Good practice: next door to the twin towers

October 01, 2001

Connie, before anything else, how ARE you?

Thank you from all of us for your concern. We lost 11 people who worked in Tower 1. Several colleagues were badly injured, or lost family members. Our headquarters building is not useable for the time being. But we are definitely in business. The company’s outreach and communications were extraordinary, from day one. An American Express call centre rang every employee in the New York area to check their safety. Within 10 days we met together – New Yorkers call this a ‘Town Hall’ – and the head of the company, Ken Chenault, spoke and bucked us all up. Within 2-3 weeks we were all working, from locations spread across the region. Challenges include commuting times and lack of access to some archives, but we’re all electronically linked and managing amazingly well.

You were helping to develop disaster-response guidelines for foundations and companies – does Sept 11 change them?

No – September 11 reinforced our findings, which apply to all major disasters. The donor community has been under increasing pressure to respond to disasters over the last decade. So The Council on Foundations1 and the European Foundation Centre have spent a year developing basic principles for an effective response. Members of the joint working group included American Express, Charities Aid Foundation, AT&T, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Citigroup and ICWI in Jamaica. We enlisted experts from all sectors – governments, relief agencies, local charities and intergovernmental organisations to name a few.

Tell us a bit about them

The first sounds obvious – it’s “do no harm”. After a disaster people want to help and be busy – companies are under pressure from all sides to act. But jumping in too quickly can be harmful – you’ll have heard about aid workers being distracted from real priorities when well-meaning people just turn up, or supplies arrive unsolicited. So our second guideline is “stop, look and listen before taking action” – consult locally to find out where the real needs lie. Build contacts over time. Which organisations will be closest to the action? Work with and through them. You’ll find their immediate need is usually cash. Collaborating with other donors and actors is important too, so efforts aren’t duplicated.

In fact, every foundation or company will find an advance policy for disaster response useful, involving security, communications, community affairs and human resources.

As an example, we have waited a while before launching the $1m American Express World Trade Centre Disaster Relief Fund to do as full a need-assessment as we could. First and foremost, the fund is for our own employees who were affected, and their families. The company will facilitate and match additional donations from employees around the world – their giving has been an important part of the healing process. But the new fund is also for charities assisting in the community response to the disaster, and non-profit efforts to assist small businesses and other sectors hit by the economic fall-out that followed.

Which brings me to our third main steer – to think beyond the immediate crisis: to be strategic, companies may want to think how they can support longer term recovery and development – and prevention of another disaster in future. Overseas this might mean working with people at risk from a natural disaster. Here we’re just starting to look at this. Disasters, whether natural or man-made, are not isolated events. They have causes and effects, and companies should think about building both into their disaster strategies.

Connie is responsible for international grant-making at American Express. Her work at the Foundation includes education initiatives like the Global Travel & Tourism Partnership, which now reaches almost 80,000 secondary school students annually. Also World Monuments Watch, a programme which rescues endangered sites and monuments around the world, and of which American Express is a founding sponsor. A graduate of Radcliffe College at Harvard University, she has an MBA from Boston University. She chairs the International Committee of the Council on Foundations, and is a member of the Governing Council and International Committees of the European Foundation Center.

1) Contact Rob Buchanan, The Council on Foundations, on 001 202 467 0391 (