The New Normal for Local Nonprofits


Senior grandfather with grey hair and beard sitting alone in the kitchen eating breakfast

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Posted September 11, 2020 | By Lisa McGinnes, Staff Writer

Doing more with less is standard operating procedure for nonprofit organizations. Even in the best of times they’re used to meeting the needs of the community with oversized hearts and undersized budgets. But while local charities have done an amazing job of adjusting to pandemic conditions and figuring out how to offer their services in safe, socially distanced ways, their current message is clear: they need renewed support from the community, and soon.

“Everything we do and everything we are is made possible by our community,” said R.J. Jenkins, president of the board of directors of the Marion County Literacy Council, which helps adults learn to read, earn their GED and learn English as a second language. “But in general, we have this set of tools at our disposal and one of the tools is fundraising events. These are opportunities for people to get together for us to render visible to the community the work that we do, to connect people to our mission and, in the process, to try to raise some funds to support the work that we do. Obviously in the context of this public health crisis we were not able to safely hold any of our signature fundraising events.”

Usually the Literacy Council raises about half their annual operating budget through four spring events, he explained. They all had to be cancelled this year.

“Of course that puts us in a tricky situation and we’re not the only nonprofit who’s struggled with that,” Jenkins said. “We couldn’t really fundraise and we had to temporarily close our physical facility. So offering our services became difficult as well.”

To continue teaching, their volunteer tutors turned to video calls and phone calls. 

“For the very first time in the history of the Literacy Council, and we’ve existed since 1999, we began offering literacy support services through virtual tools,” Jenkins explained. “That’s something we had never done before; we really prefer the kind of high-touch, in-person work that we do.”

However, he said, having to embrace virtual tutoring has given them new options.

“We can reach people we may not have been able to reach; we can serve people who might have had trouble getting to our campus downtown, so it’s been very positive,” he said.

Amid a new stay-at-home lifestyle, the council’s fundraising campaign followed its tutoring methods and went online.

In March they turned to Facebook with virtual bedtime stories, posting videos of community leaders reading childhood favorites with links to online giving opportunities. On July 20th, the council announced its 1+1=2 campaign, made possible by generous donors Stan and Martha Hanson, who offered to match donations made through July 31st, up to $25,000. It was a chance to recoup funds the spring events would normally bring in, and it was a success. On August 12th, the council announced that the community had donated $26,370, which, matched with the Hansons’ $25,000 gift, made a total of $51,370, about a third of their annual operating budget. 

“What that did is essentially made up for all four of our signature fundraisers that we weren’t able to have and put us on firm financial footing moving into the fall term,” Jenkins explained. “The community just lifted us up. They advocated for us; they championed our work. So I’m really happy to say that as we move into the fall we’re in a very strong and stable position to continue offering our services to the community.”

Marion Senior Services faced the same kind of struggle to provide services in a safe way, with an additional challenge: serving those most at risk from coronavirus—the elderly. The agency provides essential services including hot meals, groceries and transportation to medical appointments. Marketing and Fund Development Coordinator Jamie Williams said private donations pretty much stopped coming in, but with more than 90 percent of their funds coming from government and corporate grants, revenue actually increased during the pandemic.

“We had some changes to our tactics, how we approached the work we did,” Williams said. “They (senior citizens) were still having to do medical appointments, anything considered essential like dialysis; we had to provide the transportation. We also still had to do the Meals on Wheels.”

On their Marion Transit buses, they began extra sanitation protocols and limited the number of riders. Meals on Wheels volunteers donned masks and gloves and began physically distancing themselves from clients.

“We deliver the hot meals Monday through Friday, every single day, and they still continued to do that,” Williams explained. “Usually the driver gets out of the car, brings the meal to the door, knocks and hands it to them. Sometimes, in certain instances, we have some clients who are blind; they actually bring it in, put it on their table and open it for them. We could no longer do that, so we had to get to a situation where we would have the driver knock on the door and put the meal either on the floor or leave it in a closed bag and wait for the person to come to the door and make sure they got it. All of our programming continued, just with those changes for social distancing.”

The big change to their services, he said, was the way hundreds of seniors receive the hot lunches they usually enjoy at seven congregate dining sites throughout Marion County. Typically, he said, those lunches provide not just a hot, nutritious meal but a welcome chance to socialize. Now, instead of sharing smiles and conversation around the table, those seniors must pick up their lunch drive-through style.

However, because of additional government funding, Williams said, their agency has actually been able to feed even more elderly residents in need. A $600,000 CARES grant provided support for home-delivered meals and take-out meals and also funded a new partnership between the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Department of Elder Affairs.

“It was done to directly support the restaurant industry as well as the seniors,” Williams explained. “We called our program Warm Meals, Warm Hearts. In Ocala the pilot was with Mojo’s. We were able to meet the needs of a few hundred seniors in low income senior housing. Mojo’s would deliver to the facility and our volunteers would take it door to door.” Currently, 405 seniors are receiving meals through the new initiative.

In addition to government Coronavirus response funding, corporations also stepped up to help. Williams said Marion Senior Services recently received a $10,000 grant from Truist Bank to support Meals on Wheels for the rest of the year.

“We’ve actually been very fortunate compared to a lot of nonprofits,” Williams said. “We haven’t had to lay off any employees, we haven’t had to decrease services that we provide, but we’ve actually been able to increase the programs we can provide.”

Some smaller local charities are struggling to meet the needs of even a reduced number of clients. Open Arms Village in Ocala, which operates with two full-time and three part-time staff, had to cut the number of homeless men their transitional housing program can serve by 25 percent amid skyrocketing costs and plummeting donations.

“Our private donations are down,” said Executive Director Pam McBride. “We rely solely on donations; we don’t get any government money. But even one of my larger donors had to cut their donation in half. And with the uncertainty of the future and all of us waiting to see how COVID plays out, private donations are down.”

With 15 men living under one roof, Open Arms Village implemented new cleaning and sanitation protocols to keep everyone safe.

“Costs being up starts with COVID and the ridiculous cost of sanitizing supplies and cleaning supplies,” McBride explained. “If we can find sprays and wipes and liquids the cost is up tremendously and we have to buy a lot of it. We’ve switched to where we’re doing everything in the building with disposables, having to buy three meals’ worth of paper plates, paper bowls, knives, forks and cups. Another cost that’s up is our food cost in general because we have lost some of our food donors right now with COVID going on.”

And, like the Literacy Council, Open Arms Village had to cancel their fundraising events this year.

“Typically we have two big fundraisers a year,” McBride said. “We usually raise $70,000 with the two of those and we couldn’t do either of them. The other thing that happens when you don’t have your fundraisers, for a smaller organization like us, those fundraisers raise awareness, and they bring us new advocates for our program. So we’re missing out on that too.”

Yet, in the midst of the steepest challenges the organization has faced, Open Arms Village keeps finding reasons to celebrate.

“To date we’ve had no cases of COVID,” McBride revealed. “We’ve had two scares where we had to isolate men but we’ve had no cases so that’s a blessing.”

Their residents, who commit to ambitious savings plans and work toward goals such as purchasing a vehicle, are required to work full-time. In most cases they also face the challenge of maintaining sobriety and being estranged from family—issues that are magnified in the isolation of a pandemic. But even coronavirus-related layoffs didn’t cause them to lose sight of their goals.

“It’s amazing,” McBride said. “They made it through the worst of COVID where a lot of them were laid off. They all managed to get their jobs back. They’ve maintained their sobriety. They’re all safe, they’re all healthy. It’s been working; it’s just been a challenge. They made it work. They got behind a little on their savings and their goals but that’s OK. We’ve been here for them and they’ve supported one another. We had two men that graduated last month. They had really worked hard.”

But to continue giving homeless individuals a hand up to move toward independence, Open Arms Village will need to find new ways to fundraise.

“At the board meeting last week we discussed having a virtual fundraiser,” McBride said. “I think we will put together something where we can have a virtual tour. We’ll have some of our residents who are very open to speaking and giving their testimony and put together a virtual fundraiser. We’ll have to do that or we’ll have to shut the doors.”

How you can help

Most local charities can accept a tax-deductible gift online. Visit www.marionliteracy.org, www.marionseniorservices.org or www.openarmsvillageocala.org to make a PayPal or credit card donation. Find information about more than 100 other Marion County nonprofit organizations in the 2020 Guide to Charitable Giving online at https://issuu.com/ocalastyle/docs/_book_cr_pages.

Consider supporting your favorite causes on October 20th through the inaugural Give4Marion campaign. The Community Foundation’s new day of online giving will allow you to load up your cart with tax-deductible donations of $10 and up to dozens of organizations that provide services in Marion County at www.give4marion.org.