Calhoun County

Innovations in Action: $1 million fund from nonprofit helps other nonprofits with unique programs

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.

While numerous nonprofits in Calhoun County continue to deal with pandemic-related financial challenges, CareWell Services Southwest was adding to its revenue stream as a result of strong financial stewardship, says Paulette Porter, CareWell’s Chief Program Officer.

About $1 million of surplus revenues were allocated in February to 14 nonprofits through CareWell’s Innovations in Action Special Project Fund, says Karla Fales, former CEO of CareWell, who is now the CEO of REAL Services in South Bend, Ind.
“The fund was created in 2021 as a one-time fund distribution from the operating surplus of the organization,” Fales says. “We’re reinvesting agency funds.”

Porter says these surplus revenues are the result of “strong stewardship of finances by CareWell’s board, its Finance Committee, and staff. That’s how the funds were accumulated, through prudent financial management. We had exactly $1 million and that’s what we distributed.” 

Paulette Porter, CareWell’s Chief Program Officer.With 25 percent of Calhoun County’s total population of 134,159 over the age of 60, Fales says, “The number of older adults in the community is higher than the number of kids in our community. We need to consider investments like this. The number of older adults continues to go up and we can’t support all of them.”
Fales announced the one-time distributions prior to Feb. 28, her last day as head of CareWell. The agency serves older adults, people with disabilities, and caregivers in Calhoun and Barry County and has served as the Area Agency on Aging for both counties since 1996.

Fales led CareWell for 13 years. She says the organization is in a much better financial position than when she started working there and they had to keep a constant eye on how much money was in the checking account.

All projects that received funding from the Innovations in Action fund address CareWell Services Southwest’s focus of promoting health, independence, and choice for seniors, adults with disabilities, and caregivers. They also support their vision of a community where people are cared for with dignity and respect, Porter says.
She says organizations that fit within CareWell’s areas of focus could apply for individual grants of between $5,000 and $250,000. 
“We wanted to take the surplus and invest in the work of our community partners,” Porter says. “Not only are we investing in community partners, we’re also investing in their work with aging populations, those with disabilities, and caregivers. That was a requirement of the grants. What we are finding is more multi-generational families living together and grandparents caring for grandchildren. A lot of the organizations that serve these people need capacity even if it’s just an ADA-compliant door.”
Fales says the funding requests could have been “something as simple as an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) door for the SHARE Center. We don’t have a service category for that and they’re not a traditional provider. This was a way to acknowledge the support of other agencies who are providing services for seniors and adults with disabilities in a meaningful way.”
Fales brought the idea for the Innovations in Action Fund to CareWell’s Policy Board as a way to continue to have the opportunity to “really make an impact in areas of innovation and other program improvement that supports our mission,” Fales says. “We really felt particularly in a time of COVID that it was important to support projects that we would not be able to support normally under the traditional funding model. A number of our partners and organizations worked with us during COVID making substantial contributions to helping older adults who are not part of our service matrix.”
Karla Fales, former CEO of CareWellThere are more than 100 organizations in Barry and Calhoun counties whose work touches older adults or disabled individuals, Fales says, and each of them was given the opportunity to apply for funds from the Innovations in Action Fund.
“We made a point of indicating in the application process that we were looking at things that were innovative, may involve technology and enhancements to provide services for older adults and persons with disabilities, or to expand current programs or services in a meaningful way, particularly if it was innovation focused on technology and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion),” Fales says. “One organization that received funding is addressing diversity issues around equity issues around Communities of Color as it relates to health.”
She also cited the example of the possible establishment of a supportive employment program for people with disabilities.

What may have encouraged organizations to apply for the Innovations in Action funding?
“Is there something you’ve always wanted to try to set up as a model with the opportunity to look at other funding to support it?” Fales says, as one example.
She says the funding could be used for additions and improvements including the installation of an elevator, improving an age-friendly environment through ADA accessibility, DEI training, employment programs, facility renovations, training signage, and some technology for senior centers.
First Congregational Church used its funds to install automatic door openers on the outside of the building and at the entrances to restrooms for people who have physical limitations. 
“First Congregational is not a traditional older adult-serving organization, but we think about the work they do as a community connector and the safe space they provide in our community,” Fales says. “These are small investments, but for smaller organizations, it can be difficult to secure these funds.”

In addition to the Share Center and FCC, Innovations in Action Grant recipients include Washington Heights United Methodist Church, The Arc of Calhoun County, Burma Center, Trinity Community Development, Inc., Kingdom Builders, Mill Creek Senior Housing, Substance Abuse Prevention Services, Barry County Commission on Aging, Milestone Senior Services, Family Support Center of Barry County, and the Albion Health Care Alliance.

A senior health fair.During her time as CareWell’s CEO, Fales says the increased advocacy work of senior-serving organizations increased awareness of the needs of older adults in both Barry and Calhoun counties. She says this was evident when these organizations were given a seat at the table with leaders from other sectors and the older adult population figured prominently in needs assessment discussions.
Many of these same senior-serving organizations went above and beyond during the height of the pandemic to ensure meals were being delivered to seniors, that they had someone to talk to when they were unable to leave their homes, and that their caregivers had additional support and resources.

“This is a way to say ‘Thank You’ for those efforts during COVID,” Fales says. “This is one of the few times we were able to provide some financial resources. At that point where we can provide people resources and leadership, but also money, that’s how we grow services for the people we serve.”


Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.