Partners in a Pandemic
The Initiative Foundation and its hosted Partner Funds are helping regional businesses and nonprofits survive the stresses of the COVID-19 outbreak.
By Gene Rebeck | Photography by John Linn
Before the pandemic, the Three Rivers Community Foundation (TRCF) provided grants to a variety of recipients, from a local youth marching band to several after-school programs to homeless shelters, all in a geographic area that includes the cities of Elk River, Otsego, Rogers and Zimmerman.
That focus changed when COVID-19 arrived. The board quickly switched focus to fund the immediate needs of the communities it serves. Board members altered their usual grant process, which occurs over the summer, in favor of immediate emergency relief. As a result, TRCF prioritized its grants to answer the hardships resulting from the pandemic, with a primary emphasis on local food shelves and child care providers. While the foundation traditionally gives money to efforts that promote food security, they “gave more this year, and sooner, because the need was greater, and was needed right away,” said Mark Peterson, TRCF board chair.
When Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced a statewide emergency on March 13, government agencies and nonprofits quickly launched financial relief efforts to respond to the pandemic. On March 18, the Initiative Foundation established the Central Minnesota Emergency Relief and Recovery Fund, which it seeded with $20,000. Additional support for the relief fund was provided by the Minnesota Council on Foundations and its Disaster Recovery Fund for Coronavirus, and the generosity of numerous nonprofit organizations and individual donors. By June 30, the end of the second quarter, the Initiative Foundation and its Partner Funds had disbursed 320 grants worth nearly $700,000 to provide local relief. And the effort is ongoing.
Community Philanthropy Manager Kate Bjorge said Initiative Foundation-hosted Partner Funds are an extension of the Foundation’s mission to build a thriving economy, vibrant communities and a lasting culture of generosity throughout Central Minnesota. During normal times, these funds mirror the Initiative Foundation’s efforts to make grants to nonprofits, schools and local units of government. That great work continues. However, in times of declared disaster, those restrictions can be lifted and grants can be made to small businesses as long as there is a charitable purpose.
The Initiative Foundation has routed some of its emergency resource funds through its Partner Funds, and it has helped some of those funds set up highly localized relief efforts of their own to help donors more directly support their communities. “This was our way of taking a hyperlocal approach,” Bjorge said. “We wanted to get shared resources to the communities and allow those local stakeholders and community members to decide how the funds should be used to provide more immediate relief to both nonprofits and small businesses.”
The Partner Fund relief funds were set up primarily through calls—via Zoom—that Bjorge initiated to engage local advisory board members as they adjusted to the new COVID-19 reality. “They were starting from a strong place because they already had a model for raising funds as well as getting those funds deployed immediately in their community,” said Bjorge.
Though the COVID-19 outbreak was a unique emergency, the Initiative Foundation could draw on models it had used when helping communities respond to past disasters, including the Wadena tornado of 2010 and the 2016 Melrose fire. The teams moved swiftly to set their strategies and to create dedicated GiveMN donation pages and grant application forms to raise funds and disburse grants.
One local effort that has used these tools is the Milaca Area Emergency Relief Fund, established by the Rum River Community Foundation. Dave Dillan, the community foundation’s board chair, said the relief fund has awarded 25 grants averaging around $1,000 to help support senior dining, restaurants, bars, hair salons and more.
“COVID-19 came on so fast that people weren’t prepared,” Dillan said. “The state and federal programs are great, but they have a lot of paperwork and a long wait time. The Initiative Foundation was able to turn these applications around quickly. So it gave people at least a little something to hang on.” While the relief grants couldn’t fulfill nonprofits’ entire funding needs, the hope was that they could provide temporary relief that could hold them over until they could access other sources of support, including the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Helping local businesses also was the impetus behind the Staples Motley Area Community Foundation’s Pandemic Relief Fund. “Small businesses are such an important part of our community,” said Katie Heppner, the community foundation’s board chair, “so we thought that this would be a great way to support our local businesses.”
To establish its relief fund, the Staples Motley Area Community Foundation donated money from its own endowment. It also raised $17,670 from local donors. “That really showcases the community’s support for small businesses,” Heppner said. The fund has provided grants of up to $2,000 to more than 20 area businesses.
“These are Band-Aid® grants,” Heppner said. Still, she hopes “they’ve been helpful getting some bills paid and therefore one less thing for these businesses to have to worry about.”
The Three Rivers Community Foundation (TRCF) took a different approach in its COVID-19 relief funding when it shifted to emergency needs.
In addition to supporting local food shelves, TRCF presented grants to area homeless shelters, including Open Doors for Youth in Elk River and Granny’s Closet, which is an Elk River provider of clothing for seniors. All told, it donated COVID-related grants to 10 area organizations. The community foundation still has “a few dollars left,” board chair Peterson said, in case more pandemic-related help is required.
During the first half of the year, TRCF also partnered with Sherburne County to establish the Sherburne County Outdoor Capacity Relief Fund, which helped local restaurants and bars with the extra financial burden of setting up outdoor serving and dining spaces.
“This effort allowed all of us—the Initiative Foundation, the Three Rivers Community Foundation and Sherburne County—to work together and make a meaningful contribution,” Bjorge said. “We were able to leverage our partnerships while giving local nonprofits and local businesses one more tool in their fight for survival.”