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Humility Paves the Way for Flood Resilience Policies

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Humility Paves the Way for Flood Resilience Policies
Scott Olson Getty Images

In March 2015, as the nation’s eyes were opening to a rising number of historic weather events and their potential to devastate communities, properties, and lives, Pew launched its flood-prepared communities project. This work aimed to reduce the damage being caused by floods—the most common and costly natural disaster in the U.S., resulting in more than $1 trillion in damage and losses since 2000—by improving policy and planning at the federal and state levels to help states become more flood resilient.

Last year, Pew’s evaluation and learning unit, which helps the organization learn from its work, improve program effectiveness, and inform future decision-making, commissioned a group of independent experts to assess the flood project’s work. This outside review showed that over the past eight years, the project’s efforts had contributed to a landmark revision of the federal flood insurance program’s pricing system, which today more closely aligns flood risk with property insurance rates, and to the first U.S. Department of Transportation program dedicated to flood risk mitigation—including through the use of natured-based solutions, such as restoring wetlands, enhancing culverts, and creating green space. The review also found that the team helped establish a national standard for the planning and design of federally funded projects located in flood-prone areas that accounts for future risk and has secured over $33 billion in federal and state funding for flood mitigation—and the team was able to accomplish this while navigating an evolving political landscape and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The key to this overall success, the evaluators noted, was one characteristic critical to the way the team operated: humility. As Pew defines it, humility is recognizing that the ability to create change is linked with the capacity and knowledge of colleagues and partners, and it involves acknowledging mistakes, listening and fostering understanding to serve the common good, and changing course when needed to learn and grow. That trait is also one of Pew’s seven core values (the other six are equity, impact, inclusion, innovation, integrity, and nonpartisanship).

Humility enabled the project team to develop deep, authentic relationships with a broad range of stakeholder groups and build Pew’s reputation as a trusted leader in the field, which resulted in strong partnerships and durable policy change. The following examples of operating with humility can help other policy change initiatives learn from the flood team’s approach.

A learning mindset: The team approached its work with a willingness to learn, even while contributing its own technical expertise. For example, when initiating work in a new state, team members took the time to learn about important context from state and local officials and experts working on floods, as well as their preferred collaboration style. This allowed the team to more quickly earn trust among local partners than it otherwise might have.

The project team members demonstrated their willingness to learn and adapt as they built their own capacity and expertise, pivoted when necessary, tried new strategies, and responded to emerging opportunities. For instance, after Hurricane Harvey battered Texas and other Gulf Coast states in August 2017, leaving 89 people dead and causing more than $125 billion in damage, a Texas-based partner informed Pew that the state legislature was eager to fund disaster recovery to help the victims, and flood mitigation to ensure that Texans would be better prepared in the future. After learning more about challenges from lawmakers and local advocates, Pew saw an opportunity to share with decision-makers potential policy approaches that could work in their state. Their subsequent engagement contributed to the creation of a comprehensive statewide flood plan and an infrastructure fund to finance flood mitigation projects using nature-based strategies that absorb floodwaters—such as restored wetlands, salt marshes, and streams.

"Some may think humility, patience, and graciousness are niceties but not critical to outcomes. The evaluation proved that these values in fact enabled the flood-prepared communities team’s work and success ... helping to open doors, build lasting relationships, and give them access to opportunities and people."

Sheila Leahy, Lead Evaluator SAL Consulting

A commitment to inclusivity: Rather than project its own agenda, the team listened intently and ensured that a range of viewpoints were explored to help educate policymakers. By doing so, the team was able to garner support, help break through various political impasses, and elevate local perspectives. For example, Pew bridged a critical gap between different levels of government by organizing trips to Washington, D.C., for state and local stakeholders, giving them a chance to tell their own stories and share the need for federal flood preparedness support. One participant explained that “Pew organized national media for us, and we ended up at the White House—they saw us as influential.” This led to agencies, policymakers, and organizations at the state level expressing appreciation for the way Pew created an inclusive national learning community in which stakeholders across the political spectrum could build peer relationships and exchange lessons learned as they established new offices and planning efforts focused on climate adaptation and resilience. The knowledge sharing was particularly useful to states seeking to develop innovative and comprehensive resilience strategies.

Augmenting partner efforts: The team proactively asked partners what they needed and shared resources and expertise to bolster existing efforts. In Virginia, Pew recognized a need for high-quality messaging tools and data-driven research to build public support and educate elected state officials—particularly from inland and rural communities—about the need for funding for flood preparedness. Pew developed these resources and made them freely available to its networks, a model repeated in other states and at the national level on various flood-related issues. This helped Pew’s networks expand their reach and build a broad coalition of bipartisan support. As a result, Virginia now has a well-funded program that gives flood-prone communities the ability to develop resilience plans, sponsor nature-based solutions to flooding, and boost local capacity.

As Pew celebrates its 75th year, reflects on its past, and looks to the future, it remains committed to embodying humility in its work—being attuned to its partners’ knowledge, listening and fostering deep understanding, and being willing to acknowledge its own mistakes and change course when needed to learn and grow. Humility provided the foundation for the flood-prepared communities team to engage in meaningful collaboration, find common ground, and, ultimately, improve public policy. The lessons from this evaluation will be applied to future work to further support Pew’s mission and live its values.

Reema Singh is an officer and Michele Lempa is a project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ evaluation and learning unit.

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