Podcast / Episode #14

#14: Leading America’s private sector to make a difference

By renae hanvin

Oct 24 2020

This episode

In this episode, I’m talking with Brooks Nelson, Senior Director, Global Resilience at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and we’re talking about leading America’s private sector to make a difference.

“I connected with Brooks a couple of years ago and have valued our conversations where I have learnt so much about what he’s leading.”

In this conversation you’ll learn how Brooks is doing disasters differently state-side.

key moments from the conversation

About Brooks

Brooks manages the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Centre’s Community Resilience and Disaster Response Program. In this position, Brooks leads programming around the private sectors role in the lifecycle of disasters. He coordinates the centre’s response to natural and manmade disasters through the corporate aid tracker, business delegation trips, and coordination calls.


In addition to leading the global resilience program, Brooks focuses on the impacts of disaster to small and medium sized businesses, and training business leaders on business continuity through tools like resilience in a box.

Brooks began working with the corporate citizenship center in March 2009, as a researcher for the Together for Recovery campaign. Previously, Brooks was the Senior Manager for operations at the center, where he was responsible for the day to day management of the center as well as directing event logistics.

He has also served as coordinator for the business and society relations program, where he was the lead for the 10th anniversary of 911. For this significant anniversary, the center helped mobilize and track over 911 projects completed by businesses and chambers across the country.

Prior to joining the Center, Brooks was with the USA Freedom Corps, the civil engagement office of the White House under the Bush administration.

I’d like to start with where we met...

So I always like to start with where we met. Brooks and I connected with Brooks a few years ago, when I was planning the business model for corporate2community. I was following the approaches that Brooks was leading during the many, many hurricane seasons over in the states across the years. And I was really impressed by what he and his team were doing to enable and support greater contribution by the private sector.


Our first conversation started probably about two years ago. And I’ve been a big follower of the annual Building Resilience Through Private Public Partnerships conference that he hosts each year. In fact, this year, I was planning on traveling to be there in person, which obviously was haltered by COVID-19. Yet Brooks invited me to participate in one of the virtual sessions alongside Jennifer Gray Thompson, who I spoke to a few episodes ago. And it was great to be able to talk about the Australian focus and approaches in the space. I’m hoping the world will be in a better place next year.

Brooks, thanks so much for joining me. It’s always great to chat with you.

Here are some questions I asked...

1. So Brooks, can you please explain what is the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation? And what is your role?


Brooks Nelson
Absolutely. So let me take one step back and share. So the US Chamber of Commerce is the largest business lobbying organization here in the US. We have about 2 million members, making up small and medium sized businesses and also large corporations. As part of the US Chamber there is the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which is the nonprofit arm which I sit in, and work dedicated to strengthening America’s long term competitiveness. We educate the public on the conditions that are necessary for businesses and communities to thrive, and also look at creative solutions that businesses provide to positively shape the future. And so in my role within the Foundation, I lead the Community Resilience and Disaster Response Program, where we focus on how the private sector engages in the lifecycle of a disaster.

So from investing in preparedness and mitigation initiatives to the immediate response and long term recovery, we see businesses as a force for good and we believe that that is especially evident during times of disaster. And then additionally, I focus on the impacts of disaster on small and medium enterprises or SMEs and how we can help train them on business continuity planning and preparing them for any impact of future disaster.

Renae Hanvin
Brooks we could pretty much just stop talking there. That’s exactly what I’m aiming and have been doing in Australia. So it has been so great to connect with you because I absolutely see what you’re doing to me is global best practice. And I didn’t realize you had 2 million members, so I might have to up my game a little bit.

2. Now, are you focused on all hazards disasters? So the likes of cyber etc? Or is it only natural hazards?

Brooks Nelson
So we will respond to all hazards. And most of our work has revolved around natural disasters, that we have responded to several complex crisises like civil unrest here in the United States, as well as the Syrian and Venezuela conflicts. We do have another department in the broader chamber, which I referenced earlier, who focuses specifically on cybersecurity and national security. So we do collaborate closely with them on that particularly particular issue. But obviously, data security and cyber security is critical for business continuity. So we we do highlight that issue when we are training small businesses, and helping them thinking about protecting their data assets.

3. Can I ask you, so I am obviously a big fan of the private sector and the contribution they can make? So can I ask you what role does the private sector play in supporting America to prepare, respond and recover from disasters.

Brooks Nelson
So as I mentioned earlier, we see business as a force for good and they provide provide the solutions, the challenges that face society. And so the private sector plays an integral role in all cycles of disaster. And we’ve seen an evolution across the corporate responsibility globally and in America, in how companies engage in social social issues. So our program within the Foundation was founded in the early 2000s, when CSR was still heavily corporate philanthropy, which I would argue still critical.

But companies were mostly engaging with just cash and wanted to have a better understanding of where their donations were needed after disaster. As time has gone on, companies continue to provide those donations to communities, but also in kind goods and services. And this support has been critical for those NGOs who are on the ground responding. Now, in the most recent evolution in CSR, and social impact as many have adopted, we have seen how companies think about investing in the full disaster lifecycle. So companies are investing in preparedness and mitigation to support communities before disaster strikes. So these examples could include supporting fortified housing in very high risk zones, or building technologies that help map vulnerable populations ahead of a disaster so that first responders know where supplies supplies are needed, and can position them in advance, or investing and actually preparing SMEs to think about business continuity planning and fortifying their business before the next disaster.

Additionally, I would say we’re, we’re seeing companies be more strategic with their philanthropic giving, and they make total dollar commitments as soon as disaster strikes. But actually holding 50% of that funding, until the community has begun their long term recovery phase. This is often when the funding is most needed. But there are also the greatest gaps in resources. And so I definitely see this as a best practice for companies who are investing in disaster response,

Renae Hanvin
The disaster giving space such an interesting area here. And we obviously had what people are saying is unprecedented bushfires, we had very large bush fires, the start of the year, and the giving was phenomenal. But the actually when you analyzed it, in fact, we have a project we’re actually about to start doing this when you analyze the effects of the giving in the sense of what was helpful giving them what was harmful giving there’s a massive need to educate corporates on great giving. And for me that’s very much around you know, it has to be needs led as opposed to the token is broken kind of I’m going to give this way because it gives me a press release. And you know, it’s it looks good on our marketing plan.

And I think I love the concept of the full lifecycle of disasters. And I think that’s an area that in Australia, we do have a bit of a she’ll be right kind of laid back attitude I’ll be honest. So preparedness and planning and mitigation is probably not part of the typical Australian culture, but definitely an area that we need to move into and progress into into that preparedness space. You know, I think that resilience really is like recovery as is resilience and preparedness, because as you’re recovering, you’re also building that resilience. And I guess expanding that resilience, but you know, you need to be preparing for what’s coming next. Because we know that there’ll be more.

4. Brooks, can I ask you how effective are private public collaborations in America? So given you run an annual conference about the topic, which again, I’ve been following for a number of years, how are the partnerships evolving and strengthening?

Brooks Nelson
In America, they’re the way we manage the disaster lifecycle. And the former Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency here in America, Brock Long describes private public partnerships, like a three legged stool. One leg is the government and other the nonprofit sector, and the third, the private sector. And all three legs are critical to hold up the community during a disaster. And each brings their own mandates and values. And I think, especially during this time of COVID, and everything that is going on globally, it’s become becoming increasingly realized that no industry or sector can do it alone. And we’re all stronger together.

I think, especially during times of disaster, these partnerships are strengthened by the speed and efficiency that information and trust is shared. And I think that these partnerships have evolved and started to become really strategic in how they operate. So a couple examples I’d like to give, during COVID-19, we have seen almost all of our restaurants have to temporarily close or have reduced services in some ways, and many workers have been furloughed. But also at the same time, we begin to see a spike in hunger and food shortages. And so one of the responses operation barbecue, who is a nonprofit, based here in the US teamed up with local restaurant owners, the Department of Health and Human Services at the state level, and then also corporate food industry companies. And through that private public partnership, they were able to serve 4.5 million meals in 45 days, and they saved nearly 300 restaurant workers from having to file for unemployment.

Renae Hanvin
Wow, that’s a great example. And I have to say, you got me as soon as you said operation barbecue, because. But isn’t that just a fantastic outcome from just, you know, relationships and understanding who can play what role and then coming together and just, you know, delivering it, the outcome is fantastic.

Brooks Nelson
So lovely.

Renae Hanvin
I mean, it’s kind of so simple. I read recently that the I think the American business roundtable, recently changed their mantra or their code to say that it would be stakeholders before shareholders, which I think, you know, to me is fantastic.

And I know that our equivalent decided not to do that. But I think that’s a great example as to how, by taking a different mindset, being a CEO or Board of a big corporate business, in terms of how you can contribute and support those who give you social licence to operate being your employees, your customers, your communities, that the, you know, the outcomes can be profitable plus also, you know, gives you such great brand equity, but also makes such a difference in the world that you’re operating in.

Brooks Nelson
Absolutely, and disappointing to hear that your constituents there decided not to adopt? I think, you know, we are continuing to see that trend move in the United States. And I would argue that it will probably go global. And I think that kind of stakeholder over shareholder is something that we had started to we haven’t even seen, long before the Business Roundtable came out with that one, but it’s great to see the companies sign that pledge, and it will be interesting to see the results moving forward.

Renae Hanvin
Yeah, definitely. I might, I might try and make that my mission in Australia too. I need to stop talking to you, because my to do list is going to be too long.

5. Now I spoke to Craig Fugate, a few episodes ago, and I always refer to the Waffle House and Walmart, as I guess, my American visions and examples of best practice in terms of how corporates can identify how they can support communities in disasters. Can you talk about those two or do you have a couple of other corporate examples that you can share that make a great contribution?

Brooks Nelson
So really, you know, I think what I would would say about the the Waffle House Index, it’s a testament to two things. First, how important it is to the company that they include preparedness and Business Continuity Planning into their operations. When we see that Waffle House either partially open, fully open or not open, it’s a testament to how impacted that community is. Which leads to the second point of what we talked about earlier that the sooner a business can reopen, the sooner the community can reopen and recover. And these local businesses are the backbone of the community and having them open provides hope for the communities that are impacted. And I think, you know, Walmart, obviously, their footprint is global, which requires them to be an expert in disaster management, and also the nature of their company with consumer goods provide critical throughout the lifecycle disaster.

I think that the list of American based companies who are active in this disaster response real experts, I could go on and on, but ones that I think, are really important to look at and partner with, you have UPS, FedEx, and Amazon, who are all critical partners, both domestically and globally, through their logistics and supply chain networks, which help move life saving items during critical times. But also each investment billions of dollars annually in communities to not only help them recover, but also prepare, I would also say, you know, there’s companies like Medtronic, or GSK, who may not seem as obvious to have its disaster response partners, or have disaster management as one of their pillars. But from a pharmaceutical and medical device perspective, they’re creating these life saving products. And if those products are not available for those impacted by disaster, then it becomes a double disaster. And there can be more casualties due to the negative health impacts that that disaster creates. So investing in preparedness measures is is critical to their business.

And then finally, I would say, I could go on and on with a number of companies. But the last example I’ll give is just the number of financial service companies who are very engaged in supporting these vulnerable communities. Studies in the US has shown that 40% of our population do not have more than $400 in savings to cover a disaster or an emergency. So for companies like JPMorgan Chase, Wells, Fargo and Prudential, this can have a significant impact on their consumer. So by providing education and the resources to help their constituents prepare, makes them stronger for the next disaster.

Renae Hanvin
Some great examples there. And thank you, I love that you shared across multiple industry groups as well, because I think it’s quite easy to go to the retail sector quite quickly, because obviously, that does have, you know, usually a big footprint, and whatnot. But great examples to share from other sectors as well.

6. Now, I’m going to ask you, so I see so many examples here. So you’re gonna have to keep yourself to one or two as well. Okay. And it’s kind of a weird question. Because in the you know, in a space that we work in it’s disasters, and you would not wish a disaster on anyone. But I always say that great things can come from the process of disasters, and obviously, in every disaster come opportunities. So what are the most What’s one or two of the most exciting outcomes or achievements that your team and the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation has delivered since you’ve been there?

Brooks Nelson
So, you know, I think one of the things that I am most proud of is how we are focusing on helping small and midsize businesses prepare. And so I referenced our resilience in a box toolkit that we created in partnership with the UPS foundation. And it walks businesses through assessing risk, and all hazards, but also building upon kind of their six core business units, whether it’s their people or their data, their buildings, their suppliers, etc. And so through partnerships, both domestically and globally, we’ve been able to push this product out, which is now available in English, Spanish, French, Turkish, and Arabic. And through partnerships in Turkey and Mexico. We’ve actually trained over 100,000 businesses on this using this tool. And then through here in the us through our state and local chamber network. We have about 1500 state local chamber partners that we work with, to push out the the tool in I do a number of workshops with them, and just helping these small midsize businesses think about continuity planning has been really an exciting achievement since taking over this role.

The other example I’ll give is the conference that you referenced. You know, I think one of the powers of the chamber foundation is being a convener. And having taken over this conference in 2018. We’ve seen growth from 400 attendees to this year, we had nearly 2500 registrants for the comp for the three day conference. And so it’s exciting to be able to see the depth and the growth, and the partnerships that we’ve been able to build through this annual event.

Renae Hanvin
I think the event is fantastic. And again, it’s something that I’m really hoping to and aiming to replicate. So maybe we’ll do it in reverse. Maybe you can come here first presented our inaugural one and then I’ll come to your next one. Obviously, if we’re allowed to leave our homes given we’re both pretty much in curfews at the moment.

With my final question always…

What 2 things would you like to be done differently in the disaster space?

1. You know, I think that we are very good at operating in silos within disaster management. And one of the focus areas that we’ve been thinking about is how do we really look at community resiliency. And being I think too often you go into community, and the emergency manager hasn’t ever spoken to the Chamber of Commerce, and the Chamber of Commerce speaks with the mayor, but may not know, you know, some of the nonprofit’s who are really active in disaster management.


And we have communities, vulnerable communities who are completely left out of the equation. And so I think when we think about what resiliency looks like, and what it means, we need to really take that whole community approach and tear down the silos so that these different communities or stakeholders within the community, are collaborating and working together to make their community more resilient, unable to to bounce back.

2. And so I think, you know, that is definitely one and out of that, I think something that, you know, has been a focus recently in America is, is this issue of equity, and equity definitely falls under the disaster space as well. And so as worth thinking about the lifecycle of disaster, are we also thinking about how equity plays into that, and we really are serving the whole community.

Connect with Brooks Nelson