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Updated: June 15, 2020 Nonprofit Notebook

COVID-19 crisis streamlines nonprofit funding process

Photo | Contributed Hartford Foundation President Jay Williams addresses a crowd of nonprofit leaders.

When dinnertime comes at one of the group homes run by Harc, a Hartford-based nonprofit that serves people with intellectual disabilities, residents are used to socializing with staff and family members.

When the COVID-19 quarantine began earlier this spring, however, those in-person visits came to an abrupt halt.

Annette Hargrove, Interim CEO, Harc

Within days of the lockdown, Harc Interim CEO Annette Hargrove and her team began raising money to buy iPads for video chatting that would help reduce the isolation felt by group-home denizens.

While most foundations and funders operate on timelines that stretch for months or even years, the $15,000 needed for the tablets was sourced within days and included funds from an emergency grant provided by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. In addition to iPads, the $125,000 grant — awarded only weeks into the crisis — paid for personal protective equipment, sanitizing needed at homes and other facilities, and increased staffing costs at Harc.

Although Hargrove said she appreciates the thoroughness of the grantmaking process in ordinary times, a streamlined approach helped Harc quickly respond to a crisis.

“We know that we had to get the job done,” she said. “[The foundation] knows that we’re going to figure it out no matter what.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may permanently change how funders do business both internally and in their dealings with local nonprofits, executives say. Board and senior leadership meetings are happening virtually and checks are being cut within days of grant applications being submitted. Reporting on how grant money was spent that once required days of staff work and dozens of pages of text has been reduced to questions on an online form asking for single-paragraph answers.

“We have really been able to see in real time how we as an organization can be more nimble and more responsive,” said Hartford Foundation President Jay Williams.

The trust the foundation has developed with Hartford-area nonprofits over years of partnership allowed it to respond with quick funding when the need was greatest, he added.

“We’re not going to let the bureaucracy get in the way of them doing the work,” Williams said.

In addition to shortening applications, speeding turnaround times and cutting back on reporting requirements, Hartford Foundation has shifted 100% of its giving in recent months to “general operating support,” or the flexible funds needed by nonprofits for day-to-day operations.

Erika Frank, Senior Community Investments Officer, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving

“The biggest shift I see happening in philanthropy across the board is the increase in general operating support grants,” said Erika Frank, senior community investments officer at the Hartford Foundation. “It requires a great deal of trust that the organization knows better than you how to spend that money.”

In line with the foundation’s recent strategic plan, funding has also shifted to basic needs and communities that were already challenged and impacted the most by the recent economic upheaval.

“It was a validating point for the work we had done pre-COVID on populations that were suffering. … They were the first to go over the cliff and be the most adversely impacted in this crisis,” Williams said.

The Hartford Foundation had long been considering cutting back on the documentation needed for grants and streamlining a complex, multi-step process, Frank said.

“These were things we’d all been talking about for a long time, this just put our efforts into high gear,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to how we operated before.”

Adapting to change

Foundations across the state have been speeding up their procedures since the start of the crisis, said Karla Fortunato, president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy.

“Generally they’re trying to reduce the administrative burden on nonprofits; they understand that nonprofits are stretched really thin right now,” Fortunato said. “They’re trying to make the process of bringing money in the door and accounting for it as easy as they possibly can.”

Fortunato said she expects that many funders will permanently adopt more streamlined processes after the crisis has subsided, in line with national trends to cut back on the burgeoning paperwork required of nonprofits. Technology-shy foundations are also being forced to adopt innovations like virtual conferencing and online applications.

“This moment really catalyzed a lot of funders to adopt new practices. Many of them will continue them,” she said.

Access to technology during the crisis has dramatically altered the work of the Hockanum Valley Community Council, which operates a food pantry, mental health treatment and other human services in Tolland County and towns around Hartford.

Within days of closing its physical location, the agency had contracted with a telemedicine platform and was offering domestic violence counseling and other support to clients via the web, said CEO David O’Rourke. Demand also surged at the nonprofit’s food pantry even as older volunteers were forced to stay home as a health precaution.

“For a small organization that has been a huge challenge for us,” O’Rourke said.

A timely emergency grant from the Hartford Foundation helped offset technology costs and allowed the hiring of staff to help with food distribution.

“There has been a generosity in the community, recognizing the importance of what we do and that has been motivating for all of us,” O’Rourke said. “This pandemic has also brought to light that there are many issues in this country that we need to address and deal with, and we’re going to need nonprofits to be solvent and steady to move that agenda across.”

“Submitting grants online is a positive development,” agreed David Yonan, director of the Parkville Senior Center in Hartford, whose organization appealed to the Hartford Foundation within a week of the lockdown for bridge funding to keep meal deliveries and other programs operating to serve isolated seniors.

“There was a deep food insecurity that was happening,” Yonan said, adding that both local politicians and businesses like the Parkville Market stepped up to ensure that needy seniors received meals. “I’m very grateful that we have so many partners. We’ve done a lot with very little.”

This story was done with support from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

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