For many in Western New York, mid-March felt like the world turned upside down as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be acutely felt. While some began working remotely and others faced job furloughs or layoffs there was a bewildering sense of foreboding without a clear understanding of what was coming next. Many nonprofit leaders began grappling with significant unforeseen issues including lost revenue, increased need for services, arranging technology for remote workers, and laying off staff.
As the full weight of the health and economic crisis began to hit, philanthropic leaders were already on the phone discussing how to collaborate, what the response would look like, and how quickly support could be offered. Understanding that the nonprofit community would be hit hard financially while also being relied on for critical response, a small group of funders mobilized quickly.
Led by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, the Oishei Foundation, the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York and the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County joined forces. They worked to bring together other funders, private sector companies, and community leaders to raise funds and develop a process to get needed resources to nonprofits addressing immediate needs due to the pandemic. In all, 60 organizations donated to the effort.
WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund Formed
Eleven days after the initial conference call to discuss a response, and with a contribution of $2 million from the Oishei Foundation, the collaboration publicly announced the WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund. With a total of $4.5 million available for grantmaking from an initial 20 organizations, The Fund quickly set an objective of supporting those organizations that were addressing the most critical needs that arose due to the health crisis including food, housing, healthcare, childcare, mental health, transportation, and other emergency services.
Funds Distributed Within Two Weeks
The group set up a process to identify critical nonprofits to invite to participate, including a survey of nonprofits to better understand the need and the challenges they were facing. A subcommittee led by Nancy Blaschak, a long-time nonprofit leader and supported by Don Matteson of The Peter & Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, and Oishei staff Paul Hogan, and Curtis Robbins was formed to work out details and execute grantmaking. From there, the group developed a simplified application process, reviewed and approved applications, notified grantees, and provided funding - all within two weeks and solely using online communication platforms.
A communications strategy was simultaneously launched and collaboratively executed by communications representatives from the four founding organizations. Using the United Way’s donation portal, contributions from the public were encouraged which drew additional dollars from individuals, corporations, and community leaders, and brought the total amount to almost $8 million. Communicating the effort also brought a sense of support within the community and encouraged additional organizations to get involved.
A total of $6.6 to 156 Organizations
Two more rounds of funding were then completed with total support of $6.6 million awarded to 156 organizations across the eight counties of WNY. Funding went to almost every organization that was invited to apply and included those of every size and with a variety of missions. The common denominator was that each was working hard to address their community’s most pressing needs as a result of the pandemic.
By working together, the funding collaborative was able to create a streamlined system to identify and fund critical services without overlapping efforts or leaving gaps in community services. Sharing expertise, knowledge of local communities and specific organizations, and staff to implement the program proved to be efficient and effective in supporting the nonprofit community, particularly before Federal stimulus funds were available.
Microgrant Program and PPE Hub Created
As more donations were contributed, the Fund also set aside dollars to purchase much needed Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and set up a hub for nonprofits to purchase PPE through the collective effort. In addition, a microgrant program was set up for small grants ($500-$3000), administered in local communities in each county to support smaller community-based organizations.
As the initial response phase is now complete, the Fund has evolved into the Build Back Better initiative that will focus on the next phase of recovery for WNY. To learn more about the effort go to www.wnyresponds.org.