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Local Nonprofits Stressed by COVID But Didn't Break

An Inside Business article by Sandra Pennecke

The coronavirus pandemic has shown no mercy to the region’s nonprofit organizations, which have struggled for a year now to remain steadfast to their missions.

While intensifying the need for many of the organizations’ services it also significantly hampered their ability to deliver those services.

Inside Business checked in with several local nonprofits to learn about the state of their operations as the coronavirus crisis hit its one year mark.

Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore

At the start of the Foodbank’s COVID-19 response efforts, the cost of providing a meal increased from 40 cents to $3.50 almost overnight.

Thankfully, community members and supporters quickly raised their financial support to ensure the organization could continue its work — with minimum disruption — to feed individuals experiencing food insecurity.

Ruth Jones Nichols, president and chief executive officer of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, said the organization has experienced a year of rapid change, growth, innovation and increased collaboration.

It saw an increase in demand from people already experiencing hunger and an increase in need among people who never needed food assistance before, Jones Nichols said.

In response, the Foodbank found new tactics, like online ordering, home delivery and collaborations with traditional and non-traditional partners.

“As a result of a decline in food donations, we’ve also had to diversify how we source food for distribution, including increasing purchased food to ensure that all people have access to complete and healthy meals,” Jones Nichols said.

Jones Nichols said they have been amazed with how the community has come together to support them throughout the pandemic.

“Individuals, community groups, and businesses are donating more funds, food and time due to an acute awareness about the needs, and we hope this community support continues even as we move beyond this crisis,” she said.

The Foodbank has worked closely in the past year with its partner agencies and other organizations, including Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, Mercy Chefs, and the YMCA of South Hampton Roads.

And an overwhelming amount of support has come from the community through donations and volunteer support.

As it rapidly pivoted from in-person to virtual events, the Foodbank saw its online food and fund drives become more popular along with online campaigns such as Give Local 757 and Giving Tuesday.

They also increased their workforce by 20% and engaged in an organizational restructuring.

All of these things — and a new strategic plan — have enabled the Foodbank to do its vital work.

“The most important lesson we’ve learned is that our efforts to close the meal gap, while simultaneously working to address the root causes of food insecurity, are critical, now more than ever,” Jones Nichols said.


The past year at ForKids has been one full of uncertainty, according to chief executive officer Thaler McCormick.

Between the stay-at-home order issued two weeks before the organization’s biggest fundraising event, a skyrocketing need (1,069 calls in a single day), eviction moratoriums, and fluctuations in government funding, Thaler said they had to reinvent their service delivery daily.

The pandemic also lengthened shelter stays due to the drop in affordable units, which left less available housing choices for the homeless.

Despite the challenges, ForKids continued to provide its services — case management, after-school programming and housing assistance — all without interruption.

“We distributed nearly $5 million of rent and mortgage relief funds to pay large amounts of past due rent to over 1,000 households,” Thaler said.

Throughout the past year, the organization adjusted its interactions with its clients to a phone-and-virtual model from its typical in-person meetings.

The group was able to leverage pre-pandemic investments in phone systems, cloud-based computing and other technologies to quickly convert to mobile. Even so, there was a hole in the face-to-face interactions vital to deliver effective and compassionate human services, Thaler said.

“For an organization that prides itself in high-contact human services for vulnerable families, loss of direct contact with our families has been wrenching for both our staff and families,” she said.

Fundraising events have been forced to undergo radical changes, too. Its annual gala went virtual and its golf tournament was transformed into a multi-sport socially-distanced field day.

“The biggest negative to community fundraising in 2020 was the inability to host our largest fundraising event, the Children’s Art Auction in March, which resulted in a $100,000 income loss,” Thaler said.

The organization’s thrift store, Good Mojo, closed in spring of 2020 and has yet to reopen.

Last March, ForKids was in the midst of building its new regional facility, The Landmark Center for Children and Families in Chesapeake, and on-track to complete a $25 million capital campaign.

As COVID became the new reality, the campaign came to a screeching halt with more than $1.5 million left to raise and fundraising staff redeployed to handle hotline calls and implement community assistance.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. When the center opens it will triple capacity for emergency shelter, increase hotline response and provide more space for after-school programs.

But, Thaler stressed that the pandemic has highlighted some of the systemic barriers and the need for stakeholder education around issues that impact the homeless and poor.

“ForKids’ operations are resilient, but we operate within a greater community context that we cannot overcome by ourselves,” Thaler said. “The pandemic has highlighted the importance of community education, advocacy and systems thinking to address the challenges we address through our services.”

VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads

VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads saw a 109% increase in volunteers from 2019 to 2020.

Stephanie Gorham, executive director, is one of four on staff who focused on recruitment of volunteers to fill critical positions for nonprofits providing food, healthcare, shelter and essential needs.

“We continued to call on the community and they did not say no — we have a very giving community,” Gorham said.

Passionate about the nonprofit sector, Gorham said it is one that takes pride in stretching the dollar to the point before it rips.

“We know how to create partnerships that can move mountains,” she said. “We know the power of people and we celebrate every time someone volunteers that power for good.”

Volunteer recruitment, recurring in-service and donating in-kind supplies have all seen an uptick, but corporate volunteerism has decreased. More people are seeking to fill board positions with nonprofits. Throughout the pandemic, many nonprofits have looked to use volunteers to increase operational capacity.

“The result is the benefit of having that staffing gap filled by skills-based volunteers who are giving their time and talent to complete the projects necessary for success,” Gorham said.

But, Gorham said the pandemic has been eye-opening to the traditional grant application process.

“There has been a disparity of funding between smaller and larger sized organizations,” she said.

Many nonprofits with grant writers or marketing teams on staff have seen an increase in funding while the smaller nonprofits – with boots on the ground delivering services to the community – have not seen the funding to match their effort.

On a positive side, Gorham said collaborations and partnerships increased in the nonprofit community this past year.

“Nonprofits are very good at partnering when trying to fill gaps in service to the community, but this increased to an entirely new level during the pandemic,” she said. ”I’ve also seen an increase in corporate-nonprofit partnerships that go beyond funding to include volunteerism, promotion on corporate social platforms (advocacy for causes), and resource sharing (in-kind donations).”

As the government funding (PPP loans and CARES Act) runs out, Gorham is concerned that smaller nonprofits may have to close their doors.

To help with the ongoing need, she envisions more companies revamping their corporate social responsibility efforts and employee volunteer programs.

“There has been a realization among many that nonprofit organizations are vital to the economic development and growth of a region,” Gorham said. “People drive the economy. The pandemic attacked people. Nonprofit organizations were and are there to support people during seasons such as this. The government can only do so much. The corporate community can only do so much. Nonprofits step in where these other sectors cannot help.”

United Way of South Hampton Roads

In January 2021, the United Way of South Hampton Roads conducted a survey of its agency partners.

The findings indicate that, overall, they are in good spirits and hopeful, said Kelsey Mohring, vice president corporate social responsibility and marketing.

“The biggest need we continue to hear is for unrestricted/operational funding,” Mohring said.

Funding is often designated for specific programming, which can restrict it from salary and other infrastructure usage she said.

Many nonprofits had to scale up their operations, make significant investments in new technology and safety equipment to work in the new environment throughout the pandemic.

“Nonprofits across our community have stepped up in big ways during the crisis to provide support to our neighbors,” she said.

Funding has changed and shifted throughout the pandemic, and the annual giving campaign has stayed nearly level with 2019 despite network organizations bracing for a 20% loss.

“The number of donors dropped, but those who were able increased their giving, which was a very inspiring trend,” Mohring said.

And as 2021 moves ahead there is still a great deal of need for continued funding with unemployment double the pre-pandemic rate, high food insecurity and ongoing impacts to students’ loss of learning.

“Additionally, many families were making costly tradeoffs or taking on debt to get through the crisis, but that’s going to start catching up with them,” Mohring said.

For the United Way and many nonprofits, grants have been a lifeline, she said.

They also raised more than $2.5 million through the Coronavirus Recovery Fund to provide direct service through the hotline and make rapid response grants to nonprofits on the frontlines.

Ultimately, Mohring said they hope people will give their time, talent and treasure to nonprofits, which is more critical now than ever.

“We must come together to support our neighbors still struggling to recover,” she said. “We have a lot of rebuilding to do, but we’re seeing positive momentum and we’re confident that with collaboration and support from the community, we can build back even stronger than before.”

Girls on the Run Hampton Roads

Ellen Carver, executive director of Girls on the Run Hampton Roads, praised her small, but mighty team of five who continue to focus on their outreach program aimed to create joyful, healthy and confident girls.

“We are practicing the resilience we teach by adapting our operations to serve girls,” Carver said.

The organization’s lessons, focused on whole health, are even more vital during these unsettling times.

The first six months were spent in flex mode as team members sought to adapt, tweak and adjust as news surrounding COVID-19 rapidly changed.

As the weeks blurred into months, Carver said the accompanying social isolation and sedentary behaviors made their work even dire.

“The effects of social isolation on youth are sometimes worse when compared to its effects on other age groups,” Carver said. “Tweens and teens are more challenged than most because of their need to connect and identify with peers as part of their developmental stage of becoming more independent from their parents.”

With after school programs previously operating almost exclusively on school campuses — and those entities temporarily closed — the team had to find a new way to reach participants.

In-person coaching and training became weekly mailed lesson packets with notes of encouragement and a 5K training plan for home-based social and emotional skills development and physical exercise.

The organization’s model changed to include: the formation of community park teams, in-person meetings held outside rain or shine, the availability of all-virtual options, and a shortened season to avoid peak pandemic times (December through February).

Carver said since GOTR focuses on what may be considered secondary effects of the pandemic rather than emergent needs, many of its routine funding sources were paused or discontinued.

But, they did receive a PPP loan and other sources of relief from the Obici Healthcare Foundation, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, the United Way, Capital Group, the Suffolk Foundation and Rebuild VA.

Carver said these relief sources helped to avoid a net loss last year.

And 2020 held some strong statistics for GOTR: 1,073 girls served from 110 different schools, 62% of all participants received scholarships totaling $81,362 in program fees, and 2,895 total 5K participants.


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