There’s nothing more heartbreaking than viewing news reports after a natural disaster has devastated a community somewhere in America—and nothing more heartwarming than doing something about it.
Taking action once a natural disaster has been declared, the REALTORS® Relief Foundation (RRF)—a 501(c)(3) nonprofit—distributes funds almost instantly to those in need. But real estate agents in the area affected do more than that. They’re on the scene providing goods, food, water and comfort to those whose lives went from normal one day to shattered the next.
“Seeing the aftermath of a natural disaster in person is much different than watching it on television,” says RRF President Michael Ford, broker/owner of Coldwell Banker Heritage Homes in West Memphis, Arkansas. “You can’t feel what has happened to those individuals until you’re there looking at their faces as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives, whether it’s due to a hurricane, tornado or flood.
“I was in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after a major flood not many years ago,” continues Ford. “It’s amazing the damage that happens to a home with the rivers rising and the floods coming through. It’s hard to describe the devastation and the loss that takes place. We want to provide a little ray of sunshine as they try to recover.”
How and Why RRF Was Established
Founded by the 2001 National Association of REALTORS® Leadership Team, RRF was created as a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. More than $8.4 million was raised and distributed in the aftermath of 9/11, assisting 1,333 families.
Since then, over $36 million has been awarded, and over 18,000 families helped. This year alone there were 14 disasters, including wildfires, hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. Three million dollars were granted in aid, all of which came from donations and fundraising efforts.
The purest aspect of RRF is that, unlike many charitable organizations that use a percentage of funds for administrative and salary costs, every dollar donated to the foundation goes to people in need.
“After a natural disaster has been declared, we go in and provide housing assistance,” says Ford. “We’ll help with a mortgage payment or with temporary housing, and every dime donated to the organization goes to the victims. The National Association of REALTORS® and our Local and State REALTOR® Associations collectively cover our administrative costs, so if you give a dollar for natural disaster relief, a dollar goes to natural disaster relief.”
For RRF Vice President Leigh Brown—a REALTOR® with Leigh Brown & Associates in North Carolina—the foundation’s goals and virtuous financial policy ultimately drew her in.
“I’m a charity snob, so I look at the overhead and what happens with the money that’s donated,” explains Brown. “I’ve been doing that as a longtime supporter of Habitat for Humanity, and the first thing that struck me about the REALTORS® Relief Foundation is how the donations go right back out in total.
“Then you see how quickly we swing into action in these communities. REALTORS® are in every zip code, so we already have a workforce in place when something happens. And agents, by nature, are ready to help out, regardless of time or money. They’re wired to do things, so it’s a natural way to respond.”
Brown was immediately on the scene when Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas four years ago.
“I have a big truck and put out the word to my clients that we wanted to fill it with goods to distribute,” she says. “We connected with a local church community and helped them get involved with our foundation to get the money into the hands of their congregation.”
Timeline for Getting Money to Victims
Once a natural disaster has been declared, things move fast. An application for funds from the state or local REALTOR® association is sent to RRF, which is processed in less than five days. Upon approval, money is sent. During that time, victims are encouraged to make claims. Press releases are distributed to make people aware that funds are available, while local REALTOR® associations put information out to the media. Word of mouth and social media are utilized as well.
“We typically ask people to fill out applications,” says Ford. “They tell us what their need is, what their house payment or rent payment is, or if they’re staying in temporary housing.
“We usually have a limit per applicant because there’s only so much funding available,” adds Ford. “In the last couple of years, we’ve been involved with 26 natural disasters, so the number is typically going to be in the $1,500 range per family.”
Brown acknowledges that RRF would do more for each disaster sufferer if it could.
“We’re certainly not able to rebuild everyone’s house or make everybody whole,” she admits. “What my pastor always says is that when you’re hungry, a hot dog is just as good as filet mignon. We’re able to put something in somebody’s hands to help them get through.
“The human contact is so impactful, whether it’s delivering checks, bringing boiled water or holding somebody’s baby for a minute,” adds Brown. “The REALTORS® are right there. We’re not out-of-towners swooping in.”
In 2021, RRF launched Hope Rising, its first proactive fundraising campaign. REALTORS®, associations and corporations in the industry rallied behind the effort, raising more than $8.7 million. The campaign represented a critical shift for the foundation, because for two decades, support was solicited only after a natural disaster occurred, creating a delay in RRF’s ability to approve grants and send funds to impacted communities. Hope Rising marked the start of adjusting that approach so that it could be ready before a disaster occurred.
“There’s never enough money because we never know how many natural disasters there will be,” admits Ford. “We’re always one major hurricane away from being bankrupt. You can’t ever raise enough money to help people after those disasters; however, it’s amazing to watch as we share our message and encourage people to give by texting RRF to the number 41444—and how many people support without hesitation.”
While a limited staff and an understanding that disaster situations with money available unfortunately draw people looking to take advantage with fraudulent claims, Ford says it hasn’t been a problem.
“I’m proud to say that we’ve done a really good job of being good stewards of money donated,” he stresses. “Applications require a driver’s license and a photo of the house. By and large all the funds distributed have gone to families in need.”
Ford, Brown and all others who are involved with RRF do it without compensation.
“This is a volunteer job, because I am passionate about giving back to our communities,” Ford asserts. “There is nothing that says who REALTORS® are better than what we do with the foundation.”
The RRF welcomes contributions—not only in times of a natural disaster, but at any time throughout the year. Checks can be made payable to REALTORS® Relief Foundation and sent to:
REALTORS® Relief Foundation 430 N. Michigan Avenue Chicago, IL 60611 Check Memo Description: RRF Contribution To make a donation via text, text RRF to 41444.