GEM: A Precious Commodity, Part I

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The GEM branch in Kyiv, Ukraine. “We have 100 people that work just in the office and warehouse in Ukraine. Every single one of them was actually a refugee who decided to make a u-turn and come back and help,” informs Michael revealing how “our director of GEM Ukraine wanted us to buy plane tickets so he could get out of there with his family and go hide in Canada. During the two or three days that we were trying to book him flights, he came with me and helped at the border by bringing aid to people. I offered him a job and he thought that was more interesting than running away and now he’s the director of a branch that’s sending 300 trucks to the front lines every month.”

“One time, we were leaving the front lines at sunset and it got dark,” recounts Michael Capponi, Founder and President of Global Empowerment Mission [GEM], about one of his many trips to the front lines in Ukraine. “All of a sudden there was a Russian drone that was following us.  I could see its little lights flickering and it was getting really, really close.  I was about to jump out of the car.  And then I saw a flare come in and take it out.  The Ukrainians had shot down the drone.”

Michael Capponi, Founder and President of Global Empowerment Mission.  Since 2010, GEM has responded to crises in all 50 states, 53 countries, coordinated over 335 disaster relief trips and distributed over $250 million worth of aid. In addition to overseeing the management of seven international branches on multiple continents, Michael is also hands on, in the field.

Such is the life of this former Miami nightlife impresario, who, for the past 13 years, has traveled to the four corners of the globe, responding to every kind of humanitarian crisis: wars, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, school shootings, explosions and wildfires, not to mention a pandemic.  GEM, in fact, was one of the first providers of PPE to all 50 states and Puerto Rico at the onset of COVID 19.

But that now seems like several lifetimes ago.  Since then, besides the war in Ukraine, most recently, the world has been witness to the carnage in Israel.  Before that, there was the Uvalde school shooting, the explosion in Lebanon, Hurricane Ian, Hurricane Hilary, the earthquake in Turkey and the Surfside Tower collapse, just to name a few of the disasters responded to by GEM.

The week that I was to interview Michael, wildfires left Maui looking like a war zone, then an earthquake and a massive flood devastated Morocco and Libya, respectively.

GEM was on the ground, providing crucial aid to all of these places.  It wouldn’t be long before the team would head to Israel.  Incredibly, the organization’s average response time is less than 24 hours and so, when I spoke to Michael, he was already in Hawaii.  Several weeks later, he would be in Ukraine.  As such, I never did get to interview him in person and it came as no surprise to learn that since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the philanthropist has spent only 20 nights in his own bed.

Michael in the charred landscape of the Woolsey, CA fire which ignited in the Santa Monica mountains at the same time as the Paradise fire, in November, 2018. “In California, from the 1880s to the mid 1990s, the average fire used to burn between 800,000 – 900,000 acres,” says Michael. “Now, there’s something called a complex fire – it’s like three fires that converge and become one giant fire that burns 3.5 million acres. Paradise California is now hotter by 10 degrees because that whole area is just burned.”

Michael and locals walking two to three miles in submerged fields to bring aid to villages in Mozambique after Cyclone Idai made landfall in 2019. The long-lasting storm was one of the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect Africa. It caused catastrophic damage and a humanitarian crisis in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, killing more than 1,500 people.

GEM, in Israel, distributing family kits containing necessities such as non-perishable food items, water and hygiene products. Each kit helps a family of four up to 72 hours after a disaster. Some 2,000 of these kits were flown to Israel in the days after the attack by Hamas, with much more aid on the way in the weeks ahead.

It’s safe to say that this type of unrelenting dedication is unique. And so is GEM.  Several in-depth phone conversations with Michael and a visit to the GEM headquarters in Doral, Florida, were nothing less than eye-opening in more ways than one.  For the 51-year old former “king of Miami nightlife,” the tale is one of incredible highs and devastating lows, of grief, redemption and ultimately, of hope.

What makes GEM so nimble, able to quickly arrive on the scene then scale up and scale down as needed, is the strategic public-private partnerships it forms.  Whenever possible, much like chef José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen, labor and supplies are sourced locally.  In addition, a global freight forwarder absorbs the shipping costs and a real estate investment trust provides a steep discount on warehouses.  Many institutional donors like Amazon, Walmart, Good360, Coca Cola, Evian and Goya donate necessities for humans and pets alike.

L. to r.: René Dago Sr., Chief Financial Officer, Patrick Lynch, Chief Development Officer and Mila Gonzalez, Director of Donor Relations.

“How to get the most amount of aid to the most amount of people in the least amount of time for the least amount of money, has been the north star for everything that the organization has been about,” says Patrick Lynch, Chief Development Officer.

Take the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas in 2019.  “Every time I would meet a government official, whether it was the Prime Minister or a cabinet minister, they would tell me, ‘Oh we have to repair this school, but it’s going to cost $1 million,’” says Michael.  “And I was like I can hire local Bahamian labor and get free material from different companies and I could probably re-build that same school for $200,000 – $300,000.”

A school built by GEM in Coopers Town Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. The cyclone is remembered as the worst to ever strike the island. “We rebuilt three schools in the Bahamas and we created a model in a way that gave family offices and foundations something that is tangible,” informs Michael. “So, donors can have their names on the school.”

Fast forward to the gargantuan task of re-building Ukraine.  “The mayor of Bucha would tell me building this school was going to cost millions and I would laugh,” recounts Michael.

“Instead of giving money to the Ministry of Education, we decided to just get permission to rebuild things ourselves by hiring local Ukrainians.  We created a hybrid model so that the volunteer-worker is making a minimum amount of money a month.  It’s still enough to pay his bills, food and rent.  There’s no profit in it, but they’re so happy to be doing that that they actually work three times harder than just a regular contractor.”

The re-opening of a school in Bucha, Ukraine, that was re-built by GEM. It put 1,600 kids back in the classroom and created jobs. All the construction material and labor came from Ukraine. To date, GEM has re-built approximately 350 structures in Ukraine, according to Michael, including 14 apartment buildings, nine schools, several clinics, 130 homes, an entire street even. “And we’re able to do that at about 1/10th the price that anybody else does it for because it’s a completely different model. It’s a model of empowerment and it’s a model of getting people to come together and do something positive for the community.”

With regard to Ukraine, the organization is careful to stress that: “Since there’s so much debate in the US about funding the war in Ukraine, it’s important to note that our efforts in Ukraine are funded by The Howard G. Buffet Foundation.  GEM donations from the public are not used in Ukraine.

We support civilians, mostly elderly and children who desperately depend on the aid we deliver daily to over 300 towns directly in the line of fire.  Without it, they would not survive and the world, Europe and the US would have a much bigger migration issue than it already has.  The work we do actually reverses the refugee crisis by empowering people in their countries with local teams only. @globalempowermentmissionua supports the entire 600 mile-front line with basic survival needs.”

GEM in partnership with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation delivers family kits and basic necessities to Ukrainian villages. To date, 1.4 million of these kits have been distributed in five continents.

According to Michael, GEM has sent 335 containers to Ukraine, with a third of those coming from other countries including Japan, India, England, Spain and Italy. “Everyone who’s got aid for Ukraine, gives it to us because we’re going to know how to package it, how to sort it, how to load it, how to get it in Ukraine. But we didn’t have to pay for any of the donation drives because they did it themselves.”

In Ukraine, Gem has installed 70,251 new window panels in 2023 alone, through the Gem/Howard G. Buffett window replacement program. The goal is to quickly replace windows in apartments and homes near explosions and those that have been hit by missile strikes.

Vokzalna Street in Bucha, Ukraine, has been completely re-built by GEM in partnership with The Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

The local sourcing extends to other industries too, like agriculture. “With the help of The Howard G. Buffett Foundation,” explains Michael, “we have 100 farms in business right now.  We produce all the food for our boxes in Ukraine.  The money we pay the farmers supports that economy which is down 50% or 60% and we’re able to get food from the farm to the front lines of Ukraine all within a very short amount of time for probably 300% or 400% less than any organization on the planet including the biggest organizations in the world.”

Michael with GEM Ukraine Director of Operations, Andriy Negrych, in a Ukrainian wheat field which produces food for GEM’s operations.

The flour produced from Ukrainian wheat is part of GEM’s farm to front line initiative.

It is this entrepreneurial, private sector approach rather than “handbook nonprofit thinking” which Michael ultimately attributes to the success of his organization and to its status as a disrupter in the disaster sector.  “Every single disaster is like a brand new start-up,” explains the one-time luxury real estate developer.

“It’s got different donors.  Different cultural and land rights issues.  It’s got different shipping regulations, it’s going to need a different type of warehouse, different types of forklifts, different types of trucks and vans and different types of people.”

In the Bahamas, for example, after Hurricane Dorian, seaplanes were needed to respond because the airports were underwater.  “So, we chartered seaplanes and when we got there, we had to rent barges that were very shallow that could go in 3.5’ of water because you couldn’t access the deepwater ports because they were demolished,” narrates the humanitarian.  The people manning that operation were retired Navy SEALS, hired because of their expertise in maritime logistics.  “We paid them a day rate and at the end of the week, when those maneuvers came to an end, they were off the payroll,” reveals Michael.

Each disaster relief mission requires a unique approach. In the Bahamas, seaplanes were chartered in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian because flooding had rendered the airports inaccessible.

More recently, when a tornado struck Kentucky, GEM was likewise able “to go in and out.”  Operating out of a local church for three months, “we set up a pop up, did everything that was needed and then, flexed back down,” reveals Michael.  This lean, flexible methodology has garnered GEM a four-star rating on Charity Navigator.  “That’s why we have a 100% rating on Charity Navigator,” reveals Michael, explaining how the rating agency rates 200,000 charities and only 29 have a 100% score and of those 29, only two of them are in the disaster relief sector.

“So, it’s not an easy thing to do and you do that by giving away basically everything that you collect, keeping just enough to go into the following year.  That’s the model.”  “Obviously,” he goes on to explain, “you have to have reserves and sometimes people tell me ‘You’re low on assets compared to some big organizations.’  I’m glad we are.  People don’t donate to GEM so we can own buildings all over the world.  Our assets are vehicles, they’re trucks and vans and things that distribute aid and that’s it and that’s all it should be.”

Indeed, about 95% of every dollar raised by GEM goes to disaster victims.  Last year, according to René Dago Sr., the Chief Financial Officer, it was even more – an impressive 97%.  That means that only 3% went towards administrative overhead.  These numbers stand out.  Notably, this year, GEM was nominated for an advocacy award on Charity Navigator.

Michael with Bethenny Frankel in the Bahamas, responding to Hurricane Dorian.

Undeniably, one of its most beneficial partnerships has been with bstrong, Bethenny Frankel’s disaster relief initiative.  The entrepreneur and reality television star had initially contacted GEM during Hurricanes Irma and Maria which both hit the Caribbean in September, 2017.

“Bethenny wanted to charter a plane and bring aid to the area,” recollects Michael.  Together, GEM and bstrong ended up sending 55 planes of emergency supplies to Puerto Rico, St Barths, St Maarten and the US and British Virgin Islands all within the first month of the hurricanes.

That was the start of a beautiful friendship.  Since then, the two programs have collaborated on numerous missions including the Puerto Rico earthquake, the Texas winter blackout, the Surfside condo collapse, the Haiti Earthquake of 2021, the Turkey-Syria earthquake, the Maui wildfires and most recently, the war in Israel.

According to René, it was through Bethenny’s connections that GEM became one of the first providers of PPE to New York and other states during COVID.  And in Uvalde, it was with the aid of bstrong that GEM was able to give $5,000 to each of the victims’ families, says Michael.  “bstrong pays for very specific line items – cash cards or logistics,” reveals Michael.  “In Ukraine, we relocated 38,000 people.  That means that we had to buy plane or bus tickets and that was done with the bstrong fund account.”

Ukrainian refugees receiving aid from GEM in partnership with bstrong. The organization helped relocate 38,000 refugees. Michael was at the Polish border on February 25, 2022, the day after the war started. “Before Russia invaded Ukraine, I already booked my flight and I knew it was going to happen. I had a whole idea of what needed to be done. You get better with your intuition.”

The GEM/bstrong partnership gave each family of the victims of the Uvalde school shooting $5,000. “Every year, we distribute about $1 million worth of cash cards through the bstrong fund,” reveals Michael.

After the Surfside building collapse in June, 2021, survivors received $5,000 in bstrong Visa cards and new home goods. In addition, GEM helped relocate every survivor into permanent housing, paying first and last month’s rent plus security deposits. For some, GEM paid an entire year’s rent.

It’s difficult to overstate bstrong’s impact. “From GEM’s point of view, Bethenny helped us get from a small organization to a large organization virtually overnight.  She put it on the map like nobody could have.” Indeed, GEM’s tax returns (all available on its website) reveal that in 2016, its gross receipts were just over $172,000.  The next year, in 2017, when bstrong became involved, its gross receipts ballooned to more than $17 million.  “Bethenny has been one of the biggest blessings that GEM has ever had,” says Michael.  “She is a master messenger.”

And how exactly did these two philanthropists meet?  “I was not someone who had ever seen her shows,” recounts Michael about the time Bethenny initially contacted GEM.  “I don’t watch those things and I wasn’t that interested, frankly.  I was like ‘another celebrity that wants to get attention.’  I really didn’t think it was important.  So, I asked other team members to go to the islands with her instead of me.”  And “all of a sudden, I start getting Google alerts that day saying ‘Bethenny Frankel in Puerto Rico with GEM distributing aid.’  I’ve never gotten more Google alerts in a few hours’ time in my life.  It was ridiculous.”

The GEM PayPal account began seeing significant activity that day too “and I started understanding the power of social media plus news reporting which equals to money and money equals being able to help more people.  So, when Bethenny came back from Puerto Rico, I picked her up at the airport and she gets in my car and says “I’ve met you before.  You were really arrogant.”  And I was like “Oh, you must have met me in my nightlife days.”  We laughed and she said she wants to get more involved.”

Stay tuned for Part II

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