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Grassroots nonprofits and COVID-19 relief funding

September 15, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest column was written by Emily Neil, a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.

Since the pandemic hit Philadelphia in March, causing widespread unemployment and unprecedented levels of food insecurity, several emergency relief funds were established in the city — perhaps the largest of them being the PHL COVID-19 relief fund, organized by the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Foundation, and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, which raised $17.5 million in four months for nonprofit organizations in the area.

PHL COVID-19 relief is just one example of the surge in donations and funding which many nonprofits have seen since the pandemic began. But some of the organizations that have been meeting the most urgent needs of Philadelphians in the midst of the coronavirus crisis are grassroots operations with limited budgets and staff — and access to grants and funding is not necessarily a given.

[Read Funding the COVID-19 recovery in Philly: Tracing the lessons to date.]

For some, access to COVID-19 relief funding has proved invaluable to continuing their work.

Kendra Van De Water and James Aye, co-founders and co-directors of Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout (YEAH) Philly, said that funding from the PHL COVID-19 relief fund was one of a number of sources which have aided them as they transitioned to a hybrid virtual and socially-distanced in-person programming.

At the same time, Van de Water noted that it’s important for funders or anyone outside of the on-the-ground work to understand that COVID-19 has not changed everything about the work they do.

“A lot of people always ask us what are the needs now. These needs are no different than they were before the pandemic,” she said.

For other grassroots organizations, COVID-19 forced them to pivot and shift their focus in response to the crisis.

Kathy Tillman, executive director of La Puerta Abierta (LPA), said that working with community members in March and April “felt like working in a hurricane or a tornado.”

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The organization focuses on mental health and emotional well being in a holistic sense for immigrant communities. After COVID hit, it “got very very difficult very quickly,” Tillman said, noting that LPA was “bombarded by people reaching out to us about housing and food insecurity.”

LPA felt a “responsibility” to meet the most pressing community needs, Tillman said, even if they were outside the usual scope of the organization’s work of providing accessible mental health services.

“We appreciate the fact that you’re not going to talk about your stress or trauma … until you know that you can feed your children tomorrow,” Tillman said.

LPA was a part of a number of collaboratives that received emergency relief funding, including a collective spearheaded by the New Sanctuary Movement, which provided them with access to emergency rent assistance for about 20 families in their network.

Several of their funders also offered additional funding, allowing LPA to offer rent assistance as well as food relief, as they delivered food boxes to 70-80 families throughout the city on a weekly basis for four months.

“Local philanthropy in a lot of ways has really stepped up and has been incredibly responsive,” Tillman said. “I’ve had a much deeper appreciation for local funders who have checked in with us, knowing that we’re very on the ground.”

For Adriana Rivera, community based services manager at Concilio, a surge in individual donations, including bookbags and other supplies for students in their after-school programming, has been “overwhelming,” and a bright spot in an otherwise difficult time.

Rivera acknowledged that a significant challenge for Concilio is allocating human resources to look for funding and apply for additional grants.

“The research is really where that’s a barrier for this,” Rivera said. “We’re so invested in maintaining the day-to-day operations, there’s very little room to go after and seek these things that are out there.”

Donnell Drinks, co-founder and co-director of grassroots organization G.R.O.W.N., noted that COVID-19 and social distancing regulations have impacted how lesser-known organizations can connect with potential donors in the philanthropic world.

The organization, which focuses on returning citizens, mentorship, civic engagement, and conflict management, was built by Drinks’ and his co-founder and co-director Don Jones’ “bootstrapping” efforts, and has received two community-targeted grants from the Office of Violence Prevention.

“COVID has made a lot of the funding resources less accessible. We don’t have the opportunity to meet with people face to face…COVID has limited that networking ability,” Drinks said.

Add to that the fact that Drinks said the work that G.R.O.W.N. does is often behind-the-scenes, and confidential, out of necessity — which makes it harder to publicly promote the urgent needs that they address.

“How do you highlight work that includes stopping two shootings?” Drinks wondered.

Both Drinks and Rivera noted that because their organizations service victims of crimes, they have also been dealing with the ongoing gun violence epidemic in Philadelphia — a priority, Drinks said, that funders might overlook in the focus on COVID-19 relief.

“In the meantime what do we do? We do the work … You do the work for the money or you do it for the people. We do it for the people right now,” Drinks said.

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