How Team Rubicon Manages Disaster Relief Spending

Disaster Relief

Whether they’re clearing hurricane wreckage or mucking out homes, disaster relief workers need easy, instant access to funds to keep operations running. In the latest Workforce Spend Management Tracker, Jessica Green, Team Rubicon’s senior associate of finance for field operations, explains how smart spend management and reconciliation software keep spend management from being a disaster when disaster strikes

Hurricane Michael struck Florida in October 2018, demolishing homes, snapping trees and upturning residents’ lives. The storm then raged across Georgia, flooded Virginia and left tens of thousands without power in South Carolina. Electricity was also knocked out for 500,000 North Carolinians.

Recovery efforts are still ongoing nearly four months later as states struggle to clear debris, rebuild damaged infrastructure, repair stormwater systems and more. Fortunately, volunteer disaster relief teams are ready and eager to help these hard-hit areas.

One such operation — veteran-led disaster response nonprofit Team Rubicon — is assisting by deploying teams to assess damage, clean out homes, operate heavy equipment, clear routes, manage volunteers and aid in other rebuilding efforts. The organization conducted 88 domestic and foreign operations in 2018, with each effort lasting anywhere from a single weekend to several months.

Teams on the ground require easily accessible funds for each mission, and money must move smoothly to support their efforts. Jessica Green, Team Rubicon’s senior associate of finance for field operations, said in a recent interview with PYMNTS that group leaders must pay for rental vehicles, refueling, office and field supplies, flights, meals and more.

“[Operation funding needs] could be anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 … up to $10,000 to get things rolling,” Green said, adding that most domestic operations require an initial $1,000 to $5,000 infusion, with additional funds supplied as needed.

To handle its Hurricane Michael response, Team Rubicon needed to quickly provide team leaders with necessary funds while making it easy for organization members to track spending. The nonprofit required a solution that would also satisfy its fraud-prevention and operational management needs. It wanted relief teams to focus on disaster recovery, after all, and not money-accessibility emergencies.

Fast, Flexible Funds

The bulk of Team Rubicon’s work involves domestic missions, often including five to six team leaders managing more than a hundred people. For these relief efforts, the nonprofit uses a workforce spending card from provider PEX that administrators can remotely reload. Missions typically require a couple of team leaders to be equipped with these funding cards.

“We use PEX cards for pretty much all of our operations,” Green said. “They’re pretty crucial.”

When disasters strike, it is imperative to be able to immediately send funds to the cards, she added, and do so in addition to allowing cardholders on longer missions to receive recurring money infusions.

Providing both of these capabilities can make a big difference when managing long-term missions.

Flexible spending controls are also important. The company can remotely enable or disable the ability to use cards abroad or make online purchases, features Green said allow it to quickly and remotely block cards while addressing and investigating possible fraud or theft. Replacement cards can then be sent, and arrive in just a matter of days.

So far, Team Rubicon hasn’t found a need to set amount or spending-type limits on the cards, though its policies require holders to seek approval for purchases of $500 or more.

Despite the conveniences reloadable spending cards offer, Team Rubicon must still fall back on cash in some situations. Some disaster areas no longer possess the electricity or infrastructure necessary to process card payments. Additionally, relief workers on international missions are more likely to encounter vendors who won’t accept card payments. Green said that during one trip to Greece, team members couldn’t use their spend cards with some vendors because the cards did not have chips. In such cases, Team Rubicon either supplies teams with cash, wires it to them or later reimburses those who have paid out of pocket.

Tracking and Reconciliation

Keeping reimbursements and other expenditures organized can easily become complicated. Team Rubicon uses tools such as Google Docs to record expenditures and PEX’s website for viewing transactions. It also uses reconciliation software from Expensify that work in sync with members’ reloadable spending cards, allowing card-enabled transactions to automatically flow into the reconciliation software. Cardholders can then use desktop or mobile app interfaces to categorize the purchases and link them to their operations.

This kind of visibility also helps Team Rubicon track expenses that need to be approved and reimbursed. The organization handles paybacks via direct deposit unless the recipients specifically request checks.

The nonprofit must also keep receipts for cash purchases and electronic transactions greater than $25. It accomplishes this through an Expensify app that allows teams on the ground to capture and categorize receipts for reconciliation.

One particularly useful app feature is a “co-pilot” function giving financial officers on the ground access to cardholders’ accounts, Green explained. This capability allows them to add in purchase receipts and reporting details without requiring cardholders’ log-in information, and lets officers back at headquarters view the information. Team Rubicon uses a Box cloud-based document storage solution to track documents related to each operation’s transactions, such as in-kind donations.

Domestic and international relief missions are complex operations. They require coordinating teams that operate in challenging, high-need situations for days or weeks at a time — all while making a variety of expenditures. Remotely loaded spending cards, cloud-based documentation solutions and reconciliation software can give teams the smooth funding access they need while helping administrators remotely manage expenses. This allows relief workers to focus on the important tasks at hand and ignore money-related distractions.