Community foundations nationwide step up, in different ways, to pandemic response

In one of the country’s hardest hit neighborhoods, the coronavirus pandemic left Elzie Wright and her small Brooklyn-based nonprofit feeling afraid and alone. They were under-resourced and serving a high risk population; they had to look for help in new places. In a time when so much money was being funneled into the nonprofit sector — yet none of it seemed to trickle down to the smaller $100,000 organizations such as Wright’s — the nonprofit found support in their own backyard.

Wright is the program coordinator for Christopher Rose Empowerment Campaign, which supports at-risk youth and their families in Brooklyn. The campaign received a $10,000 grant from the Brooklyn Community Foundation at the first height of the pandemic.

Thickly woven into the fabric of the nonprofit sector’s financial landscape, community foundations around the country responded to the crisis, providing support to other charitable organizations in their local areas. These foundations maintain both their own funds and administer donor-advised funds (giving by corporations, individuals or other organizations).
They act as a bridge between philanthropists and the communities they serve.

Foundations such as BCF have long-standing missions designed to offer aid tailored to the needs of specific neighborhoods, cities or areas. When COVID-19 hit, these objectives weren’t abandoned and replaced with crisis-management. Rather, community foundations in areas most affected by the virus found that disaster simply reaffirmed the past, present and future of their organizations’ goals.

Spiking in mid-April, Brooklyn has one of the highest active COVID-19 case and death counts in the United States. The New York City borough had 54,818 cases and 5,226 as of early June 24. Also highly impacted by the virus, Louisiana saw a surge in cases at the beginning of the April. Within the state, as of June 24, the Jefferson and Orleans parish saw 8,888 cases and 479 deaths, and 7,571 cases and 529 deaths, respectively.

Thousands of miles apart, but facing similar stressors, the Brooklyn Community Foundation and Greater New Orleans Foundation both launched rapid COVID-19 responses on March 12.

BCF established the Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund, while GNOF activated its pre-existing Disaster Response and Restoration Fund.

Cecilia Clarke, president and CEO of BCF, said the community foundation found strength in embracing its social-justice-oriented mission in responding to the virus.

“On that very crucial day on March 12, we said we were going to make it unique. In fact, we’re going to really root ourselves in our values to help guide us in this crisis moment,” she said.

In doing so, the Brooklyn organization decided to give relatively small grants to as many nonprofits addressing the coronavirus as possible, with a focus on communities of color. They responded quickly, launching the fund within 24 hours of closing their office March 12. As active cases and deaths in the neighborhood climbed, so did applications for grants. At the height
of the pandemic in late April and early May, 60-70 requests were rolling in each week.

As of June 15, BCF had given $1,807,500 in COVID Fund grants, all in amounts of $10,000 or less to 187 different nonprofits.

This approach of a little money to a lot of organizations allowed BCF to distribute grants in a way that didn’t just address the disaster, but also the pre-existing inequities in Brooklyn that were heightened by the pandemic.

Clarke said this model of giving was designed to confront the borough’s unique vulnerabilities. With a high number of residents of color — who have been disproportionately affected by the virus — and a median low-income population, BCF focused its resources on funding food access, low-wage workers, youth and children, immigrant communities and older adults.

“They were the only ones who came out and helped support us, the forgotten people,” Wright said.

GRIOT Circle is a grantee of the Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund included in the Older Adults classification of giving. The nonprofit serves LGBTQ elders of color, providing resources in mental health, nutrition, health and wellness and development. They were recipients of a $10,000 grant from BCF.

According to the Executive Director of GRIOT Circle, Jose Albino, the money from the grant went to food security for the people they serve (who usually depend on services such as GRIOT Circle’s daily lunches), Uber rides for members who had to go to a doctor and for resourcing staff to support members from home.

Albino said his organization serves an incredibly vulnerable population that was put at even greater risk by the virus. He praised BCF’s model of giving, saying it considered Brooklyn’s needs and helped marginalized community members. Albino also had a prior working relationship with the community foundation and stressed that its crisis response was in line with its pre-COVID values.

“What this foundation does, is it supports people who lead organizations that look like the people who they serve,” he said.

More than one-third of grantees have budgets of under $500,000 and 70 percent of the grantees are led by people of color.

Clarke said this was intentional. “Community-led, community-embedded organizations, those are really our most trusted partners on the ground.”

The foundation split its grantees into 16 categories by type of aid. Of the nearly $2 million BCF gave in COVID relief as of June 15, $349,000 was divided between 37 food-access-focused nonprofits. After food access, the next highest receiving categories were organizations that addressed the needs of low-wage workers and youth and children, receiving $307,000 split
among 31 nonprofits, and $200,000 split among 20 nonprofits, respectively.

Healthcare was the 8th highest receiving classification, with $87,000 divided between nine nonprofits.

In contrast, GNOF prioritized healthcare in its response to COVID-19, and instead of widely spreading its grants, the Louisiana community foundation decided to, “go deep with organizations that we had confidence in,” said Tyronne Walker, vice president of communications and public affairs.

Of the $1,178,000 GNOF gave from its Disaster Fund as of June 15, the majority went to health equity. As opposed to BCF’s $87,000 split among nine healthcare nonprofits, GNOF divided $660,000 between nine healthcare nonprofits.

These contrasting models of giving are evidence of community foundations responding to the crisis in ways most aligned with their pre-COVID missions. Both organizations focused their grant-making on supporting people of color, but in different ways.

GNOF invested heavily in Federally Qualified Health Centers hoping to aid uninsured people in their area — a population whose health vulnerabilities likely contributed to the high death rate among African Americans in Southeast Louisiana.

Carmen James Randolph, vice president of programs, said she was surprised to hear a local doctor say that New Orleans has a generation of men who have never had a primary care doctor.

“In the times of this pandemic that is not only deadly and costly for them and their families, but it impacts our entire community, because these are sometimes our first responders, these are our frontline workers who are desperately needed in our community,” she said. “So this was a critical piece to look at how we could not only build in support and connections for people now, but look to the future, because how will we bring our city back if we don’t have adequate access to testing for those people.”

GNOF granted $50,000 from the Disaster Fund to 504HealthNet, a community-based organization that serves as the community-clinical linkage in the greater New Orleans region. 504HealthNet also emphasizes culturally appropriate care.

Within the first few days of the crisis, the New Orleans’ city health department reached out to the organization to collect and disseminate data about neighborhood testing sites and available healthcare resources. Having worked with them previously, GNOF contacted 504HealthNet. “GNOF was swift in reaching out and trying to understand what was happening and how they could help. They did not put extra work or requirements in getting us the needed resources,” wrote Tiffany Netters, executive director of 504HealthNet, in an email.

One pillar of a community foundation’s vision is sustainability. James Randolph said one goal when giving to Federally Qualified Health Centers was to connect people in need of healthcare with a medical home that they could continue to visit post-COVID.

In another effort to look beyond the current crisis moment, GNOF is providing a series of educational webinars to nonprofits in its service area. Sessions are focused on creating sustainable plans for the sector post-COVID, and getting nonprofits through the pandemic. GNOF has done series of webinars on community reopening, applying for PPP loans and training in continuance of operations plans. So far, more than 20 webinars have been attended by 2,000 people.

BCF has also launched its own webinar series. With a focus on community engagement and supporting smaller nonprofits, BCF also broke down government loans and how to apply for loan forgiveness.

Lorena Kourousias is the executive director of Mixteca, a charitable organization that provides services for Latin American immigrants in New York that received a $10,000 grant from BCF. Confessing to initially being lost in the complex process of applying for government aid, she turned to BCF for support, and found the webinars incredibly helpful.

“They were there when I needed them,” Kourousias said. “I was really struggling with the finances of Mixteca, and I got the training from them on PPP, Paycheck Protection Program, and it was so clear and so good that I applied, I did it and I got the money.”

The executive director said she felt very well supported by the community foundation and the social justice lens through which BCF gives, citing “intentionality” behind the $10,000 grant.

In an effort to continue BCF’s mission of being accessible to different cultural experiences, the community foundation maintained and enhanced its practice of simplifying the grant application process. A less complex application allows more flexibility for under resourced and English Second Language nonprofit leaders. Mixteca had been a recipient of a BCF grant once before, and Kourousias said she couldn’t believe how simple the application was. Then, applying for aid in March, she was astonished that it was even easier — only two pages.

For regular grantees, nonprofits just had to submit a form with any relevant updated information and a brief description of what they were doing to address the COVID-19 crisis. Organizations that had never worked with BCF before had to answer the same question, then one more on how their work reflects social justice values.

Kourousias filled out the application in one day, and received the money within a week. From there, she was able to get $250 gift cards out to 40 Brooklyn immigrant families who needed support.

“They [BCF] are impressive,” Kourousias said. “They are kind, and lovely, and respectful and mindful of the cultural differences which we have.”

In Louisiana, GNOF also embraced its role as a bridge between services and their community. Community Organized Relief Effort, a national nonprofit that provides disaster aid, came to New Orleans to help increase testing. Upon their arrival, program officers at GNOF began working with CORE to set up walk-up testing sites in the same locations where people are distributing food and matched them with local nonprofits in those areas.

“And it’s only because we have that deep knowledge of who’s doing what and where, that we’re able to be that knitter of services and connecting these resources,” James Randolph said.

One food security organization that GNOF invested in was Gladwaves, a small nonprofit that has focused its COVID relief efforts on providing meals to the metro New Orleans community. At the start of the crisis, Gladwaves was providing 300 hot meals per week to seniors and their families; it applied for a GNOF Disaster Fund grant, as well as about 20 other grants according to executive director Janie Glade, in order to increase the number of hot meals to 500.

The Louisianian community foundation made a grant of $2,500 to the small nonprofit.

Glade wrote in an email that because of its size, Gladwaves doesn’t have access to large grants. She wrote that she believes it should be providing even more than 500 hot meals as food insecurity issues rise over the next few months.

“GNOF does its best to meet the needs of the people of the Greater New Orleans area,” Glade wrote. “Their response to the crisis was swift and they continue to provide funding at the level that they can.”

Unfortunately, responding to disaster isn’t a novel experience for GNOF. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged Southeast Louisiana, the community foundation was forced to think of how it — in a geographic location so prone to flooding, tornados and storms — could prepare for disaster
before it occurs.

Over the last year and a half, the foundation has reimagined how an evergreen fund could be proactive rather than reactive and educated donors on preparing for the next disaster. Therefore, when the pandemic hit, the foundation already had the money tucked away in a fund and ready to go. GNOF got its first four grants out within 36 hours.

Afterwards, GNOF staff looked at their pre-applications. About 25 nonprofits pre-registered to be considered for a grant in the event of a disaster; they just had to send in a paragraph about how they were addressing COVID-19.

Is this proactive model the post-COVID future of community foundations?

Since activating the Disaster Fund in March, GNOF has raised more than $5 million. BCF has increased drawdowns from its endowment and has raised about $3.2 million, mostly from individuals and families.

However, for both foundations, huge fundraising increases now might inevitably have an impact on future grant-making.

“Lots of our donors have really stepped up right now, and I don’t know if they’d step up twice,” Clarke said.

Andy Kopplin, CEO of GNOF, said he hopes the COVID crisis has helped draw attention to the work community foundations and other nonprofits are doing.

“As we move through this pandemic and move towards the other side of it, the community is absolutely committed, as we are, to ensure that nonprofit infrastructure, that again takes care of us when we’re sick, helps us with food and shelter, and provides information, sometimes inspiration and joy, it is able to continue to be successful,” he said.