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Omaha Magazine

Stepping Up: Omaha’s Nonprofit Sector Rises to the Occasion

Aug 31, 2020 11:54AM ● By Katrina Markel
Donna Kush of Omaha Community Foundation

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Metro area nonprofits scrambled in March as the global crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic began to escalate.  

“Omaha Community Foundation set up a response fund on March 13,” said president and CEO of OCF Donna Kush, who started in the position 10 days later. 

The sense of urgency mounted and foundations, human service agencies, and organizations providing support to nonprofits rushed to meet community needs.

“The second half of March everybody’s hair was on fire,” said Marjorie Maas, executive director of SHARE Omaha, which provides an online fundraising and in-kind donation tool for local nonprofits. 

“This virus not only entered in public health, but it entered in all facets of life,” said Ramon Calzada, executive director of Centro Latino in Council Bluffs. 

In mid-March, SHARE sent out a survey to its members in an attempt to assess immediate needs.

“It was shocking how much things had changed,” Maas said. “Everything sounded dire.” 

As April arrived, Maas said it was like a “switch flipped on our team” and they went from feeling loss to taking action. She, along with other nonprofit leaders, used the word “pivot” to describe the sudden adjustments required to meet the moment. Staffs adapted to working from home and Congress passed the CARES Act, which provided small businesses with Paycheck Protection Program loans. Nonprofits began to marshal resources and collaborate. 

“We’ve really had to quickly ramp up relationships in all corners of our business because I have never been a part of something in which the landscape changes so fast and so frequently,” said Brian Barks, president and CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland.

One of the earliest priorities that emerged was the need to address food insecurity. 

“Many foundations in the area have been partners with funding the Food Bank because the Food Bank has a regional distribution system,” said Pete Tulipana, president and CEO of Iowa West Foundation.

Barks said that his agency has roughly 600 partners—including pantries, shelters, schools, and after-school programs—to which it distributes supplies. 

“We’re estimating that the need that we’ve been seeing is in the ballpark of about a 40 percent increase from what it has been pre-COVID,” Barks said.  

According to the Food Bank’s national network, Feeding America, two in five people seeking food assistance are doing so for the first time in their lives. 

“I would say the greatest underserved areas, and it is the biggest struggle for us and our partners, would be those who are seniors and those who are disabled, who do not have an ability to go to a brick-and-mortar pantry or mobile pantry to receive food assistance,” Barks said. He added that undocumented immigrants are also among the the most vulnerable. 

Leaders in Council Bluffs are also prioritizing those vulnerable populations. The Iowa West Foundation partnered with Council Bluffs Public Schools and the Pottawattamie County Community Foundation to establish a fund specifically to address needs in Southwest Iowa related to COVID-19. While the foundation does provide grants to Omaha, the decision was made to limit the COVID-19 response to western Iowa. 

“In Council Bluffs, the Boys & Girls Club [was] traditionally a source of food for kids who were home in the summer, and they were concerned about some of their population not having access to food, so we gave them a grant to do some distribution of lunch—sandwiches and that kind of thing—everyday,” Tulipana said. 

Iowa West is a private organization that receives financial support from gaming in Pottawattamie County. The casino industry is considered to have deep pockets, but took a revenue hit because of closures during quarantine, so the foundation didn’t receive new funds during those closures. The combination of no new financial resources, stock market instability, and an increase in need created unique challenges. 

“I think our board was adamant about ‘this is the time for philanthropy to step up and do what we need to do for the community,’” Tulipana said.

He noted that the board of directors has been savvy with investing its corpus (endowment) and they are weathering the storm.  Among the early recipients of COVID-19 funds from Iowa West was Centro Latino. 

“We were also concerned about our Latino population, particularly, frankly, the undocumented population is less likely to go to traditional sources and ask for help,” Tulipana said.

The Latino population in Council Bluffs proper has grown from an estimated 4.5% to more than 10% in 20 years. Similar growth has happened throughout Pottawattamie County. Calzada said that the population can be broken into three basic categories: American citizens and permanent residents—some of whom have been here for multiple generations, people who have work permits (including DACA recipients), and undocumented workers. The latter group caused Calzada the most concern. 

“They’re the ones who won’t get the [stimulus] check, don’t get unemployment. They work [for] cash…construction, they work in landscaping, they work as day laborers,” he said. 

Iowa West, The Omaha Community Foundation, The Peter Kiewit Foundation, and the Pottawattamie County Community Foundation partnered with Centro Latino to provide its clients with up to $500 of emergency assistance for necessities such as rent and utility payments. 

“It’s our stimulus package, the nonprofit way. We had to create our own stimulus,” Calzada said.

He explained that many families didn’t understand that the moratorium on rent and utilities only deferred payments and that they would still owe the entire amount when it was lifted. 

“We realized that we need to centralize how we communicate and how people ask for help,” Calzada said. “We even give them a class about budgeting.” 

Other factors also have Calzada worried. Many immigrants and refugees work in meat-packing plants, which have been hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks. He points out that packing plant employees perform back-breaking labor, toil in close proximity to one another, and sign up for long hours. New immigrants especially like overtime hours, Calzada explained. Their health was compromised before the pandemic due the physical demands of the job. 

“They’re not unionized, so they don’t have workers’ education,” Calzada said. “That would be one of the things from COVID that I learned, is that we need to do more workers’ education.” 

Packing plant employees speak an array of languages. As a result, immigrant advocates were concerned that those groups weren’t aware of necessary public health information, partly because daily briefings from the State of Iowa were given only in English. Calzada said he initially spent too much time translating updates from the state. 

“You’re giving me all this stuff in English, what do you want me to do? Translate it? That should come from you. That should be from your budget. This is a public health issue,” Calzada said. 

After receiving some pressure, public broadcasters in the state started providing simultaneous Spanish translations of the governor’s updates. The state of Iowa also developed educational resources in several languages. 

Tulipana and Calzada, along with other area leaders, mentioned that one silver lining during these extraordinary times is that they’ve seen an increase in cooperation and coordination among nonprofits as well as the city government. 

“One of the things I’m always impressed with, with Council Bluffs, is that we’re a smaller community and Southwest Iowa as a whole organizes and coordinates really well,” Tulipana said.  

Anne Hindery, CEO of Nonprofit Association of the Midlands, said her organization is part of the National Council of Nonprofits, and she sees collaboration happening on a national level. 

“I’m really seeing the generosity of people sharing their lessons learned so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and we can really focus on what we need to focus on,” Hindery said. 

She said that NAM is able to provide member organizations with tools for staying afloat thanks to the generosity of counterparts in other states. She mentioned that nonprofits can access guidelines for reopening an office safely that were developed in Oklahoma and attend affordable webinars from counterparts in Washington state and Montana. NAM developed a crisis toolkit with a consulting partner that is available to members and nonmembers throughout the country.  

“What that [toolkit] does is, it takes you through six or seven areas—[such as] leadership, strategic visioning—and it puts categories in a timeframe. So you know, ‘OK, this is what I need to deal with in the next three months, this is what can wait until December,’” Hindery said.

Barks had high praise for the way the Food Bank staff met the moment, and for the metro area as a whole. 

“I am so proud of our community,” Barks said. “We have been extremely blessed by support from the Omaha philanthropic community and the community at large. That has allowed us to do what we are able to do to help families that are in crisis right now. When people talk about Midwestern values it sounds so trite. I’m telling ya’, it’s true.” 

Kush said that, as of June, the Omaha Community Foundation had raised $1.2 million for its COVID-19 response fund.

“We’ve distributed almost every penny of that one-point-two million. We’re actually in the process of auditing to make sure we spend it down to the last penny,” Kush said. 

In May, OCF hosted Omaha Gives—its annual, online, multi-organization fundraiser. They reduced the minimum donation to $1 and extended the timeframe in which participants could donate. 

“We made that decision to make giving and engaging with our nonprofits even more accessible to more people. A lot of our nonprofits that participate in Omaha Gives are very small,” Kush said, noting that there were more than 23,000 individual donors compared to the previous high of 18,000 donors.

“Our dollar amount from Omaha Gives was actually the third highest in the eight years we’ve done Omaha Gives,” Kush said. “So we were very, very pleased and humbled, to be honest, that our community really came together that way.” 

“I’ve always said that Omaha is a town with big hearts and deep pockets, and I think that’s still true,” Hindery said. 

Several leaders, including Hindery, expressed concern that, because funding and attention is understandably focused on the most urgent community needs, other nonprofits will suffer, especially those that have been closed to patrons. Arts organizations aren’t receiving revenue from ticket sales; others depend on fees for services. 

“Consider supporting those organizations that you always have supported,” Maas said. “They still need people that care about their mission to show up for them.” 

Maas also mentioned that cultural institutions such as the Durham Museum and Fontenelle Forest have found ways to pivot during this time. 

Almost every nonprofit can use cash donations and leaders often say it’s the most efficient way to help, but many are happy to have in-kind donations and volunteer hours. The SHARE Omaha website provides a safe and simple method for donating items on a charity’s wishlist. 

As the COVID-19 crisis began to escalate, SHARE Omaha partnered with KETV on its “Giving Wednesday” campaign in April. Maas said that while they would normally get 300 to 400 volunteer inquiries through their website in a month, they received around 700 inquiries for that month. 

Even with social distancing, there are volunteer opportunities around the metro area.

Barks said the Food Bank had to reduce the number of volunteers at any given time from 60 to 30 in order to maintain safety standards, but they have been able to keep their schedule full. 

Micah House, a shelter in Council Bluffs that provides housing to families and single women, reduced its volunteer opportunities.  Executive director Jaymes Sime said it’s still possible for supporters to organize supply drives for items like hygiene products and new bras and underwear for residents, but the shelter has had to decrease some critical programming that relied on volunteers. 

He said the shelter had to suspend its Trauma-Informed Play program, a type of therapy for the youngest residents in the shelter that relies heavily on volunteers.  

“We were already seeing a significant portion of our children who were experiencing these developmental delays, specifically those young children, so the fact that we don’t have our Trauma-Informed Play program and some of our traditional programming—we’re still doing the assessments—yet we’re not getting to work with those kids in a meaningful way,” Sime said. 

He’s also worried for the school-aged children who come through the shelter. Sime points out that children are resilient if the trauma they experience is short-term, but if it’s prolonged there can be lasting effects. 

“That impact is going to be real, but it’s going to be more impactful when you think about the 5-year-old that might be entering school for the first time in the midst of this. It’s going to be a disaster,” Sime said, noting that the demands of distance learning are untenable for much of the population Micah House serves.

“None of [the school districts] were really considering individual families’ capacity to execute,” Sime said. “We tried our best with my child program specialists at Micah House to support the families, but if you have a single mom with three or four kids and maybe one of them is 3 [years old] and the other three are school-aged—maybe different grades, different schools, different expectations—forget about it. In a shelter that’s not even realistic to expect that.” 

The uncertainty going into the fall is something that weighs on nearly every nonprofit leader. Questions still loom. What if schools are closed again? Will there be adequate childcare? How are housing and food security affecting people now that the supplemental, federal unemployment funds disappeared? 

“My concern is what happens when that money runs out,” Hindery said. “Are we going to see more mergers and acquisitions [of nonprofits]? We saw closures and mergers and acquisitions during the Great Recession. I think that will happen at this point. This is obviously much more widespread. It’s three crises at one time, not just one. ” 

Despite the uncertainty ahead, most of the nonprofit leaders expressed hope about the sector’s ability to innovate. Doing more with less is part of the job.

Kush said that the success of Omaha Gives demonstrated that the community shared a sense of urgency and, so far at least, the philanthropic community has recognized that it needs to step up even if stock market returns are down. 

“I think a lot of people, too, are thinking that the markets will rebound even if they haven’t completely yet,” Kush said. “But they see this as this extraordinary, unprecedented time. That they really need to step up and take part because the community needs it.” 

Regardless of the dollar amount, metro area nonprofits need donations of time, talent, and treasure more than ever. It’s time for Omaha to dig deep because it may literally save lives. 

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This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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