Nonprofits pivot from panic to persistence

Pushing for a better day


On the Monday before Thanksgiving 2021, just after dusk, an epic crescent of headlights glimmered in the parking lot at Logan Square, at the corner of Holmes Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in south Lansing. 

Volunteers at the LMTS Community Center in south Lansing distributed more than 500 turkey dinners the Monday before Thanksgiving.
Volunteers at the LMTS Community Center in south Lansing distributed more than 500 turkey dinners the Monday before Thanksgiving.
Dozens of volunteers and friends of LTMS Community Outreach Services scrambled to load more than 500 frozen turkeys, boxed with stuffing, cranberries and other side dishes, into the maws of hatchbacks and trunks.

Horns honked and people yelled “Whooooo!” A man got out of his car and danced, bucking the discipline of the line. Volunteers waved “THANK YOU” signs and yelled “Happy Thanksgiving!” to each car as it exited the lot.

A few blocks away, a slow train rolled across the south side of town. A hopper car was painted with the words “Better days don’t exist.” 

There’s plenty of cause for despair, but there’s a better day in front of our faces: the work of Michigan’s 50,000-plus nonprofits, more than 4,000 in Ingham County alone, ranging in size from small, volunteer-led bands like LTMS to well-oiled organizations with 500 employees or more. As the COVID pandemic rolls like slow freight into its second year, many of these nonprofits are near exhaustion and walking on thin financial ice, just as many of their clients are. Staffs are short-handed, resources are finite and the need is great, but a strong surge of community support, government help and the will to bring a better day into existence keeps them going.

The great tap-out

Cindy Hales, director of community investment at the nonprofit Community Foundation, said she felt “a sense of desperation” among nonprofits in 2020. As 2021 comes to a close, Hales said they are still holding it together, and, in some cases, flourishing.

Widespread predictions that up to 25 percent of nonprofits wouldn’t make it through the pandemic didn’t come true. “Here in the region, we aren’t aware of anyone who closed their doors due to COVID,” Hales said. 

She hears a lot of stories from hundreds of area nonprofits as the Community Foundation connects them with sources of funding or helps them with direct grants.

After a brief early pandemic panic, nonprofits got better than ever at communicating their needs to donors and to the public. Out of necessity, they picked up a lot of tricks, from inventive, donor-friendly virtual fundraising to car-based turkey distribution.

The result, against all odds, was a “pretty banner year” for nonprofits, Hales said. 

Meghan Martin, the director of the Greater Lansing Arts Council, said she has not heard of any nonprofits going under in the arts and culture sector, either.

“Donors really responded to the need and stepped up,” Hales said.

It’s a good thing they did, because the need for non-profits is “greater than ever,” according to Brian Philson, the CEO of Highfields, a social service agency that provides counseling and educational services to a 13-county swath of mid-Michigan.

Philson has a name for 2021: “The great tap-out.” 

“People are tapping out, saying ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Philson said.

Hales is hearing the same thing from hundreds of nonprofits. “They’re exhausted,” she declared. “It’s difficult to operate at these levels for 18 or 20 months, and it’s definitely putting a strain on people to continue to be optimistic, to continue to provide great services and programming.”

Kelley Kuhn, vice president of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, is hearing the same thing from member organizations.

“For many nonprofits, demand for crucial services is still going up, especially for nonprofits that supply basic needs, and revenue numbers have not come back to pre-pandemic levels,” Kuhn said.

The Greater Lansing Food Bank moved into a new warehouse and office headquarters in Bath Township in April, just in time to meet spiking demand for its services during the pandemic.
The Greater Lansing Food Bank moved into a new warehouse and office headquarters in Bath Township in April, just in time to meet spiking demand for …
The Greater Lansing Food Bank has distributed 20 percent more food in the past 12 months than it did in the previous 12 months, according to CEO Michelle Lantz. She attributed the surge to a rise in food insecure households, owing to the pandemic, along with an aggressive policy of outreach to underserved communities.

The Tri-County Office on Aging distributed 30 percent more meals in 2020 than in 2019, relying primarily on funds from the CARES act and Ingham County’s elder millage, according to executive director Marion Owen.

In the spring of 2020, with the pandemic looming, the agency stockpiled 50,000 refrigerated and frozen meals. An army of some 1,600 volunteers distributed a week’s worth of meals at a time at homes and designated drop-off spots.

“We didn’t miss a beat,” Owen said.

For nonprofits serving the homeless, the pandemic roiled up a complex storm of challenges. Social distancing shrank the number of available beds in the emergency shelter system. Shelters were also hit by added costs of cleaning equipment and lost staff members to safety concerns. 

Along with physical needs like food and shelter, a host of mental health issues, both familiar and pandemic-specific, have bubbled up in the past year and a half.

“At all levels, children and families are experiencing significantly more stress, anxiety and mental health issues,” Brian Philson of Highfields reported. “Is my kid in school today or is it virtual? If it’s virtual, what about child care? Should I quit my risky job or stick it out? Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one, uncertainty about the future. They’re trying to find ways to cope, to minimize the stress, and some of these ways are unhealthy.”

5,000 salami sandwiches

Turmoil in the labor market is wreaking havoc with nonprofits, just as it is in the private sector. 

Besides spending more on recruitment, agencies are hard-pressed to increase staff and make pay and benefits more competitive.

“The challenge in hiring and retaining staff is tremendous,” Highfields’ Philson said. “We have more open positions today than we’ve had in my 16 years at the agency.” Highfields normally has about 260 staff members, spread over 13 Michigan counties, but the staff is down to 210 this year. 

In many cases, paid staff had to take up the slack for a dearth of volunteers, especially at the height of the pandemic.

Eric Hufnagel, director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, wonders how long nonprofits will withstand the double whammy of rising costs and increased demand for services. The coalition is a statewide nonprofit that works with 650 local organizations.

“It’s not easy work to begin with, but complicated with the risks of COVID, it’s harder to recruit,” Hufnagel said.

Many nonprofits have tapped into operating funds to keep going.

“A lot of agencies had to put money out of pocket for technology to adapt to the pandemic, and even for PPE and cleaning supplies,” Hufnagel said. “Their reserves shrunk, and if you’ve ever worked in nonprofit, you’d know those are kind of sacred dollars that are hard to make up by getting a grant, as you can with programs.”

Because of these multiple stressors, many nonprofits are walking on thin ice, much like the clients they serve.

“A lot of people fall into homelessness because they are paycheck to paycheck,” Hufnagel said. “All it takes is one emergency room visit, or the transmission goes out on your car, and then you lose your job, and so on.”

Similarly, Hufnagel fears that many “tapped out” nonprofits are one more bad year, or bad month, away from disaster.

“They can weather the storm now, but they face a serious risk in the future,” he said.

After pivoting to online counseling during the pandemic, staffers at Small Talk Childrens’ Advocacy Center in Lansing found that some children felt more comfortable with Zoom sessions than sitting in a strange room.
After pivoting to online counseling during the pandemic, staffers at Small Talk Childrens’ Advocacy Center in Lansing found that some children felt …
A big federal or state grant, like the eviction protection funds that went to the states under the CARES act, does not always help the balance sheets of a beleaguered nonprofit. 

Picture a pile of 5,000 salami sandwiches plunked on the doorstep of a local food bank. Mustering the staff and resources needed to distribute the sandwiches before the expiration date of the salami — and many legislative grants have such dates — often puts more financial pressure on the nonprofit charged with handling the windfall, not less.

In 2020 and 2021, politics complicated the picture for many area nonprofits dealing with homelessness. Federal funding through the 2020 CARES Act made it possible to set up an eviction diversion program in every county in Michigan, according to Hufnagel. From July to December 2020, landlords recouped the vast majority of arrears, up to 90 percent, from tenants who got behind on their rent, in exchange for agreeing not to evict them.

But in early 2021, a second round of eviction diversion funds got caught in a partisan wringer.

“It became a political issue,” Hufnagel said. “One party used it as leverage against the governor and we had a gap of three months where those funds were not released.”

When the Legislature finally released the funds in late March, local agencies had to scramble to handle applications and administer the program. The salami was perishable: The feds required that 65 percent of the money to be spent by Oct. 31.

“Agencies had to gear up fast, and that required capacity building,” Hufnagel said. “We got a very late start. The Legislature dragged its feet for three months, and that put us at risk of not hitting that number.”

It was no simple matter to quickly process the applications and get the word out to tenants and landlords that these funds are available, and inform them how to apply.

“It just made things much more complicated and put much more pressure on communities,” Hufnagel said.

‘Helicopter money’

News of federal initiatives like the eviction diversion program help to create public perception that “a lot of money is floating down from the federal government to help nonprofits,” Hales said.

“There are a lot of competitive grant programs, but it isn’t free flowing money, and it’s not going to last forever,” Hales said. 

When nonprofit heads huddle with Hufnagel, they tell him the same thing.

“Most people don’t think about this, but when an agency receives a grant, it is typically used for a new expenditure,” Hufnagel said. “That may have no connection to the reality of your occupancy cost, staff cost, technology and utility cost, and so on.”

Keeping the lights on is not as dramatic as feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. Hales agreed that it’s “difficult for organizations to communicate the importance of operating dollars.”

Highfields’ Philson has seen how “helicopter money coming in from nowhere” can stretch a nonprofit’s limits. Over the summer, a local school district asked Highfields for help setting up after-school counseling and educational programs, using CARES funding. Philson’s team wanted the programs up and running by September, but “the great tap-out” made it impossible to round up a staff that fast.

“Teachers in this district would normally work all day, stay three hours extra and earn some extra cash,” Philson said. “Now no one is interested in doing extra work.” The programs launched in December, three months later than planned.

A different bottleneck is complicating operations at the Greater Lansing Food Bank, where volunteers are back “in full force,” Lantz said. With safety protocols in place, hundreds of masked and socially distanced volunteers are packing mountains of macaroni, canned food and other goods into boxes, bags and school backpack kits at the Food Bank’s spacious new warehouse at 5600 Food Court Drive in Bath Township. (“We were able to name the road,” Lantz said.) Others are helping with mobile food distribution, food packing and community garden projects.

However, the nationwide shortage of truck drivers is causing an urgent staffing issue. Donations from retailers, who are in short supply of many items, are down. A large shipment of food from the USDA, a major Food Bank donor, has been bumped from January to June 2022.

“We’re facing the same food shortage everyone is,” Lantz said. “We can’t always buy what we need and get it out in a timely manner. That’s where people doing food drives in their communities on our behalf would be very helpful.” 

(The Food Bank offers guidance for holding a virtual food drive, with food wish lists, templates for social media posts and suggestions for tie-in events like tributes, 5K runs, graduations or birthdays; check out the website or call (517) 853-7800 to get started.)

‘I can do this’

The Lansing Area AIDS Network, or LAAN, is a case story in the myriad ways, both tangible and intanbible, the pandemic has put pressure on nonprofits.

For two years running, LAAN hasn’t been able to do its biggest fundraiser, the Red Ribbon Gala, or participate in the AIDS Walk, which has drawn hundreds of participants in years past.

The virtual Summer Splash raised just over $8,400, only 56 percent of LAAN’s $15,000 goal.

Because many clients are immunocompromised, in-person services are still being held to a minimum, and that takes a toll on morale. 

“We’ve used to having volunteers here, at the front desk, in the food pantry, making up condom packets,” executive director Kristina Schmidgall said.

Everyone, staff and clients, misses the old days, when LAAN opened up the food pantry a few times a month and clients and staff spent hours chatting and sharing experiences while picking up groceries.

“They got to be with people who understood them, who won’t judge them or give them strange looks, a place where they could be themselves,” Schmidgall said. “We’re hoping at some point we can go back to that, but nobody wants to be the hot spot. Many of our clients are dealing with medical conditions and it just puts people at too great a risk.” 

Most ominously, as of this fall, LAAN  only has one volunteer in its crucial prevention department, which handles HIV testing. How many do they need? “I don’t know that we’d even cap it,” Schmidgall said. “As many as we could train.”

She recommends prevention work as “very rewarding,” and she ought to know.

“When I volunteered doing HIV testing, people would come in really upset, in a panic — ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die next week,’” she recalled. “Helping them calm down and explaining that it’s going to be OK, and they’re not going to have to do it alone — they walked out saying, ‘I can do this.’”

Schmidgall is not comfortable drawing too many parallels between AIDS and COVID, except to condemn the practice of shaming people for getting sick, no matter what the disease.

“The question should not be ‘How did you get it?’ or ‘What were you doing?’ but ‘Are you getting what you need?’”

Serving together

The pandemic has wrought plenty of devastation, but it has also pushed nonprofits into closer collaboration than ever.

Cheery white and green trucks from the Greater Lansing Food Bank have been seen at dozens of local pandemic relief events all over town. CEO Michelle Lantz is on the phone with her fellow nonprofit heads daily to see how the Food Bank can pitch in.

“A lot of walls were broken down and bridges were built in the pandemic to serve our community members together,” Lantz said. “We’ve known all along that there was great value in that, but sometimes it takes a crisis like this to actually push it forward faster.”

The Lansing Board of Water and Light brought a virtual round table of area nonprofits together when the utility hosted financial pandemic relief fairs Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 to help customers who are behind on their utility bills. Among the participating nonprofits were the Capital Area Housing Partnerships, Cristo Rey Community Center, Holy Cross Services, Advent House, the Tri-County Office on Aging, and seven others. The coalition, dubbed “Keeping On Together,” plans another round of relief in early 2022.

Human needs such as food, shelter and physical and mental health are tightly interwoven. No less is required of the agencies that strive to meet those needs.

During the pandemic, Cindy Hales of the Community Foundation has seen an “increased openness and interest in collaboration and integration of services among nonprofits.”
“More and more nonprofits are having conversations with each other and thinking about how they can collaborate, sometimes out of necessity, but also out of an understanding that an issue like housing doesn’t exist in a bubble,” Hales said. “They’re working together more than ever to address community issues and that’s very encouraging.”

Hufnagel doesn’t miss a chance to repeat his mantra: “Homelessness is complicated.” He works daily with agencies that work on the “front end” of homelessness, by helping people get and keep jobs, catch up on their utility bills, keep food on the table and get an education.

“There is an affordable housing crisis,” Hales agreed. “But the issue of housing opens up all of the social factors we have to think about. What puts people in those situations? Health care, education, mental health — all those things feed together.”

Creative adaptation

Despite all the challenges facing area nonprofits, the search for a better day goes on.

As the pandemic rolls into 2022, nonprofits are adapting to extreme pressures in creative ways, developing programs and technology that will serve them beyond the current crisis.

Last week’s big turkey dinner distribution at LMTS Outreach is a case in point. Volunteer coordinator Joy Gleason reported that all 500-plus turkey dinners were distributed, in a more or less orderly fashion, in about 90 minutes, in spite of that guy who got out of his car and danced. She expects LMTS to do it this way from now on.

“The drive-through distributions were a product of the pandemic, but they actually are so much more efficient that now it’s sort of becoming a norm for large scale distribution,” Gleason said. “It’s something absolutely no one would have thought of without the pandemic.”

In 2020, LMTS temporarily closed its food pantry and delivered food packages to seniors and people in need. The Community Foundation helped the nonprofit buy a van.

“They discovered a range of people for whom it was a burden to come to the pantry, because they were sick, lacked transportation, or they were students who couldn’t make it to the pantry,” Hales of the Community Foundation said. “They’ve pivoted to making food delivery a part of what they do, not as a short-term solution, but permanently.”

In 2020 and 2021, federal and state bans on eviction helped keep homelessness down, with the help of a creative and unprecedented housing solution.

“The moratoriums served their purpose very well,” Hufnagel said. “The number of people who went into homelessness in Michigan actually fell in 2020.”

At the height of the pandemic, however, cramped rows of shelter beds were untenable. 

“We had to find creative ways to find emergency housing,” Hufnagel said. “We placed people in temporary housing in hotels and motels.” It was the height of lockdown, when hotels and motels were empty.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Hufnagel said. “It was a win-win.”

Kelley Kuhn of the Michigan Nonprofit Association has seen a lot of creative adaptation in the past year and a half. Virtual fundraising events are drawing in donors who can’t make it to in-person events, including seniors and people with medical conditions, along with Lansing-area expatriates and well-wishers from around the country.

“Some nonprofits who thought it was a temporary opportunity are looking into ways to make it permanent,” Kuhn said. “They’ve gotten more comfortable in that virtual space, and they’re even charging, and people are buying virtual tickets and participating in activities on those platforms.”

Small Talk Children’s Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that supports children and families affected by sexual assault in Ingham and Eaton counties, switched to online counseling sessions during the pandemic. The center recently resumed some in-person sessions, but not before learning an unexpected lesson: Some children felt more comfortable, and engaged more, sitting in their rooms, talking with a counselor via Zoom, than going to a counseling room in a strange facility.

The Community Foundation helped Forster Woods, an adult day care center in Williamston, get iPads and other technology so family members could check in on clients in lieu of in-person visits.

“As we start to come out of this — I hope — that same technology will allow people who are out of town, or family members who don’t live here, to stay connected with Grandma, or whoever, in ways they couldn’t do before,” Hales said.

Most arts nonprofits have little interest in going virtual. For them, the return to live events, even if it is hedged with lingering COVID caution, is cause for pure celebration.

But the pandemic also spawned hundreds of online concerts, plays, poetry readings and other events that stretched their boundaries of local arts organizations and reached people live concerts couldn’t have reached.

Inventive chamber concerts and solo “basement” shout-outs from top players opened up new avenues of expression for the Lansing Symphony Orchestra. 

“The idea of going back to the way it was is not so interesting, even if it were possible,” LSO executive director Courtney Millbrook said. “If this is our chance to reimagine things, let’s take it. We see people doing that in their careers, their relationships, their personal lives, and this is a good time for organizations to do that, too.”

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