Nonprofit Relief Fund awards announced: Small nonprofits are big winners this time aroundNonprofit Journal Project: Feature

For many nonprofits, the worst aspects of the pandemic have begun to wane. In-person events are back, and the uncertainty around how long shutdowns might last or when the next surge might impact their operations has receded somewhat in the wake of widely available vaccines and less vulnerability to the coronavirus.

However, very few nonprofits have recovered fully from the impact the pandemic had. In many cases, they had to completely change up how they delivered services – or even what, exactly, those services are – which created tighter bonds with the people they served but also pushed staff and executives to their limits.  Many took a severe hit to revenues.  Then there were costs for increased air filtration, PPE, and testing to ensure operations were as safe as possible, and soaring inflation once everything began to open back up.

The Michigan Nonprofit Association responded to the needs of their constituents by working with state government to create the Nonprofit Relief Fund, a one-time cache of American Rescue Plan Act funding totaling $35 million that MNA would administer to help nonprofits struggling in the wake of the pandemic to get back on more secure footing. 

Considerable response from nonprofits

The fund was targeted at smaller nonprofits with budgets under $1 million, because those smaller organizations often lack the dedicated staff to pursue other funding. Of 2,000 applications, around 1,400 were funded, said Nellie Tsai, social innovation officer for MNA. “We tried to say 'yes' to as many people as possible who met the eligibility criteria,” she said.

One grant recipient was Foundations Preschool in Ann Arbor. It is the oldest continuously operating childcare facility in the state, opening in 1934. The pandemic put a huge strain on its resources, and its leadership was concerned about potentially having to close the school. “Just keeping our doors open was scary,” said Sandy Williams, executive director of the school.

The Nonprofit Relief Fund money is general operating support, not tied to a particular program. That kind of support is fairly rare in the nonprofit world, and it has allowed Foundations Preschool a little breathing room as it assesses how to move forward in the new normal, Williams says.

Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation in Detroit also received a grant. It began as a neighborhood development company working to develop a park in the neighborhood and engage the community around addressing needs. 

When the pandemic hit, the organization immediately expanded services to meet community needs, opening the Bailey Park Neighborhood Resilience Hub in a neighborhood house to distribute food, masks, and PPE supplies, says executive director Katrina Watkins. Seeing a need among neighborhood seniors, the nonprofit began a food box program to provide staples for meal preparation.

The unrestricted nature of the Nonprofit Relief Fund grant will allow Bailey Park Neighborhood Development to continue the food box program. Because staff members live and work among the people they serve, the organization is able to meet needs in a way outsiders might not. “We’re right in the neighborhood, and people know where we are and can walk to us for services,” says Watkins. “I live in the neighborhood and have had people stop by my house (looking for information or help). It does help to build (neighborhood) cohesiveness.”

Regional, participatory approach to grant making

MNA was committed to making the grant application process as participatory and as rewarding for applicants as possible. The application was co-created with groups of nonprofits around the state that were organized into regional hubs. Those regional hubs, as well as MNA staff, reviewed the grants and held regular office hours so organizations that needed assistance could get guidance.

Tsai said she was heartened to see the response from the nonprofit professionals who worked with MNA to ensure the process was fair and to help their peers if they were having difficulty pulling the application together. “We were giving (them) a stipend, but was that really equal to these things they brought -- so much passion and insight in their lived experiences and their leadership during all that time?” she said.  

For example, a significant barrier for some nonprofits was meeting state and federal compliance regulations around reporting and licensing. While MNA offered technical assistance, very often it was another nonprofit leader who would explain their own process in meeting that requirement and how the other organization might want to approach the challenge.

It was important to MNA to make sure every applicant who wanted to submit was able to. Organizations also were allowed to choose for themselves how much money they asked for, instead of being limited by budget size. In some cases, that meant a few extra steps to understand the impact more funding might have on reporting requirements, Tsai said. MNA also gave applicants multiple opportunities to supply the required documentation, alerting them if something was missing or incorrect. That consideration meant the application phase took longer than MNA had anticipated and meant grant awards were announced in October instead of the summer as originally planned.

Although it led to a longer timeline, the participatory nature of the process has led MNA to look at how it could adopt that ethos in other ways. Having the expertise of so many people acting as reviewers, peer mentors and more has illuminated the depth of talent within Michigan’s nonprofit sector. 

“(Seeing) the vastness and richness of people’s lived experience, why they are here, and how they show up in spaces has been really eye opening,” Tsai said. “Having these people co-creating this entire program alongside us, and just being in a room with people who are really invested in having all this community buy-in, is really great.”

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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