DEME TIG Week: Assessing Adaptive Capacity of Organizations During Dual Disasters: Lessons Learned from Evaluating Effectiveness in Addressing Emerging Needs of Vulnerable Populations by Sue Ann Sarpy

Hello!  My name is Sue Ann Sarpy, Principal of Sarpy and Associates, LLC, and Co-Chair of the DEME TIG.  During the pandemic, I was part of a COVID-19 Working Group for Public Health and Social Sciences Research, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the CONVERGE facility at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.  Our interdisciplinary team was formed by Nnenia Campbell, the DEME-TIG Program Chair, to evaluate program effectiveness of several Social Safety Net Organizations (SSNOs) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In general, SSNOs (e.g., community-based organizations; faith-based organizations) demonstrate a greater understanding of community needs and are better equipped to conduct outreach and advocacy on the behalf of vulnerable populations. Following disasters, traditionally underserved groups typically turn to SSNOs, as opposed to officially designated sources, for assistance.  However, due to limited resources, SSNOs are precariously positioned.   They have difficulties preparing for and responding to disasters while at the same time, serve as invaluable resources due to their unparalleled expertise, relationships, and reputations within communities. Our evaluation addressed the need to gauge the adaptive capacity of such organizations given their increasing importance during the COVID-19 crisis and the compounding threat of natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes, wildfires). However, evaluating these organizations during dual disasters posed unique challenges.

Using remote methods (Zoom) our team conducted several focus groups sessions that involved SSNOs across three states.  To facilitate discussions and maximize resources, focus groups were convened according to category of SSNO (e.g., housing; food and emergency services).  Participants were encouraged to share information about their modifications to day-to-day operations, utilization of inter-organizational networks as part of their disaster response, and innovations made to continue functioning under new modes of operations.  Participants were also encouraged to share resources and express current needs to mobilize under the rapidly changing conditions associated with dual disasters. Results were content analyzed and provided information with respect to challenges, adaptive strategies, and best practices for SSNOs to inform emergency planning efforts.  Findings have been shared nationwide to strengthen SSNOs capacity, make better use of available resources and strategies, and guide related policy development for social safety net services throughout the United States.

There were several Lessons Learned from this evaluation:

  • Examine on-going issues considering waves of the pandemic and increasing number of disasters. The SSNOs cited that they experienced on-going challenges that necessitated continued modifications.  As an evaluator, it is important to consider these on-going issues to gain a more comprehensive analysis of the response to address dual disasters during the various phases of the pandemic.  
  • Creating resource and best practices guide that is easily accessible, readily available, and updated to reflect most current needs.  The SSNOs cited that access to resources and practice guides was limited.  While the focus groups encouraged and facilitated sharing of resources, the SSNOs expressed interest in evaluators providing more formal mechanisms for accessing this information.  This was particularly important for SSNOs with limited experience and knowledge in emergency response.
  • Conduct a Social Network Analysis to highlights effective communications and collaborations.  The connections and partnerships developed during the pandemic were cited as critical for operations of the SSNOs.  SSNOs reported a need for evaluations of these networks through more formal analysis (social network analysis).  In particular, evaluations of interorganizational collaborations that were effectively used to work through challenges of the pandemic would elucidate how SSNOs could more wholistically serve communities during dual disasters.
  • The evaluation itself was reported as a valuable resource during the pandemic.  Because the evaluation process convened SSNOs across three States, the SSNOs were able to share best practices and voice concerns in real time with peers.  Participants expressed appreciation and cited the focus groups as a unique and valuable resource during the early stages of the pandemic. 

Rad Resource

More information about our research on Social Safety Net Organizations Serving Vulnerable Populations can be found at:

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Disaster and Emergency Management Evaluation (DEME) Topical Interest Group (TIG) Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our DEME TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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