Founder’s Story and DAP History
In 2007, Ben Smilowitz witnessed firsthand the failed response to Hurricane Katrina while managing high-volume Red Cross Client Service Centers in Coastal Mississippi.
Despite the power and resources of the United States, basic human needs exceeded the services made available to survivors, resulting in significant unnecessary loss of life and suffering.
Ben knew that if the public realized the extent of service gaps at relief sites, many would question how billions of donated dollars were spent and demand accountability and action.
He decided there that if there was not a group that existed to demand public accountability and provide an open line for survivors, emergency workers, and volunteers to report gaps during disasters, he would start it.
In 2007, at the end of his first year of law school, Ben started Disaster Accountability Project.
In 2008, Ben and DAP received a competitive Echoing Green Fellowship awarded to cutting-edge social entrepreneurial ventures.
In January 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, DAP launched its Relief Oversight Initiative to improve the efficiency and coordination of humanitarian/aid and relief efforts through greater transparency and publicly available factual data about the activities of groups responding to disasters.
Immediately after the earthquake, it was clear that the public would donate generously and, with hundreds of organizations soliciting donations, the biggest question was “Where do I donate?” The public was inundated with heart-breaking appeals to emotion and generic anecdotes, basing their donation decisions on brand recognition instead of factual data. Some organizations were raising millions of dollars intended to save lives, simply to skim overhead and pass the remaining funds to other groups. One year later, DAP found nearly half of the dollars donated for Haiti relief were sitting in banks unspent, despite worsening conditions and a cholera epidemic killing thousands.
Selected Photography: Nadav Neuhaus of nadavneuhaus.com
- DAP launched SmartResponse.org, a new platform that improves the effectiveness of global disaster relief and humanitarian aid by helping donors make more informed decisions about how and where to donate after disasters. The platform incentivizes transparency by requiring organizations to share data in order to be included on smartly curated “how to help” lists of organizations that have local capacity to deliver immediate services.
- DAP’s op-eds appeared in The Washington Post, CNN and Detroit News.
- DAP released eight additional reports detailing a lack of emergency and evacuation planning within 50 miles of U.S. nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Arizona, Washington, California, and Minnesota, including jurisdictions in Maryland and Delaware.
- DAP released five reports detailing a lack of emergency and evacuation planning within 50 miles of five U.S. nuclear power plants in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, and Illinois, including cities and counties in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and Indiana.
- DAP’s work was cited numerous times in a GAO report on American Red Cross transparency and oversight, resulting in the introduction of the “American Red Cross Sunshine Act,” federal legislation to improve oversight of the organization.
- DAP released a major report one month after the Nepal earthquake assessing consistency and transparency of organizations’ online solicitations and surveyed nearly 100 organizations to assess the extent of their current activities and plans for future involvement in Nepal.
- DAP completed two investigations on the state-level standards of care for public health emergencies in Florida and Louisiana resulting in a commitment by Louisiana public health officials to make specific improvements to state public health emergency planning.
- DAP continued advocacy to improve accountability of major disaster relief organizations following Superstorm Sandy and expanded its oversight to include organizations operating after other disasters, such as the Joplin, Missouri tornado, West, Texas explosion, and Colorado floods.
- DAP partnered with the Center for High Impact Philanthropy to conduct an independent review to identify possible philanthropic and ‘impact investment’ solutions to address New Jersey’s housing crisis following Superstorm Sandy for The Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation.
- DAP’s successful complaint to the New York Attorney General after Superstorm Sandy compelled the American Red Cross to release 4 million USD to families that lost homes and were impacted by gross mismanagement of an American Red Cross recovery program.
In addition to the complaint, DAP engaged a bipartisan group of members of Congress, attracted media attention in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Al Jazeera America, among others, and directly engaged the donors behind nearly 100 million USD in American Red Cross donations.
- DAP collected data from organizations immediately following the response to Superstorm Sandy in an effort to hold organizations accountable for the donations they raised.
- FEMA begins hiring “Disability Integration Specialist” positions in each FEMA region.
- DAP’s report released in Port au Prince, Haiti on the first anniversary of the Haiti earthquake generated global media coverage.
- DAP returned to Haiti to conduct site visits of disaster relief centers in coordination with Haiti Aid Watchdog, a Haitian civil society organization.
- DAP’s reports after the 2010 Haiti earthquake improved the transparency of over 1.2 billion U.S. Dollars (USD) and offered a first comprehensive look at how organizations were operating in Haiti at six months and one year after the earthquake.
- Investigated and authored a report on the accessibility and modernity of emergency plans in twenty-two hurricane-vulnerable Louisiana parishes; this report prompted many parishes to update and improve public access to their emergency plans.
- President Obama appoints DAP Board Member Marcie Roth to the position currently known as Director of FEMA Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. The appointment followed a DAP campaign to compel the FEMA Administrator to implement this post-Katrina recommendation.
- Successfully campaigned to compel FEMA to comply with federal law and elevate the position of FEMA Disability Coordinator.
- DAP’s hotline served as a real-time listening device during Hurricane Ike and assisted numerous callers and countless others by directing details of gaps in critical services to responsible government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
- DAP Receives an Echoing Green Fellowship
- DAP incorporated and filed for tax-exempt status.
- Compiled hundreds of post-Katrina policy recommendations in what later became a “Disaster Policy Wiki” to track the implementation status of “lessons learned.”