelerate the recovery of the population and aid with their need for food, health, housing and their wellbeing so they could rebuild their lives, communities and the island in general.

They recruited well-known accounting firms and a prestigious law firm to help set up controls to regulate the use of funds. The Board also focused on fund raising, an effort that exceeded expectations and initial projections. Funds continued to come at a faster pace than anticipated.  A month after the organization was created, Unidos por Puerto Rico hired as Executive Director Mariely Rivera, an experienced executive of the philanthropic field in Puerto Rico.

Record Donations

Unidos has raised a record amount for an NGO in Puerto Rico, more than $38.8 million through approximately 130,000 donations. Many of those were Individuals contributing small amounts Yet, most of the funds were donated by organizations, including foundations, primarily from the U.S. and corporations.

Approximately, $4.3 million were raised in December through the telethon, which had originally been proposed in September when Unidos was created. Its celebration was delayed as the focus was on distributing the funds. The telethon was held at the Bacardí facilities with the participation of 20 musical artists, who donated their talent for the event, and an enthusiastic audience of 20,000. In Puerto Rico, WAPA, Telemundo, Univisión, WIPR (PBS), and Mega TV broadcasted the concert while WAPA TV also broadcasted the concert to several cities on the mainland.

Millions of pounds of goods distributed

Goods poured in as hundreds of volunteers collected food, water, and other aid products. The Government of Panamá contributed a considerable amount of supplies. Unidos entered into collaboration agreements with several entities in which it would pay for transportation costs while the organizations would distribute the donated supplies to communities in need.

Since then, Unidos has distributed approximately 5 million pounds of supplies through the following organizations:  Centro de Acopio del Gobierno de Puerto Rico, Compassion Service International, Vieques Love, Fundación Misión de Amor/Ayuda a mi Isla; Municipio de Mayagüez, Municipio de San Germán, Centro de Amor Antonio Resto Mijol, Corporación de Salud y Desarrollo Económico del Otao, Universidad de Puerto Rico-Recintos de Mayagüez y Humacao, Banco de Alimentos, Programa del Adolescente de Naranjito, Iglesia de Dios Mission Board, Utuado, Clínica y Pontificia Universidad Católica de Puerto Rico-Recinto de Arecibo.

Awarding grant proposals

From its inception, Unidos’ mission was colossal. Everything was a priority and had to be done simultaneously and with an incredible sense of urgency, while– as the rest of Puerto Rico—those involved in the Unidos para Puerto Rico effort were experiencing the same difficulties as everyone else in Puerto Rico stemming from lack of power and unreliable telecommunication services.

Unidos opted to focus in five areas for disaster relief:  Food and water, Wellbeing, Economic Development, Health and Housing. Relief would be provided according to the phases of managing disaster relief. The initial phase focuses on providing for basic needs such as food and water, followed by recovery and then reconstruction.  During the initial phase, for example, the Banco de Alimentos (Food Bank) was one of the key organizations in this effort but there were many others.

“It has not been an easy task to channel efforts in a situation in which the entire island was devasted. However, with the goal of being agile as well as transparent we designed a working model to channel the aid to nonprofit organizations with a proven track record of mobilizing communities and addressing vulnerable populations,” said the Executive Director.

By December, the organization had hired four program officials experienced in the philanthropic world.  The officials review all grant proposals, visit the NGOS and, when needed, recommend changes in the proposal to make sure it is in line with Unidos’ objectives as well as help strengthen the organization’s capabilities.

Rivera explained the model used by Unidos to distribute funds has served often to widen the reach of the NGOs. For example, an organization created in 2013 in Vieques, Fe que Transforma (Faith which Trasforms) has expanded the number of people it serves each month to more than 600 families who they help with emergency food boxes and social services.

In addition to the grant proposals, Unidos designed a Program of Generators for Small Businesses.  Unidos donated more than 2,250 generators to small businesses from Utuado to Vieques, from the island’s central to eastern regions, in the area that has been identified as the “Hurricane’s Path”. 

“Our goal was to allow these small businesses to operate so that people in those communities could buy milk and other essential products without having to travel to the cities at a moment when travelling on roads was an obstacle course.  Another objective of this program is to help preserve these businesses in areas that are expected to be without power for more than six months,” said Rivera.  The United Retailers Center helped Unidos to identify qualifying businesses.

The organization continues to work at a feverish pace. As it continues to receive proposals, the officials are assigned cases for review. They assess the requests to see if the documentation is complete and if the request is in line with Unidos’ mission. Once this process is completed, the recommended proposals are submitted to the board for a vote. Program officials also monitor grants that were distributed earlier on.

“There are many foundations in the US who are closely watching how we use their donations. We have an opportunity as a philanthropic sector to go beyond charity and benefits. We need to focus our philanthropy on real social investment and innovation,” said Rivera.

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