By Michelle Xiarhos Curran
As unemployment numbers began to swell and lines at local food pantries grew during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Essex County Community Foundation fundholders sprang into action.
From March 1 – April 15, 2020, ECCF saw a 44 % increase in grant recommendations over the same time period the previous year and a 119 % increase in the total dollar amount awarded. For the six-week period in 2020, 166 grants totaling nearly $1.3 million was disbursed to nonprofit organizations, nearly all of which serve Essex County, while 115 grants totaling $594,000 in total was awarded during the same six-week period in 2019.
“The overall increase in both the number of grants awarded and the total dollar amount distributed to local nonprofits is a testament to the critical role our donors and their donor-advised funds play in the philanthropic response to a widespread community crisis,” said ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis. “We are very grateful to work with such compassionate and generous people who care about the health and wellbeing of all Essex County residents.”
Local food pantries, social service agencies, anti-poverty organizations, and other frontline nonprofits serving Essex County’s most vulnerable populations make up the largest group of grantees supported by ECCF fundholders during this time period. This pattern of giving supports our findings as ECCF directs our own COVID-19 Response Fund.
“Essex County is home to six gateway cities and 300,000 people who live below the living wage,” said Carol Lavoie Schuster, ECCF’s vice president for grants, nonprofits, and donor services. “The need in our region is always great, but a crisis such as the one we’re experiencing right now only magnifies and increases that need ten-fold.”
“When I was young, NYC had a massive financial crisis. My dad was laid off and the next few years of my life were spent in and out of poverty,” said ECCF fundholder Gary Romano. “I know firsthand how shocking and difficult this is for so many families and the challenges they are facing that are even worse when support systems are being overwhelmed. Help is needed more than ever.”
This intense and widespread need is what inspires Romano and other fundholders like him to give during these challenging times.
“For us, it was seeing the inequality laid bare by the virus,” said ECCF fundholder Nat Chamberlin. “The most vulnerable were hit the hardest.”
Throughout the year, ECCF works with its 230 fundholders to facilitate open discussions about the current and emerging needs of the local nonprofit sector.
“We work hard to keep our fundholders updated on what is happening around the county so that they can always make informed, strategic decisions about where their support is directed,” said Lavoie Schuster. “When a crisis strikes, we feel that our donors are in a really good position to respond swiftly since they already have a solid understanding of Essex County’s nonprofit needs and where funding gaps may open up.”
“This is why our relationship with ECCF is important,” said Chamberlin. “I can’t know the best way to direct funds in a local manner during a time of crisis, so we rely on the foundation’s expertise.”
And ECCF relies on these trusted collaborations that allow the foundation and its fundholders – together – to make the biggest impact on our communities, especially during a crisis.
“Our fundholders are always poised to help during times of great need,” added Francis. “We saw it just 18 months ago during the gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, and we are seeing it again here during this pandemic. That readiness is one of the many benefits that come with having a donor-advised fund at a local community foundation.”
Though no one can predict the trajectory of this crisis with absolute certainty, we already know that we have a long road of recovery ahead of us. More than 55,000 Massachusetts workers filed unemployment claims just for the week ending May 2 , bringing the seven-week total to a staggering 790,000+ total jobless Bay Staters.
This means that with no end to the financial fallout of the coronavirus insight, the demand for nonprofit services and support will continue to grow – across the state and right here in Essex County.
“I think there’s no better time to invest,” said Romano. “In a way, it’s like the stock market; when it’s down, there are lots of ways to get assets that will then pay off in the future. Now the investments you make, whatever size, are vital to ensuring we keep the fabric of the community together so there will be even more dividends when things improve.”
“We may not be able to predict the future, but we know the kind of compassion and commitment our fundholders possess,” said Francis. “They truly care about our communities, and we suspect that they will continue to respond to this crisis in any way they can. And for that, we are very grateful.”