Atlanta nonprofits expand to respond to pandemic missions

As COVID-19 crippled the world, Susan Anderson realized her volunteer organization needed to make some changes – and they needed to speed them up.

Open Hand Atlanta relied on dozens of volunteers who used to walk in and out of the organization’s headquarters at Armor Drive and rummage through coolers to assemble and organize the meals they deliver to Georgians. suffering from chronic diseases.

It was organized chaos. But, in a world that had suddenly shifted to social distancing, Open Hand needed more organization and less chaos.

“In March 2020, within 48 hours, we changed our entire business model,” said Anderson, chief operating officer of the association.

“These were things we had been talking about doing for a long time,” she added. Still, it was “a little hard to do overnight until you have to.”

Open Hand is not alone. As the pandemic crosses a second year, many of Metro Atlanta’s largest nonprofits continue to adapt to fulfill their missions – sometimes on the fly – as supply chain challenges , new variations and labor shortages continue to disrupt everyday life.

Open Hand has simplified its menu options. He installed a massive 2,600 square foot freezer so meals could be prepared ahead of time and delivered once instead of two to three times a week. And it has streamlined its package assembly process, instituting drive-through pickup for its volunteers, who drop off some 30,000 meals a week to the organization’s 4,800, largely low-income customers.

Many organizations have adjusted their operations to minimize transmission of COVID and accommodate fewer workers, volunteers, and supplies. Some have widened their footprint to meet the overwhelming demand created by the virus, while others have shrunk due to a drop in donations. A few have even found more efficient ways of doing business that they plan to continue after the pandemic.

The changes made by Open Hand, for example, reduced distribution costs by 60%, Anderson said.

When the COVID closures began, many nonprofits feared donations would dry up.

But giving, in fact, has increased.

Americans opened their wallets to help those who lost their livelihoods during the pandemic. They also spent to help recover from wildfires in the west and other natural disasters and to promote racial equity.

Charitable giving to U.S. charities hit a record $ 471 billion in 2020, according to an annual report released by the Giving USA Foundation, an increase of almost 4% from the previous year after inflation.

Many nonprofits in the area, including the Shepherd Center and CARE, have broken previous fundraising records.

In early 2020, CARE launched a $ 75 million fundraising campaign to celebrate the organization’s 75th anniversary. But leaders have chosen to focus on raising funds for the COVID-19 response globally. It would become the largest emergency response effort in the organization’s history, said Mary Anne Ericson, CARE’s director of fundraising. The association raised around $ 125 million.

“We have seen a lot of new donors for our organization,” Ericson said, citing India’s battle against the Delta variant as a particularly galvanizing moment. “I think there is an urgent need for people to want to do something about the crises they see in the world.”

As the vaccine brought some aspects of life back to normal in 2021, some groups feared donors would cut spending. But the gift persisted.

Youth Villages – an organization that treats young people with behavioral, emotional and mental challenges, including at a residential campus in Douglasville – said it exceeded its fundraising goal in Georgia by 40%.

The Alpharetta-based National Christian Foundation – which liquidates donor stocks, real estate and other assets and donates the proceeds to selected charities – said it has brought in more than $ 1.3 billion in charitable contributions since. the beginning of the year. This is a record for the organization, which funds many evangelical, conservative and civic causes.

Spokesman Steve Chapman attributed the outpouring in large part to a strong stock market, soaring house prices and high corporate valuations.

The road has been rockier for others. Charities that rely on in-person fundraising events and offices to pool donations have struggled.

The American Cancer Society, known for its annual Relay for Life walk, saw donations drop 21% after the pandemic hit. In the summer of 2020, the Atlanta-based organization laid off 1,000 employees nationwide. Crystal Brown, the company’s vice president for Georgia, said the group had “seen more positive trends in revenue and engagement” this year, especially as some in-person events picked up.

The United Way of Greater Atlanta, meanwhile, saw its workplace campaign revenue drop 20% in its most recent fiscal year and an estimated 70% drop in volunteer numbers.

Despite this, the organization has found other ways to help meet the needs of the community in the wake of the coronavirus. He partnered with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to create the COVID-19 Response & Recovery Fund, which, between spring 2020 and this summer, raised and distributed more than $ 28 million to nonprofits. on the front line of the pandemic.

Others have had to change the way they carry out their missions for fewer people.

The Shepherd Center relies on a stable of volunteers to feed many of its paralyzed patients, deliver mail and set up equipment for physiotherapy sessions. But with strict visitor limits in place to stem the spread of the virus, staff members – from nurses to the marketing team – have filled in for about a year.

Still, some supporters have found ways to help. Restaurants donated food to staff. The companies provided personal protective equipment.

“We’ve really seen people come in and say, ‘Where’s the gap? ”Said Sarah L. Batts, executive director of the Shepherd Center Foundation.

However, for the supply chain issues that some organizations face, there are few workarounds.

Soaring costs for building materials created challenges for Habitat for Humanity, which was already facing fewer volunteers and soaring house prices.

“When lumber goes up 300%, that’s a $ 20,000 increase in the price of a home for us on that front alone,” said B. Ryan Willoughby, executive director of the organization’s Georgia branch. charitable.

Open Hand has faced its own supply chain issues.

Shortages of ingredients its nutritionists rely on to craft their healthy recipes, from low-sodium chicken breast to yeast, have sent staff members rushing to area grocery stores to find substitutes. .

But a shortage, in particular, caught the attention of the organization.

Staff are running out of disposable containers in which to pack food. The resin in which the trays are coated is rare.

It is difficult for the kitchen to switch to another brand. The machines that seal and label meals are only designed for this specific tray. The organization was recently preparing to adapt – again – when it received a delivery.

“Through the skin of our teeth they entered,” Anderson said.

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