Crisis fund provides lifeline for nonprofits

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For St. Peter’s Kitchen and dozens of local nonprofit organizations, the Community Crisis Fund has been a key resource amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Between regular donors, the city of Rochester and (the) Community Crisis Fund grant we’re not concerned at all that we won’t make it through the summer. It’s been an outpouring of amazing giving,” says Patty Lorenzen, director of St. Peter’s Kitchen.

As the pandemic spread in early March and businesses began closing their doors, the United Way of Greater Rochester teamed up with the Rochester Area Community Foundation and multiple community partners to take immediate action.

They established the Community Crisis Fund to administer grants to nonprofit organizations disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As of late last week, $4.6 million had been raised from individual donors and community partner contributions. Roughly $1.67 million has already been awarded.

Jennifer Cathy

“Neighbors are worried about neighbors,” says Jennifer Cathy, chief impact officer at United Way. “The strength of our partnership with RACF has allowed us to kick this fund off quickly. It’s rare you have individuals and corporations step up this quickly and put trust in us.”

While the goal of the initiative is to provide funds to organizations in need, Cathy notes there is also a need for advocacy, especially as it relates to protective equipment in a post-lockdown world.

“Our fund will help, but at the same time we’re leveraging advocacy to make sure providers are reimbursed to keep their sites clean, safe and healthy,” Cathy says. “We’re seeing that there’s such a need for sanitizing and technology access, which are huge expenses for nonprofits without reimbursement.”

The money in the fund derives primarily from individual donor and community partner contributions. 

“There’s a great balance of individuals who feel the importance of doing something for the community,” Cathy says. “Then you have community partners that contribute in a big way, quickly and responsibly. It’s a beautiful combination of the two.”

Cathy credits ESL Federal Credit Union and Paychex’s generosity as one of the driving forces that kicked off the fund. Other community partners include Wegmans Food MarketsDeloitte and L3Harris, to name a few.

Qualifying for the fund

In order to qualify for a grant, recipients must be a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization located in the region spanning Monroe, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming or Yates counties. This includes faith-based organizations that do not proselytize or require confession of faith to access their services. 

Cathy reports that while 70 percent to 75 percent of recipients are within Monroe County, United Way has been able to learn more about surrounding rural communities and their needs. The fund does not provide grants to individuals, only community-based organizations.

The organization uses Mighty Networks, an online technology platform that serves as a human support hub for 501(c)3 organizations. Through this hub, organizations can submit grant applications and collaborate with similar local organizations. The application asks applicants how their organization plans to use the requested dollars and to outline how the money will support disproportionately affected populations. 

“We made the application simple. The process needs to be basic and clear without making anyone jump through hoops during a crisis,” Cathy says. “All organizations did it quickly, and articulately.”

United Way’s Governance Committee meets each weekday at 4:30 p.m. to process, review and vote on submitted applications. The committee has members from United Way, RACF, the Farish Foundation, ESL and the Greater Rochester Health Foundation

Cathy notes that while city, county and state government offices are not part of the voting process, the committee looks to them to learn about community priorities.

“Most organizations that apply get everything they ask for because they’re very clear on how they’ll spend the dollars,” Cathy says. “If it’s unreasonable, we’ll partly fund them, but most are very reasonable.”

She says the committee hasn’t been able to approve every application, especially those that ask for funds to support operational requests. However, even if an organization is turned away, United Way sends lists of all organizations that apply for a grant to its various corporate donors.

“Just because you didn’t fit our priority doesn’t mean (the request) doesn’t fit one of those organization’s missions,” Cathy says.

Organizations that are approved to receive funds obtain the allocated money via electronic transfer. Those that receive grants are required to report how the money was used and what challenges they faced. 

“It’s been incredible to mobilize and be flexible and quick with decision making,” Cathy says. “Our goal is to make decisions and get funding out the door within 48 hours.”

Representatives at Trillium Health express gratitude to the United Way for the quick turnaround, from the time it applied to when the grant was received. This organization, based in downtown Rochester, provides affordable primary and specialty care to members of the Rochester community.

“This initiative has been very impactful for us,” says Bill Belecz, chief operations officer at Trillium. “The fact that it was one of the very first revenue streams to become available and was relatively easy to navigate through gave us hope and encouragement.”

Trillium, which received all of its requested amount of $22,500, is using the grant to help offset expenses from a mix of services, including the clinic’s new respiratory evaluation area, harm-reduction program, new sanitation/distancing measures, and even some salary expenses. 

The organization also is using these funds to provide HIV/STI test kits to the public now that walk-in testing is not available, and also launched a new service line called Trillium at Home

St. Peter’s Kitchen, a hot-lunch program and pantry on Rochester’s west side, serves buffet-style meals to 130 to 180 people in need each day. It was not prepared for the extra costs that COVID-19 would bring. In late March, the organization applied for and received $2,500—a small amount that goes a long way.

“None of us were prepared for this. We had to take everything outside when the virus hit, and we weren’t sure how long we could sustain serving outside,” Lorenzen says. “Things like takeout containers and individual juices cost so much.”

Because of the uncertain nature of the virus, United Way will continue to fund organizations on a rolling basis as each of New York’s phases of reopening commences. The first funding phase focuses on assisting organizations negatively impacted by COVID-19 whose services are linked to food, shelter, clothing, child care, hygiene, cleaning or other immediate needs of the community. The crisis fund is still taking phase-one applications, but is holding recovery phase applications until a full set of community priorities are assessed. 

“We’re in the midst of talking about what phase two looks like and we haven’t defined it yet,” Cathy says. “It must align with the community’s priorities.”

United Way and RACF plan to use the fund in its entirety, especially as organizations enter the recovery phase. The funding is provided on a monthly basis, so organizations are able to come back and apply for more money. 

“We knew the crisis would shift morph and change,” Cathy says.

St. Peter’s Kitchen is one organization that applied for more money when staff realized the pandemic would continue to adversely affect the economy. 

“We asked for $2,500 thinking would get us through a month and a half,”  Lorenzen says. “We ran out of that in two months, called United Way back and asked if we could apply for more.”

St. Peter’s Kitchen soon acquired an additional $4,000, which Lorenzen says will be used to purchase transport racks and other equipment for serving outdoors.

“What a blessing United Way has been,” she says. “I don’t know what we would have done without them.”

Robert Mantell is a Rochester-area freelance writer. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

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