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Opinion: As grantmakers, it’s our responsibility to address the greatest need

October 9, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose

Disclosures

This guest column was written by Bob Atkins, the director of New Jersey Health Initiatives and associate professor of nursing and childhood studies at Rutgers University.
The very first week that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down New Jersey, I got a phone call from a quite agitated grantee.

She wanted permission to shift grant money from the project we’d funded and use it instead to provide food to those who were now unemployed as a result of the business closures. In typical times, that’s not an ask that grantees feel comfortable making, and understandably so. Funders can be inflexible.

At this time and place, though, our decision was easy. “Yes,” we said. “We fully support your efforts to meet your community’s critical needs.”

Then the calls kept coming. A social service organization wanted to help undocumented people, so we made several regional grants and said, “use it for the most immediate needs you are seeing.” In the City of Bridgeton, the Gateway Community Action Partnership used its grant to  feed seniors and people experiencing homelessness. Acenda , Inc used its grant to provide food and infant formula to hard hit families in Gloucester and Atlantic Counties. NORWESCAP provided emergency funding to individuals and families in Hunterdon, Warren, Morris, Somerset and Sussex counties that did not qualify for other types of support for food, transportation, rent and other emergency expenses. The needs were endless.

Those conversations informed our thinking from the start. We saw right away that this was a time to be nimble and flexible — not a time to stand on ceremony or take a position of, “That’s not how we do things.”

It was gratifying to be able to call people and say, “You do great work. Yeah, just go right at it,” asking only for a one-page proposal and promising a quick review process.

Flexibility, coupled with rapid response, probably was the most important lesson that we, as grantmakers, learned from the most devastating health and economic crisis of a lifetime. But it wasn’t the only one.

Not so much a lesson learned, but a harsh reminder of a truth we already knew, was that communities with the greatest need too often have not only the fewest resources, but also the least voice. That doesn’t just mean lacking a seat at the table where decisions are made. It also played out in terms of people simply not being able to get crucial information.

So, in the many communities our grantees serve, lots of people had a sense of the pandemic along the lines of, “You can’t do anything about it. It will hit, or it won’t hit,” as though it were a hurricane.

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There was a need to help these people understand the purpose of social distancing, the need to stay home — if they could — and other actions they could take to protect themselves and their families. Everyone needs to know these things. Not just those privileged enough to have access to traditional sources of information. The Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas (CATA) knows that, and used some of its funding from New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI) to produce several  five-minute videos on wearing masks and other measures to reduce risk of coronavirus infection for agricultural workers. They shared these videos via Facebook, YouTube and text messages sent to workers.

As grantmakers, it’s our responsibility to use the resources we have to do what we think makes the most sense to address the greatest need. When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave $5 million in pandemic aid to New Jersey (as part of $50 million given nationally) we had the opportunity to use our networks to understand what was happening on the ground, reimagine grantmaking and identify and fill funding gaps geographically, socio-economically and demographically.

We wanted to make sure we helped shape the conversation about how to create opportunities for the communities hardest hit and those that are traditionally underserved. We reached out to thought leaders, elected officials, local health departments. We talked to our partners in food access and security — knowing that’s where people feel it first.

There’s a long way to go before this tragic situation ends. One of the things that gives me hope, though, is the numerous cross-sector coalitions across New Jersey — whether led by public health institutions, elected officials or community-based nonprofits. Through our work building and supporting collaborative efforts in communities, there exist local teams from a variety of organizations who had already worked these muscles and were able to snap into action — identifying needs and working together to provide the needed relief and support.

We’ve invested a lot in creating and nurturing these coalitions. Now, in crunch time, it’s rewarding to see them not competing against each other; not picking winners and losers and instead combining talents, resources and knowledge and implementing a coordinated, more effective response.

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