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A Sustainable Response


How the nonprofit landscape has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic

Illustration of two people wearing masks while working inside a house

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Akron, followed quickly by a state-issued shutdown, Portage Path Behavioral Health had to completely modify its operations overnight to ensure its client services were uninterrupted.

"Literally overnight, we pivoted to telehealth," said Dr. Tracy Yaeger, president and CEO of Portage Path Behavioral Health, a nonprofit community mental health center.

Portage Path's clients are among the most vulnerable, with many requiring continuous medication and intensive care. For employees who remain in the building to support vital services like the agency's Crisis Stabilization Unit and emergency psychological evaluations,

"We got our PPE (personal protective equipment) in line, temps are taken daily and reported, and everyone's spread out remotely across the building," said Yaeger.

But the brisk shift to telehealth brought a significant and unexpected increase in costs for the mental health agency. A grant from Akron Community Foundation's Community Response Fund for Nonprofits helped to pay for some of those technology-related expenses.

"We were so incredibly appreciative, and it was perfect timing," Yaeger said. "We were not in a place where telehealth was reimbursable to us. The response fund helped us with electronic equipment – we needed some webcams, and we had to update computer systems so we could get data in correctly."

While local nonprofit organizations were swiftly altering their operations in mid-March after the coronavirus infiltrated Ohio, Akron Community Foundation also quickly mobilized to establish an emergency fund for those nonprofits.

"As our own team was transitioning to a virtual workplace, we wanted to make sure our area nonprofits had a safety net during these very challenging times," said Akron Community Foundation President and CEO John T. Petures Jr. "Thankfully, we were able to mobilize efforts by leveraging the community foundation's spendable dollars with donations from our generous fundholders and community partners."

The Community Response Fund for Nonprofits was established in March with $300,000 from the community foundation's grantmaking pool. By the end of May, the fund had grown to nearly $620,000 and had distributed more than $365,000 in grants to nearly 100 nonprofits throughout Summit and Medina counties.

In solidarity, several of the community foundation's affiliate funds have also dedicated resources to the Community Response Fund to help organizations in their interest areas. This year, contributions to the Women's Endowment Fund's annual "Who Is Your SHEro?" campaign were donated to the Community Response Fund to provide emergency funding for organizations serving women and girls.

"The Women's Endowment Fund was established in order to carry out our core mission of uplifting, empowering, and meeting the needs of women and girls in our community," said Kendra Williams, WEF president. "The board felt that directing all money raised from our SHEro campaign to the Community Response Fund was a perfect way to make an immediate impact and support organizations during the COVID-19 crisis. We are proud to have supported our community with more than $47,000 raised by 25 community leaders who support our mission."

In addition, Bath Community Fund and the Medina County Community Fund each made an impact grant to the Community Response Fund for Nonprofits to benefit the Bath and Medina communities, respectively.

Staying Afloat

For many nonprofits, this gap funding is a matter of survival. Family Promise of Summit County, which helps homeless families find shelter through a network of local churches, saw its base of support immediately dry up with Ohio's shelter-in-place orders.

"We have a rotation model with 12 congregations throughout the county, and each of the 12 takes a week at a time," said Jeff Wilhite, executive director of Family Promise. "Their buildings are now all closed."

A Community Response Fund grant helped the nonprofit give homeless families vouchers for extended-stay hotels until they could move to the agency's Glendora House, an apartment-style shelter on Copley Road that is owned by the Battered Women's Shelter of Summit & Medina Counties.

"As a fallback, we've been renovating the Glendora House, and thank goodness we are far enough along that we've been able to house the families," Wilhite said.

In addition to meeting basic needs, Akron Community Foundation is also focused on the long-term sustainability of local nonprofits, knowing their services will be needed more than ever during the economic fallout that will likely succeed the pandemic.

The community foundation's quarterly grantmaking has continued without interruption, offering a lifeline to nonprofits facing financial hardship. This funding is especially crucial for smaller nonprofits, whose safety nets may be all but nonexistent.

"We realized early on that flexibility would be key," said John Garofalo, vice president of community investment at Akron Community Foundation. "These nonprofits are closest to the front lines and know where the needs are. Some of them had recently received grants from us that were still unspent, so our Community Investment Committee and staff decided to loosen the restrictions and allow nonprofits to use their grant money wherever it would make the most impact. We all agreed that was not only a fair decision, but an essential one."

Some agencies are already dealing with this financial hardship, as residents in lower-income neighborhoods are more vulnerable to joblessness and instability, even during better economic times.

For The Well Community Development Corporation (CDC), which is developing affordable housing for residents of Akron's Middlebury neighborhood, a Community Response Fund grant offered vital support for its rental assistance fund, which pays rent and housing costs for neighborhood residents and families of Mason Community Learning Center.

"We have 21 tenants in our residential homes, and it's one of the first things we set out to address," said Kelly McHood, fund development director of The Well. "We're not going to evict anyone during this time, and we're not charging late fees. But we don't want people to fall behind. That's where the rental assistance fund was born."

In a spirit befitting a CDC, The Well also runs a coffee shop and community kitchen, along with hosting nonprofit tenants at its headquarters on East Market Street. This income diversity has helped the organization better weather the pandemic.

"We've seen a significant drop in kitchen uses for this season, but it's a gift to be a hybrid nonprofit where we have several different options," said Curtis Minter Jr., The Well's operations director. "That's created a runway for us."

At OPEN M in South Akron, clients rely on the agency for medical and dental care, food, prescriptions, job training, and other essential services.

While its clinics temporarily closed in accordance with shelter-in-place orders, the nonprofit moved its food distribution to curbside service and adjusted its pharmacy services to protect the health of its staff and patients.

"The Community Response Fund has helped us secure the necessary prescriptions our patients need," said Jessica Rist, development manager for OPEN M. "We have been dispensing more medications to limit the number of trips needed to the pharmacy. Additionally, the Community Response Fund has helped us purchase important equipment and supplies to keep our staff and clients safe, including personal protective equipment and sanitizer."

When its medical and dental clinics reopen, OPEN M expects a surge in demand as workers are laid off and lose their health care benefits in the economic downturn.

A New Normal

Many nonprofits have had to pivot their operations to continue their missions amid the pandemic, and as the months wear on, this new normal of doing business will continue.

For The Well, its Compass Coffee operation has moved to curbside service and delivery. And thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program established by the CARES Act, the nonprofit did not have to lay off any employees.

Like OPEN M, AxessPointe Community Health Centers is shifting the way it distributes medication to patients with the help of a Community Response Fund grant.

"The dollars from the fund enabled us to purchase more supplies for our pharmacy so they can ship medications to our patients," said Stephanie Berry, director of marketing at AxessPointe. "We've increased the quantity of medications that patients can receive at one time, so they don't need to revisit us as often."

The grant also helped the agency adapt to telehealth visits, which, Berry added, "allows patients to keep their appointments while staying in the safety and comfort of their home."

She said AxessPointe foresees telehealth being a significant part of the agency's future, as well.

"We plan to continue to expand telehealth and add more specialty services," Berry said. "We are also working on creative ways of taking our services out into the community to meet (patients) where they are, in case they aren't able to physically get to one of our locations."

Similarly, Portage Path Behavioral Health has responded to the crisis by increasing its staff capacity, hiring a new admissions coordinator and a new counselor.

Yaeger, who leads the agency, said many people's mental health will continue to be affected by COVID-19, as shelter-in-place orders, joblessness, and layoffs may cause relapses in addiction and increased suicidal ideation.

"The amount of anxiety, mental health issues, and substance use is going to be on the rise," she added. "We know things are never going to go back to business as usual for us. We're going to see an increased demand for services."

As for Family Promise, Wilhite says the nonprofit will continue to shelter homeless families at the Glendora House, even after its partner congregations reopen, effectively doubling the organization's capacity.

"We will go from 35 total families served a year to between 70 and 80 families, so it's a dramatic improvement," he said.

Wilhite noted the Glendora House has been renovated from top to bottom, including a new kitchen, rollaway beds, and a means to serve even larger families.

"Some of the apartments in the building are a pretty good size. It just gives us so much more depth to the program," he said.

Long-Term Sustainability

While it's clear local nonprofits have been responsive and creative when it comes to providing their necessary services, it's also apparent that this situation will have long-term financial implications for many.

"We're painfully aware that the needs of nonprofits and the residents they serve far outweigh the resources that we – and the other philanthropic organizations serving our community – are able to provide," said Garofalo. "We realize more than ever that these nonprofit partners will rely on us for stable, consistent grantmaking support and will look to our generous community for charitable donations long after the initial health concerns of COVID-19 have passed."

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