Brie Bednar is no stranger to sleepless nights.
The executive director of Family Promise Rochester, an organization that provides housing and services to families experiencing homelessness, takes comfort in knowing her team has been able to help 18 families during the pandemic. But after moving into a larger space with the support of pandemic emergency relief funds, Bednar worries about meeting their higher expenses.
“It is what keeps me up at night,” Bednar said. “Where is the money going to come from? Can we sustain this long term? What will this look like?”
From food banks to homeless shelters, many nonprofits used the disruption of the pandemic as an impetus to transform their operations. Some moved to larger spaces, employed more sophisticated operating strategies or hired new staff.
Now, that financial support is waning. Federal CARES Act funds have dried up, and many of the individual donations that poured in during the pandemic have decreased, leaving nonprofits grappling with how to sustain their more expensive models. On top of this, the fallout from a year of economic duress has left more people experiencing food insecurity and homelessness, driving up the need for community support.
Diversifying fundraising sources
Many local service organizations received an increase in financial support during the pandemic, whether from local individual donors, corporations, or through CARES Act relief funds. But as leaders budget for the coming year, they understand many of those sources will taper off.
The Landing — an organization that provides support for those who are experiencing homelessness — received more than $320,000 from federal CARES funds allocated under the city's pandemic response plan. The organization also relied on local donations, along with grants from the Mayo Clinic. Now, leaders are also holding out for state grants. Founder Dan Fifield finds himself looking at his phone frequently, hoping good news about a windfall will land in his inbox.
Surrounded by donuts and coffee at an 8 a.m. meeting in mid-July, Bednar discussed fundraising strategies with church partners. She acknowledged that the boost Family Promise gained from emergency relief funds would be running out soon, and brainstormed how to reach potential donors through email and snail mail campaigns.
“There was a lot of unexpected support during the pandemic that saw us through,” Bednar said. “Those were one time non-sustainable sources of revenue, (we’re) just looking to do what we need to do to diversify our funding streams.”
Like Family Promise, The Salvation Army is looking to continue engaging donors through online campaigns, especially after the pandemic rendered their typical blockbuster holiday bell ringing impossible.
The latter organization solely relied on increased support from local donors over the last year, straying away from federal and state funds.
"One of the reasons why we don't go after that kind of money is we don't want money with strings attached,” said Maj. Bob Mueller, who leads Rochester’s Salvation Army with his wife, Lisa. “The community sustained us through all of that. So we never shut our doors.”
Whether revved on by individual donors or federal grants, the organizations interviewed offered a similar review of their strategy for the coming year: appreciate the momentum they built through the pandemic, attempt to keep engaging donors in the community, but don’t expect a fundraising year like 2020 ever again.
While some nonprofits used their extra funds to start new programs or projects, others made ambitious moves to new spaces in an effort to better serve their clients.
The Landing moved from the Mayo Civic Center to the old Silver Lake Fire Station, continuing to provide city-established day center services. The shelter opened its doors in November 2020, fueled by CARES Act funding.
“Pre-pandemic, there was no place for them to go just to be during the day, to seek services, to exist like they do here,” said Fifield. “So we give them a soft place to land— that's our tagline — where they can come in and sit at a table, watch a TV show, lay on the floor and sleep.” Fifield added that many clients of The Landing are “service resistant,” or unable to stay in a shelter due to PTSD or other trauma.
Fifield and his wife, Holly, are fighting to keep the new location through April 2022, seeking support from the city on funding the space, utilities, building maintenance and insurance. Minnesota's eviction moratorium is ending, adding urgency to these negotiations.
Family Promise, too, moved to a larger space to accommodate more clients.
Bednar said they likely wouldn’t have sought out a larger space without the pandemic, but when churches began shutting their doors to families, they thought they had no choice.
“We really looked at our model and thought, what can we do to address having zero shelter right now without the churches. But how can we spin this to make for a stronger, better program?” Bednar said.
That pivot came with a cost. Bednar said expenses are up more than 200% from pre-pandemic levels. The added burden came from having to pay a mortgage on their new space, providing food on site, and from property taxes that they missed the county deadline to write off.
“Moving into 2022, I mean, we'll be working truly with a blank slate. And so we really need to think about what are the most sustainable sources of funding? And where will those dollars come from ... realistically, what can we count on?” Bednar said.
As costs have increased, the ability to better serve families has expanded. With their new home site, Family Promise no longer has to shuffle families between church partners each week. Instead, they sleep at the main building for the duration of their time in the program.
“It’s like experiencing homelessness every week,” said Kai Miller of the old model. Miller, the volunteer and family services coordinator, graduated from the program with her family about two years ago. “This provides a complete sense of stability for families."
Employing new models
Some nonprofits didn’t change locations during the pandemic, but they made different use of the spaces within which they operate.
Channel One Food Bank, which supplies food to partner agencies in 14 counties, shifted from a food drive-based model to purchasing directly from food manufacturers and local grocery stores in order to provide fresh foods for customers, not just non-perishable offerings. During one of the regular deliveries from a local Hy-Vee grocery store, warehouse manager Mario Muro unloaded crates of fresh tomatoes, onions, limes, bell peppers, eggs and cauliflower that would stock the food pantry for clients to peruse.
“It's what we want when we go shopping, why wouldn't it be what (clients) want as well?” said Jessica Sund, Channel One's director of development and communications .
The food shelf got a facelift while it was closed to the public. Walking through the space resembles roaming the aisles of Hy-Vee, with fresh produce, frozen proteins, crates of onions and potatoes, and typical boxed and canned goods in their appropriate spaces. The staff also engaged in cultural competency training to better provide foods for a diverse group of community members. A feature of the new model is clients can shop as frequently as needed, a break from the typical pre-pandemic limits Channel One imposed.
“We basically turned a dingy little room that had pallets and boxes of food that people had to dig through — which is not dignified — into straight up grocery store shelving,” Sund said.
Operating expenses did increase for the organization in one snapshot from before and during the pandemic, rising from $245,000 in June 2019 to $330,000 in June 2020. Yet, Sund said the new model doesn’t cost an exorbitant amount more than the previous one. The organization just had to shift resources around to accommodate greater need in new areas, adding staffing and resources when necessary.
Relying on financial donations instead of food donations is more efficient, too. With a $1 donation, Channel One can provide 3 1/2 meals. That's a better use of resources than receiving a donated can of beans or corn, Sund said.
Through the pain of the pandemic — which has thrown more people into homelessness and food insecurity — Sund said Channel One has been able to better serve the community.
“We took it as an opportunity to shut down and come back better. And I feel like we did.”