Relief funds support nonprofits, just when their services are needed most

Immediate problems include basic hunger, homelessness, housing and other results of layoffs and job losses

Representatives from Serve Wisconsin are working from the state emergency operation center to coordinate the volunteer response to COVID-19. (Serve Wisconsin | Facebook)
Representatives from Serve Wisconsin are working from the state emergency operation center to coordinate the volunteer response to COVID-19. (Serve Wisconsin | Facebook)

The Sheboygan County United Way sprang into action the week area schools started to close. At a meeting on March 13, board members discussed how the organization could step up. 

The very next day, on Saturday, March 14, after contacting 60 area nonprofits, the group launched the Sheboygan County Covid-19 Relief Fund, to help with the acute needs of the crisis such as supporting local hospitals and food pantries. 

“We’re here to serve the other nonprofits, how we can raise them all up,” says Emily Kaiser, director of donor engagement at United Way of Sheboygan County. “I believe we’ve done a decent job of being a convener and bringing people together, to share resources, think differently.”

The fund is one of dozens across that state from local United Way chapters, community foundations and other philanthropic groups dedicated to helping their communities get through the seemingly endless fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. 

“There’s so much need everywhere,” says Charlene Mouille, executive director of United Way of Wisconsin. “This is an unprecedented event. We’re used to responding to very local needs or regional natural disasters.”

Everywhere in Wisconsin, people need help getting through this crisis — hospitals are facing equipment shortages, rent was due this week, food needs to be put on the table, kids are out of school.

Those are the immediate needs — and the tip of the spear for meeting those basic needs are the United Way funds that have formed in every corner of the Badger State. The local United Way chapters are often working in tandem with local community foundations, with the community foundations serving as backup, ready to step in to help with the secondary and tertiary effects of the pandemic. 

“A lot of people will first say the United Way is the checkbook and the community foundation is the savings book,” says Sue Hartwick, executive director of the Fort Atkinson Community Foundation. “We’re sort of a lumbering giant, we’re not responding tonight to somebody’s need for a rent payment. [United Way], they’re helping now,  we’re going to help later.” 

The Madison Community Foundation (MCF) quickly decided it wasn’t the best use of its resources to fund organizations that help with the basic needs — that’s a role United Way is more suited to fill, according to President Bob Sorge. 

“While this gives the community foundation a lower profile in this, we felt it was important,” Sorge says. “The United Way is closer to health and human services, more efficient and effective overall.”

As United Way of Dane County meets those needs, MCF is helping other nonprofits wade through all the murkiness. It’s supporting arts organizations and other types of groups that have had to cancel events and programs or helping nonprofits fill out grants and navigate the federal stimulus bill. 

What’s very clear, Sorge said, is this is what the foundation is focusing on for the foreseeable future. 

“For all intents and purposes, 2020 is about responding to this,” Sorge says. “We all hope this is over as quickly as possible but the residual effects will be there for a while.”

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The longer the pandemic and economic crises go on, the greater the need will be for two resources — money and volunteers. 

For the nonprofits working in all sorts of ways through this crisis, they need cash, and for many of them, they’ve had to cancel events and fundraisers that can make up huge pieces of their operating budgets. 

“We know nonprofits are going to struggle,” says Wyatt Jackson, president of the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin. 

To support nonprofits, to help them just keep the lights on and their staff paid, philanthropic groups know they’ll need to step in big time. 

There’s a few ways a philanthropic group can help a nonprofit out through these tough times, according to Tony Smith, president of the Wisconsin Philanthropy Network. One way is through just providing money to respond directly to the crisis, the other is easing restrictions on grants. Often, a grant will come with the requirement that it fund a certain program, Smith says. Now, grant makers can say the restriction is lifted so groups can use it to fund operations. 

“You don’t have to worry about sourcing the program you originally brought to us, now you can use those dollars to support your operation, keeping your lights on, paying your employees,” Smith says. 

But it’s not just money these organizations need. They need people to help staff the programs still being offered — especially because the typical volunteer base is people older than 65 and especially vulnerable to Covid-19. 

Volunteer Wisconsin, a website operated by United Way, is offering opportunities for remote or in-person volunteering. From writing thank-you notes to healthcare workers to packaging groceries, there are ways to help without opening your wallet. 

Jeanne Duffy, executive director of Serve Wisconsin, has had to redeploy many members of Wisconsin’s Americorps. A lot of them were working in schools that have now shut down, and need to be moved to another area of need. 

Some are being trained to answer coronavirus related calls on the state’s 2-1-1 line. Others are helping develop remote learning plans for students. 

“We always say everyone can serve,” Duffy says. “There’s people who want to serve, there are opportunities if you want to get out of your house, there’s a need you can fulfill and a way to help out.”

For staff members of nonprofits and philanthropic groups around the state, it’s been inspiring to see people reach out, collaborate and come together to find solutions to the pressing needs of Wisconsinites. It’s  essential the groups continue to do their work, they say, because these nonprofits hold important roles in their communities and they can’t be lost.

“The biggest immediate problem is basic services, hunger, homelessness, and housing, the impact of layoffs and furloughs and job losses,” Smith says. The sudden surge in need in all of these areas is a strain on nonprofits. But they are more important than ever.

“People who are in communities look toward those nonprofits as sources for information, sources of trust and authenticity. How do you support the continued work that’s happening within those organizations? They need to stay open because they create a level of stability for these communities.”