As nonprofits keep serving during COVID-19, Northeast Indiana’s foundations are helping them survive

Under normal conditions, the Fort Wayne area’s philanthropic community tends to operate independently. Each foundation and grantmaking group has certain causes it supports, and its dollars are largely directed to those causes, explains Meg Distler, Executive Director of St. Joseph Community Health FoundationDistler

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northeast Indiana, the region’s most pressing needs rose to the surface, and rather than focus on their respective interests, foundation leaders across the region are rallying around a common goal: Using data to provide COVID-19 emergency relief dollars and supplies to nonprofits as efficiently and effectively as possible.

As the pandemic unfolded in early March, foundation leaders, including Distler, were already feeling the financial pinch of the economic crisis and plunging stock market.

“It could be up to 20 percent of your assets have dropped,” Distler says.

As such, many foundation leaders and boards have been considering how to make the most of the assets they have left, asking: How can we meet the most urgent needs of our community right now? And how should we prepare for the long-term effects of this pandemic going forward?

Thankfully, they have data on hand to help them make these difficult decisions.

Seeing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic abroad, the Allen County Department of Public Health and other leaders worked quickly to determine the community’s most urgent needs and how long residents could likely withstand the impending economic crisis.

On March 1, Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deb McMahon called together a group of community leaders, including several foundations, who began working with the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation to create a 3-5 minute community needs survey that could be deployed quickly.

The initial findings from that survey, gathered March 12-24, were astounding, Distler says. Of 4,967 respondents, about 44 percent said they could make it only one or two weeks without pay. In other words, many people in Allen County are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and without work, they are unable to meet their basic needs. About 65 percent are concerned about finding and purchasing food.

“That was taken very seriously,” Distler says. “A lot of us put money instantly into food banks because it was so clearly stated that people were not prepared.”

The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation supported food distribution at local elementary schools.

Since nonprofits like food banks are providing essential services on the frontlines of the pandemic, foundations across Northeast Indiana are developing a coordinated system of grants and resources to keep them afloat. Hayes

After all, while nonessential businesses have been able to save on some overhead costs of staying open during the pandemic, essential nonprofits have had to persist with fewer donations and volunteers, explains Patti Hayes, CEO of the AWS Foundation.

“Most not-for-profits are continuing to provide services and doing it with the hope that donations will follow,” Hayes explains. “They are caring for some of the most vulnerable populations, so they don’t have the option to stop.”

Providing immediate relief

One way foundations are working to meet the Fort Wayne area’s most urgent needs is through a set of Emergency Relief Rapid Response mini-grants for nonprofits up to $5,000 each.

The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, AWS Foundation, and Foellinger Foundation began working together to coordinate these mini-grants, which they are now deploying on their own platforms, with their own funding capacities.

“We intentionally designed these grants with very similar application formats, three simple questions, to make the process as streamlined as possible,” Distler says.

The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation is supporting efforts to get food to community members, like this program at the YMCA.

This group of foundations has also been working closely with other groups, including The Lutheran Foundation, a private family foundation (wishing to remain anonymous), the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, and the PHP Foundation, sharing information as they each determine how they are best positioned to respond.

Foundation leaders are calling each other multiple times a week to strategize and coordinate, Distler says, and many relief dollars are already at work in the Allen County community and beyond.

To date, the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation has distributed upwards of $80,000 worth of grants, primarily funding necessities like food, baby formula, and diapers for families in need.

“WIC initially covered only one brand of products like diapers, and they went off the shelves quickly when the pandemic started,” Distler explains.

The YMCA is helping get food to residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

AWS has given out almost $200,000 in grants in a mere five weeks, Hayes says. While they usually support individuals with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities, their emergency grants are having a broader, community-wide impact.

“If you’re feeding people or helping with transportation in an inclusive community, then you’re serving people with disabilities who need those services, too,” she explains.

That said, much of AWS’s funding has been focused on purchasing protective equipment for caregivers to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 at group homes among highly vulnerable populations, like seniors and people with disabilities.

AWS is funding multiple types of relief efforts across Northeast Indiana.

As a regional foundation, AWS is also partnering with the Foellinger Foundation (Allen County-based) to extend the reach of services it’s funding, too.

For example, both foundations contributed $25,000 to support a strategic partnership between Lifeline Youth & Family Services and Crosswinds Counseling to provide mental health support to frontline staff members at Northeast Indiana nonprofits.

So far, the Foellinger Foundation has given a total of $1.35 million in COVID-response grants, says President Cheryl Taylor. Taylor

Within that amount, they’ve attributed $100,000 to Rapid Response grants and another $100,000 to Innovative Rapid Grants, which supports nonprofits creating strategic, win-win pandemic relief programs for up to $25,000 each.

These grants have been inspiring some groundbreaking concepts in times of crisis, Taylor says.

For instance, one recipient, Blue Jacket, received a $25,000 grant to train several of its client employees on a certified COVID-19 cleaning crew, so they can stay employed and offer free cleaning and disinfecting services to other nonprofits, like Community Harvest Food Bank, operating throughout the pandemic.

So far, the program has retained 16 jobs at Blue Jacket and counting, reports Brad Saleik, Director of Marketing. The program is currently cleaning for 42 nonprofits, offering them an estimated combined savings of $143,226.

Taylor says one goal of the Innovative Rapid Grants is helping nonprofits find new ways to utilize their skillsets and work together.

“We’ve been calling this ‘helping the helpers,’ if you will,” she explains.

Blue Jacket cleans for Wellspring in Fort Wayne.

Looking to the long-term

Along with providing monetary relief, foundation leaders are also supporting nonprofits with free, online educational resources, additional data collection efforts, and flexible grant structures.

For nonprofits who received grants prior to the pandemic, foundations are working to flex restrictions and timelines, according to the situation.

Taylor says the Foellinger Foundation, specifically, is moving progress reports out six months from when they were previously scheduled.

“It’s just one less thing nonprofit leaders have to be doing right now,” she explains.

Foellinger, AWS, St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, and others are also working with local experts, like lawyers and CPAs, to host educational webinars for nonprofits as they navigate these uncertain times.

These resources can be found on each foundation’s website.

For instance, the group hosted a webinar to help nonprofits apply for the first round of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. While many nonprofits did not end up receiving this support, Hayes says, there is still hope for the second round of funding.

“We’re out helping not-for-profits learn how to get set up and get their documents filed quickly,” Hayes says. “Two-and-a-half months worth of payroll expenses in a forgivable loan can really being significant for these not-for-profits because they’ve had to cancel a lot of their spring fundraising efforts on top of everything else.”

Hayes, right, helps volunteer PJ Thuringer pack boxes.

Other topics of other webinars will be more focused on the long-term, lingering effects of the pandemic.

Hayes quotes Health Commissioner McMahon in noting that “we are going to have to learn how to coexist with COVID-19” until a vaccine is available, which could be 12 to 18 months out, analysts predict.

Hayes and other foundation leaders have also started promoting the second round of the community needs survey (which is live now), so they can stay abreast of the region’s most urgent needs as things change day-by-day and week-by-week.

“We’re just being nimble and open to change,” Hayes says.

Distler and Taylor are sitting on the council of another innovative, fast-moving effort to address needs in Allen County, too.

Supporting a common cause

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the Fort Wayne area the second week of March, the United Way of Allen County was one of the first organizations state-wide to develop an emergency relief grant for those in need, says Executive Director Matthew Purkey. Purkey

A former U.S. Marine and a serial United Way director, Purkey moved to Fort Wayne to lead the United Way of Allen County on Feb. 3. (He technically still lives in Dayton, Ohio, where his family is finalizing the sale of their house.)

When the pandemic hit Northeast Indiana, he and his new team and board needed to spring into action, and it was trial by fire.
“I joke when I say every new leader of an organization should have to go through a crisis immediately,” Purkey says.

Since the United Way typically serves the county’s ALICE (asset-limited, income-constrained employed) population, it knew that these residents would need relief as soon as possible. Following the lead of other United Ways across the country, its board swiftly approved a $100,000 Emergency Relief Fund to get money into the hands of residents as quickly as possible, Purkey says. But while this pandemic was hitting their key population, they knew they couldn’t carry the weight of relief on their own.

“This couldn’t be a United Way initiative; this had to be a community initiative,” Purkey says.

The staff at United Way collaborates to keep serving during COVID-19.

With that in mind, United Way convened a meeting for the city and county’s broad swath of foundations and community stakeholders, and when it did, the Allen County community showed up.

“The way we were able to align all funders from different sectors around a single cause, I was amazed,” Purkey says. “When you join a new community, there are some things you are told will never happen, but it did, and it happened immediately.”

Across Allen County, about 40 representatives from foundations and organizations, including United Way, the PHP Foundation, the Foellinger Foundation, the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, the Parkview Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne came together to form the Emergency Relief Council.

The goal of this council is to use United Way’s initial grant as a springboard to take a streamlined and unified approach for COVID-19 relief efforts county-wide, and it’s all focused on the data-driven needs identified in the community needs survey, too, Purkey notes.

So far, the group has raised a collective $2.8 million from local, state, and national foundations, including a whopping $2.25 million gift from the Lily Endowment Inc.

To date, they have granted $200,000 of those funds to support 15 nonprofits, focusing their efforts in three key areas: 1) immediate needs for food and shelter, 2) impending rent and utility assistance, and 3) long-term support for frontline nonprofit organizations, so they can retain their employees and services after the pandemic.

The Emergency Relief Council is currently determining what the needs for rent and utility assistance are going to look like going forward in Allen County, Purkey explains.

“Right now, the ALICE population can’t be evicted, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to have to pay rent,” he says. “We see a housing crisis coming to Fort Wayne very soon.”

Speaking of housing, another way United Way is supporting residents on the frontlines of the pandemic is by convening a nine-county quarantine center for the region’s homeless population. This helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 among a highly vulnerable group and those they interact with for social services.

To make it happen, United Way partnered with the Lutheran Foundation and the YWCA to set up a center in about 120 hours, Purkey says. It’s fast and effective, frontline changes like these that he sees being United Way’s role to play in the County’s future.

“This pandemic has given us a prime opportunity to pivot and adept immediately according to our community’s needs,” Purkey says. “Moving forward, that’s where we want to be—on the frontlines of community needs, whether that’s finical giving, advocacy, or volunteerism.”

United Way is working to provide front line for Allen County support during and after COVID-19.

For the time being, United Way is providing another avenue to convene support for local nonprofits—not just financially, but also with volunteer-from-home opportunities and resources.

On its website, it’s listing the urgent needs submitted by various Allen County nonprofits.

“If there’s something your nonprofit needs, we’ll add it to the list,” Purkey offers.

While Allen County is home to many nonprofit organizations, early projections of the COVID-19 crisis estimate that as many as 40 percent may not have enough cashflow to survive the pandemic.

As healthcare workers and residents fight to flatten the curve of the virus’s spread, Fort Wayne’s foundation community is doing everything they can to lower the fatality rate of nonprofits, as well.

“These nonprofits are critical elements of our community that have lost their funding and are still serving our community,” Hayes says. “My hope is that people buy gift cards to restaurants and shops, but remember that local nonprofits are still counting on donations, too.”

Take the community needs survey

The Allen County Department of Health, Parkview Mirro Center for Research, local foundations, and others are collaborating to understand better the community’s most pressing needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are asking all residents to participate as soon as possible in this 3-5 minute survey so they get accurate results. All information will be provided to the Department of Health and kept anonymous.

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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.