How Philanthropy is Responding to COVID-19 in the Southwest — Inside Philanthropy

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts that look at the response of funders in different regions of the U.S. to the coronavirus pandemic.

While New York is the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. based upon the latest case counts and death toll, the impact of the virus is being felt in every region of the country. Despite the abundance of wide-open spaces and more disbursed population groups, the Southwest is being hit hard by COVID-19. As with everywhere else in the country and around the world, the virus is affecting most aspects of daily life in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. To meet a growing crisis, local philanthropy is responding in significant ways, according to interviews with nonprofit leaders in the region. Foundations are coming to terms with where the biggest funding gaps are in their communities and working with urgency to mobilize and deploy new resources for those in need.

Support for Frontline Organizations

When COVID-19 relief emerged as the most important local priority issue over recent weeks, it quickly became clear that nonprofits that provide direct services would be especially in need of emergency support.

“Many nonprofit organizations across our state provide direct support services to those in need, and due to increased demand for those services in the wake of the outbreak, those organizations’ resources have been stretched beyond capacity,” said Steve Seleznow, the president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation (ACF). “In order to ensure the future economic health of the nonprofit sector, priority must be given to those organizations that are in need of immediate relief while also considering the long-term effects of this crisis.”

ACF established the Arizona COVID-19 Community Response Fund to provide immediate relief to some impacted nonprofits, but the gaps in funding are ever-growing.

Meanwhile, the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits has put a magnifying glass on the already-existing issues with a focus on health and human services and direct-response needs. 

“Too many nonprofits are at risk of closing their doors, and as a result, reducing the depth and breadth of available services and resources because funding is uncertain,” said Kristen Merrifield, the CEO of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits. “Recently, we conducted a survey of nonprofits statewide, and of the more than 400 that responded, the minimum financial impact is $36 million.”

Merrifield said that funding is always a priority, but that “it’s on steroids right now because of the impact of coronavirus-driven cancellations and postponements of fundraising events and how that affects programs and services.”

Steve Alley, the former CEO of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and current managing partner of the philanthropic consulting firm Ekstrom Alley Clontz & Associates, said that the biggest funding gaps right now are operations, especially due to the virus. If there has ever been a time for foundations and donors to provide unrestricted funding to organizations they trust to get the work done, it’s now.

“We don’t need more layers of bureaucracy, we need to enable nonprofits to finance their mission and get help where it’s needed most,” Alley said.

Earlier this month, and with a $100,000 seed grant, ACF formed an umbrella fund to collect donations for COVID-19 relief efforts and distribute them to Arizona nonprofit organizations hit hard by the outbreak. The Arizona COVID-19 Community Response Fund supports both the immediate and long-term needs of nonprofits facing an increased demand for services as a result of the outbreak and those in severe financial distress due to program and event cancellations.

The fund is supported by individuals, corporations and foundations across the state, including the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust ($350,000), Pulliam Trust ($500,000) and Arizona Public Service ($250,000). The fund has raised more than $5 million; however, ACF has received around $25 million in funding requests so far. 

A committee from ACF and partnering organizations are planning to make awards of up to $25,000 and prioritize organizations that offer immediate relief to families and communities in the state. Once the Arizona Department of Health Services has declared the emergency over, ACF will award any remaining funds as long-term recovery grants to mitigate the financial impact of COVID-19 on Arizona nonprofits.

According to Lauren Haskins, vice president of membership and partnerships at Philanthropy Southwest, there are two other funds working in coordination with the ACF fund. A parallel fund has been established by the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona to address the needs of Tucson and the surrounding region. Also, Valley of the Sun United Way has formed a fund to coordinate support for Maricopa County health, human services and education nonprofits, as well as schools.

A Growing Response

Meanwhile, similar efforts are underway in other parts of the Southwest with the Albuquerque Community Foundation, Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico, Tulsa Community Foundation, Austin Community Foundation, Communities Foundation of Texas and others. We’ve been carefully following the COVID-19 response in Texas, since it is the most populous state in the Southwest with the most vulnerable urban populations. Community foundations are largely leading the charge here with multi-pronged efforts, while individual donors, health legacy foundations and corporate funders have also been taking on prominent roles in the response.

Some of the biggest local moves are coming from the Communities Foundation of Texas (CFT), which is spearheading the North Texas Community Response Fund. Anurag Jain and Patrick Brandt came up with the idea for the Get Shift Done Fund at CFT to support affected service workers. North Texas Cares is a funder collaborative at CFT, and the Dallas County COVID-19 Response Fund at the community foundation supports frontline responders. Among the numerous collaborators of North Texas Cares are the Gene and Jerry Jones Family Foundation, the DuBose Family Foundation and the Meta Alice Keith Bratten Foundation.

To address COVID-19 needs in Central Texas, St. David’s Foundation launched a $10 million fund to award multi-phase funding in support of short-term and long-term needs in the region. Yet this is just one of several relief efforts that the health legacy funder has coordinated and follows its bold move of converting around $16 million in existing grants to allow for greater flexibility and fund general operating expenses to help grantees navigate uncertain times.

Big corporate funders with Texas interests are also stepping up to address local needs, including the Intel Foundation, which recently committed $4 million to relief efforts and is matching $2 million in giving from its employees in Texas and other regions of concern. Dell Technologies, which is based in Austin, has stepped up with an even bigger commitment, although it’s not clear how much of its relief efforts will be focused in Texas. Similarly, while the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has pledged $100 million for COVID-19 relief, it’s too early to say how much of that giving will be focused locally. However, given the couple’s long track record of making gifts in Austin, it’s likely that local relief will be a top priority as funds are dispersed.

Other billionaires in Texas who have announced gifts in response to the pandemic include Janice McNair, who made a $500,000 gift to Interfaith Ministries’ Meals on Wheels and the Houston Food Bank, and Mark Cuban, who is supporting healthcare workers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Parkland Health & Hospital System. Lyda Hill is another wealthy donor who is giving to help Texans cope with the fallout from COVID-19.

Tribal Lands at Risk

One major concern among funders in the Southwest right now is how COVID-19 is affecting the Native American reservations. Navajo Nation currently has the most coronavirus cases among all tribal entities in the U.S. Home to over 350,000 people, this is the largest Native reservation by land area, spanning over 27,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

New Mexico’s governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has warned that COVID-19 could wipe out tribal communities because tribal lands are less equipped to deal with the pandemic and the federal government is taking too long to respond. Despite shelter-in-place orders and curfews issued on tribal lands, there is a constant struggle to get supplies to remote areas and provide safe water for drinking and handwashing in a place where many people don’t have running water in their homes. This is especially true in households with many family members across several generations all living under one roof.

Learn more about foundations supporting the region in IP’s Southwest Funding Guide, and stay tuned to our blog for future updates about Southwest philanthropy and COVID-19.

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