Relationship Ready

photoRelationship Ready: Building Critical Partnerships Before Crisis

Jeff Jellets is the Territorial Disaster Coordinator for The Salvation Army’s Southern Territory.  In this article, he takes a look at the importance and value of building meaningful relationships before catastrophe occurs.

“It’s all about relationships. “

That’s a familiar adage within emergency management – a common sense way of saying that during a crisis, it is relationships between people, agencies, and communities that provide the resources and resilience needed to cope with a catastrophic event.   It’s perhaps a bit trite to say that “disaster response is clearly a team sport,” but that certainly doesn’t make it any less true.

Of course, as critical as relationships are, most emergency managers temper that first bit of advice with a second: “And the worst time to build a relationship is during a crisis.”

No disaster manager wants to be exchanging business cards for the first time on the day the raindrops of a major hurricane begin hammering the glass of the county’s emergency operations center or just after the last motes of dust are settling on the ground after a catastrophic earthquake.  If emergency management is a team of people and agencies, then their coach is the emergency manager.  No coach wants to learn who his players are on game day – the day the disaster strikes – at least, not if they expect to be successful.

So my admonition to all Salvation Army officers has been: “Meet your local emergency manager and build that relationship … long before any disasters are on the horizon.”

But what does that mean?  On the surface, it may appear that emergency managers and Salvation Army officers come from two different worlds — faith-based and government being one of the most easily identifiable differences.  How then to best build a relationship, particularly one that is solid enough to weather the stress and tension of a disaster event?

Let me suggest three fundamental points from which to start:

First, build understanding.  When I travel, it’s almost impossible for me not to come across someone with a Salvation Army story.   These stories are testimonies to the tremendous work The Salvation Army performs in improving people’s lives every day.  But I also find that very few people know the ‘full’ story of The Salvation Army and are aware of all that we have to offer.  Most emergency managers fall into this category.

We need to tell our story.  Not for promotion, but to help our partners understand what resources we can bring to the table, how they work, and just as importantly, our limitations.  Build on an honest understanding of each other’s capabilities so that, in a crisis, you can give all you have, but not be expected to give more than you can do.

Second, promote accountability.  One wry person said to me, “If I wanted to, I could go to an emergency management meeting every day, but I just can’t … I have other things I need to do.”  This individual is absolutely right.  As Salvationists, we are pulled in countless directions across a number of amazing programs.  Each and every one of these programs deserves (and needs) our attention.  We just can’t seem to do it all.

Nor should we.  What is important is that we set aside ‘specific’ time to focus on the development of key relationships, such as the one with the emergency manager. Even if that time is limited, the intentionality of the commitment sends a clear message that this relationship is not only important, but valued.  Just as critically, when you do make a commitment, it must be fulfilled.   It takes dozens of kept promises to offset one that has been broken.

Finally, build trust.  Even as Christians, it can be hard for us to trust a total stranger – particularly in a time of stress or crisis.  Think of yourself as an emergency manager, dealing with a disaster.  Lives are at stake, an entire community is at risk, and the personal and professional pressure is intense.  Under those conditions, leaders want to surround themselves with people they can trust, people they can count on to deliver on what needs to be done.   Trust, at least in the context of an emergency operation, represents a rock solid confidence that these partners will be there with you when needed.

For The Salvation Army, it means that an emergency manager can depend on our resources being mobilized during an event and that we will work in coordination with the overall disaster response operation.  Again, it may be a bit cliché, but emergency managers want to know if you really ‘have their back’ and that they can count on you when things are at their worst.

Of course, even with the fundamentals of a strong relationship in place, ultimately it is the execution of those efforts that counts.  As Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is a success.”  Emergency management may begin with the formulation of relationships, but it culminates in putting those relationships to work.  Looking beyond disaster services, consider the relationships that you are building today or, to go back to our earlier analogy, who are you inviting onto your team?  More importantly, what is your plan to make those relationships work for you, The Salvation Army, and to the advancement of God’s kingdom?


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