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Editor’s note: The Beacon is a member of Nonprofit Connect, one organization mentioned in this story.
Literacy KC has always relied on a personalized approach — adult students and tutors working face-to-face to build skills in reading, math and writing.
The pandemic, with its shutdown orders and stay-at-home advice, altered that model. It also lent the Kansas City nonprofit a new mission.
“The pandemic brought into focus the critical need for digital equity,” said CEO Gillian Helm. “It forced our hand in building out a virtual infrastructure and establishing a digital boot camp for our students to get them as quickly and safely as possible the skills and equipment they need to participate in online classes.”
Literacy KC’s experience is mirrored by many other nonprofits in the Kansas City region.
In a survey taken at the end of 2020 by Nonprofit Connect, a resource for area nonprofits, 100% of organizations that responded said their work had been disrupted by the spread of COVID-19. Programs were canceled. Budgets were strained. Volunteers stayed home.
Almost seven of 10 survey participants reported that the pandemic forced them to change the way they served their clients and communities.
“No doubt the pandemic was extremely hard on a lot of nonprofits,” said Colin Bennett, marketing manager for Nonprofit Connect. “Staff burnout was high, morale was low — everybody had to give more time with less resources.”
Numbers are not yet available on the number of area nonprofits that have shut their doors since the pandemic’s full impact came to bear in March 2020. But pre-pandemic surveys give indications of the sector’s significance to the greater Kansas City metropolitan area.
A study by the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School reported that 10,545 area nonprofits were registered with the IRS in 2020 — a 2.9% increase over the previous year. A Nonprofit Connect study in 2019 showed that one in nine Kansas Citians was employed by a nonprofit, and the sector generated $18.5 billion in annual revenues.
Once the pandemic hit, nonprofit executives sought help from donors and government sources to stay afloat.
Thanks to relief from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and relaxed restrictions on spending, Literacy KC was able to keep its entire staff, plus enroll more students online.
Helm expects that online learning will continue to play a large role in Literacy KC’s work going forward.
But over the last few months, the organization has also returned to face-to-face instruction, with students and staff wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.
“We have been operating our in-person classes since July 2021 and have experienced a steady increase in attendance,” Helm said. “We foresee this trajectory to continue into 2022.”
Human service needs have grown more acute
As area nonprofits look ahead to next year, many say their missions and modes of operation have changed since the start of the pandemic. That’s especially the case with human services nonprofits — those that work directly with clients in need.
“It was vital that our response to COVID-19 was swift and thorough,” said Scott Mason, director of stewardship and marketing for Rose Brooks Center in Kansas City.
Each year, the nonprofit provides refuge for more than 14,000 adults, children and pets who have experienced violence and domestic abuse.
“In March 2020, as soon as Mayor Lucas declared a state of emergency, Rose Brooks’ executive team created a response plan for more than 120 employees, as well as families and pets living in the emergency shelter,” Mason said.
The organization adapted, setting up access to teletherapy and telehealth services via its on-site health clinic. Mason thinks the pandemic permanently improved Rose Brooks’ service structure. Some clients no longer need to appear in court to apply for orders of protection, for instance.
“When it was clear that in-person court dates were not possible, we worked directly with Jackson County to apply for orders of protection on behalf of our clients,” Mason said.
Many human services nonprofits have seen their caseloads grow larger and the needs more acute as the pandemic has worn on, leaving adults and children to deal with grief, trauma and disruption.
“We’re seeing the long-term ramifications of COVID,” said Ann Thomas, CEO of The Children’s Place, which since 1978 has provided therapy for young children facing abuse, neglect and other traumas.
One in four COVID-19 deaths leaves a child without a parent or caregiver, Thomas noted. “We’re seeing kids with grief issues and even more anxiety,” she said. “First responders see it as the disease happens, but mental health providers see it as it continues.”
Much like other nonprofits, The Children’s Place is working to get back to pre-pandemic mode.
“Zoom made therapy challenging but helped us do check-ins,” Thomas said. “We’ve continued to virtually communicate with parent groups, but almost all of the kids are back face-to-face.”
Nonprofits embrace change after COVID
Nonprofits that focus on the long-term good of individuals and communities hope that 2022 will be a year of growth.
Like Literacy KC, Green Works in Kansas City received PPP relief and was able to meet its budget and keep staff employed despite COVID-19 disruptions.
The organization, which is project-based, prepares students for future employment by teaching them about the environment.
“We’re lucky that a number of our programs take place outside,” said Green Works President Kate Corwin.
Since forming in 2007, Green Works has planted more than 4,000 native plants, trees and shrubs around Kansas City.
“We’re still wearing masks when we run high school programs inside,” said Corwin, “but our organization is based on getting kids outside and having hands-on experiences. Zoom just isn’t our learning model.”
In April 2020, Green Works opened a small retail store, The Perennial Bee, in which students gain real-world experience by selling sustainable products and developing customer service skills.
“Obviously, April 2020 was not the best time to open a store,” Corwin said.
But The Perennial Bee is making enough in revenue to cover its rent, she added. The store is open on most First Friday weekends and Corwin hopes to soon expand its hours.
Getting involved is easy and a boon for the community
Looking forward, leaders of nonprofits say their need for help is greater than ever, and help can be lent in various ways.
Money is the most direct and flexible form of assistance. Hundreds of area nonprofits participated in this year’s GivingTuesday on Nov. 30, though the organization behind the day of generosity treats every Tuesday as a chance to collaborate and focus on “dignity, opportunity and equity around the globe.”
Kansas Citians can also consider a career in working for nonprofits, suggests Helm, CEO of Literacy KC.
Nonprofits are more than “labors of love put together on shoestring budgets,” Helm said. They provide solutions to critical needs and are shaped by the communities they serve.
“You can also volunteer,” said Bennett, from Nonprofit Connect. “You can walk dogs for Wayside Waifs. You can donate your time. We as a community can affect change on a real scale.”
Corwin, at Green Works, believes in the power of word of mouth. “Tell people you know about the high-quality nonprofits you support,” she said. “Nonprofits aren’t able to spend as much on marketing as for-profit businesses can.”
Nonprofits rely on their supporters to also be resilient and flexible, said Thomas at The Children’s Place. “It means you’re able to adapt. Create new ideas. Remain curious.”