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5 Tips to Help Emergency Managers Build Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations

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DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Director Marcus Coleman shares how you can build partnerships with faith-based organizations. 

Religiously affiliated organizations play a vital role in helping people before, during and after disasters. They are often on the frontlines after a disaster providing essentials like hot meals, water, debris removal, counseling services and more.  At FEMA, we work with these faith-based and community organizations year-round to make sure we are reaching the needs of the whole community.

Through FEMA’s Voluntary Agency Liaisons, we coordinate with state, local, Tribal and territorial emergency management agencies to develop engagement models for how we work alongside religious affiliated organizations. Through the DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships we foster partnerships between government and faith-based organizations to increase the nation’s resilience.

In my years leading the DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, I have had the opportunity to learn several lessons from the emergency management community, like the Voluntary Agency Liaisons, people of faith and those who do not practice religion, but very much believe in helping their neighbors. 

Here are five tips I have learned from others to help you build or refine your engagement with faith-based and community-based organizations.

1 – Start your engagement from a place of shared interest 

I love talking with people about their flood risk and what to do about it, but I have also learned to start the conversation with what people are most interested in discussing. Consistently, considerations for the safety and security for a place of worship and community space is a top concern and is a great starting place to discuss developing emergency plans. For example, Alabama focuses on their shared interest through their initiative ReadySunday. ReadySunday encourages Alabama's faith and community-based congregations and families to take simple steps to prepare for emergencies. 

You can start the conversation by pointing people to resources about how to protect their place of worship

2 – Use FEMA’s faith-based and community partnership resources to help you engage people of different faith-backgrounds. 

There are many courses you can take to familiarize yourself with religious communities. This will help you better understand the people you are trying to reach.

One of these courses is the FEMA - Emergency Management Institute (EMI) Course | IS-505: Concepts of Religious Literacy for Emergency Management. FEMA developed this course in partnership with the University of Southern California Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorist Events (CREATE), the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) and the National Disaster Interfaith Network.  Together, they also created a useful series of Religious Literacy Tip Sheets

Another course you can take is MGT-405 - Engaging Faith-Based and Community Organizations. To create this course, FEMA partnered with the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium, North Carolina Central University and a number of faith leaders and community leaders. The 8-hour, in-person course emphasizes grassroots mobilization and coordination efforts as a means of engaging all faith communities, thereby reaching those underserved communities most vulnerable to disaster, most frequently excluded from the planning process and ultimately, most difficult to aid in recovery.

3 – Leverage existing partnership models to refine your approach - don’t start from scratch

To guide you through the process, you can look at what’s been done before. The webinar, “Building Partnerships that Promote Safety and Security for Places of Worship and Community Spaces” features emergency managers from New HampshireChatham County, GA and the District of Columbia who share their best practices in building and maintain partnerships with the faith-based and community organizations.

4 – Develop partnerships that go beyond building a list of contacts. 

People often ask for a directory of faith leaders they can “push messaging” to or “leverage their resources” but efforts to partner should go beyond a contact list. There are some key sources of data that may be useful for your agency’s efforts to identify potential partners. You can try tools like the  Association on Religious Data Archives Community Profile Builder, FEMA’s Resilience Analysis and Planning Tool (RAPT) and NOAA’s Practitioner's Guidance for Implementing the Steps to Resilience | U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit. These tools help accelerate your team’s ability to align your resources and capacity with the faith-based and community leaders you seek to serve.

5 – If you’re unsure about a particular custom or expectations for engagement, don’t be afraid to ask.

We’ve developed 10 fields skills for engagement as part of FEMA - Emergency Management Institute (EMI) Course | IS-505: Concepts of Religious Literacy for Emergency Management and Religious Literacy Tip Sheets, but there will still be scenarios where you’re not sure what to do. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a faith leader in the community with questions.

There are many more tips and tools to help you build mutually beneficial partnerships with faith-based organizations. Please reach out to with your tips, questions, ideas or helpful community engagement tools.