Creative cooperation in the age of COVID-19

0
30

PAUL K. HARRAL

pharral@bizpress.net

If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic for Fort Worth and Tarrant County, it is this:

Our governments, nonprofits, foundations and chambers of commerce have learned that they can cooperate in ways never before considered and they can do it quickly, efficiently and under pressure without fear of eroding their own missions and bases of support.

It started earlier, but March 24 officially was the date Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams all called on people to stay home except for essential  businesses to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

What happened next was nothing short of spectacular.

Fort Worth prides itself on cooperative approaches to problem solving but individual organizations have their own agenda and missions. Nonprofits need to raise funds and recruit board members and volunteers.

Monique Barber, chief executive officer of Sixty and Better Inc., says it is appropriate that individual organizations believe that their mission is important.

“However, in the past few weeks, the magnitude of the impact this pandemic event has on humanity has brought many nonprofit leaders and the community that supports us to a humbling space, an environment in which we have acknowledged our shortcomings, individually, and recognize that we are more powerful and will be more resilient in the days to come if we work collectively and collaboratively,” Barber said.

“Disaster has a way of pulling people together in fresh ways. We lay aside unessential things to focus on the urgent and important,” says Kara Waddell, president and CEO of Child Care Associates.

Several key agencies involved in the effort have relatively new leadership – United Way of Tarrant County, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth and Tarrant Area Food Bank – but executives long in place in other organizations are equally creative in responding to the challenges.

“COVID has made cooperation imperative,” says Rose Bradshaw, president and CEO of North Texas Community Foundation. “Nonprofit board chairs and executive directors are navigating a lot of unchartered territory, and they recognize that they will not be successful if they operate in isolation.”

And, to a level unprecedented in any recent history, they are cooperating in dealing with an issue that affects virtually everyone in Tarrant County.

FOOD INSECURITY

“When food insecurity became such a big issue in recent weeks due to the COVID-19 crisis, we started talking to other organizations in the community about how we could respond to that need,” said Carla Jutson, president and CEO of Meals On Wheels Inc. of Tarrant County.

Meals on Wheels has a large kitchen and can produce a lot of meals and teamed with the Tarrant Area Food Bank, United Way and the Area Agency on Aging of Tarrant County and Catholic Charities Fort Worth to launch a collaborative new program to provide lifesaving meals for any Tarrant County resident age 60 plus who is food insecure.

Jutson said the normal Meals on Wheels program is available for people who are homebound and physical or mentally unable to prepare meals for themselves. But the new program is for people able to cook but who need food to prepare.

Catholic Charities Fort Worth has a large fleet of vans and drivers that usually provide transportation for people but were idle during the stay-at-home orders, a good solution for distributing the food for this new program, Jutson said.

“So in the end, Meals On Wheels is providing five frozen meals per week, Tarrant Area Food Bank is pitching in a 15-pound bag of senior-friendly canned goods and fresh produce and Catholic Charities Fort Worth is delivering the food to the front doors of those in need,” she said.

“Was this program innovative? Absolutely! Was it collaborative? Without a doubt. Was it the first time we’ve worked with other charitable organizations?  Not at all,” Jutson said. “People might be surprised at the level of collaboration that takes place on an ongoing basis in our community.”

RE-GIFTING A GRANT

But wait, there’s more to this story.

Julie Butner became president and CEO of the food bank in January and also cites the collaboration with Meals on Wheels and Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. She also mentions a partnership with the Cowtown Marathon.

Tarrant Area Food Bank needed extra space to pack emergency food boxes for the community.

“Cowtown Marathon executive director Heidi Swartz stepped up and offered their facility just one block away from Tarrant Area Food Bank for the duration. For as long as we needed it without charging us a penny for it,” Butner said.

She says that during the crisis, agencies are working together in ways that perhaps they wouldn’t have considered doing in the past.

In the past Tarrant Area Food Bank and the Community Food Bank would have been considered competitors, but the mission is the same. Both are trying to feed those who are hungry.

Her organization is helping Community Food Bank upgrade its facilities to create a larger support service area for both organizations.

“We are re-gifting a grant that we received from one of our foundation donors to Community Food Bank. By upgrading their facilities, we will be able to store food in their facility. That helps Tarrant Area Food Bank with our overflow, and also Community Food Bank will be able to provide higher quality food to the community members that come to them as a pantry,” Butner said.

20 YEARS TO MODERNIZE

Bradshaw turns philosophical.

“I would argue that at the dawn of any new century, it seems to take 20 years to catch up – to apply present day ingenuity and technological strategies to address the problems at hand,” she said. “That’s what we’re seeing today. Many of our models of service delivery were largely unchanged since the 1980s. The world has changed, and it’s time to up our game.

Bradshaw says the collaboration did not happen overnight but follows a decade during which leading agencies have been working across sectors to develop, execute and scale their services.

“Many executive directors and fundraisers have cultivated consultative relationships with their funders that aren’t just about money. They have become problem-solving partners, having two-way conversations about how to move beyond treating the symptoms to addressing root causes,” she said.

“By the time COVID hit, funders knew the key players, were well-informed about their strategies and could appreciate the special burdens of operating in this new environment, resulting in quicker turn-around time for getting grants out the door,” Bradshaw said.

“We have also seen a lot of collaboration and coordination among our fundholders and the private foundations in town, and that didn’t happen overnight either. Local funders have been getting together for years to share ideas and learn from one another,” she said.

SERVICES TO THE HOMELESS

Toby Owen, who has been CEO of the Presbyterian Night Shelter since 2009, says within the homeless community the organizations involved have always worked well together but more so since COVID-19.”

“Everyone has really been focused on helping those experiencing homelessness but also supporting one another.  It has been everyone – the City of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, JPS, Texas Workforce, MHMR, the health department, and of course all of the nonprofits. It’s an honor to work with such great people,” Owen said.

The local Continuum of Care (CoC) board has developed a well thought out community plan that has made the difference.

“This body is made up of a mixture of private and public organizations with the  purpose of improving the system for those experiencing homelessness,” he said, “It has been a wonderful experience to see so many involved with the focus on helping our neighbors.”

Lauren King with the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition echoes Owen’s comments.

“Our spirit of cooperation has been highlighted and is easy to see during this crisis but was alive and well prior to COVID-19. Since we have agreed on our community-wide strategic plan, partners are thoughtful about how they fit into the plan, what they have to offer as an agency and how they can contribute to our community vision,” King said.

She will become executive director of TCHC effective June 1.

“The real answer about what changed was trust. The Homeless Coalition and the CoC had to regain trust with our partners and with the community, letting them know that we were here to support and plan and move our community forward. But there also had to be an acknowledgment that we could only move forward with them,” she said. “Now that trust exists and we have that solid foundation, we are able to be agile, supporting innovation and system improvement.

LEARNING CORE COMPETENCIES

Leah King has been president and CEO of United Way of Tarrant County since November 2019 and says that one result of the COVID-19 response is that agencies are forced to recognize their core competencies.

“As a result, it makes it very easy to know that during a crisis, one need not try to stretch your team beyond what their current capabilities are,” King said.

That allows agencies to reach out to others that are better positioned to carry out the mission: helping people in the community who are struggling.

“We’ve got to be smart enough to hand it off to somebody else. It doesn’t mean anything negative against the organization. It, frankly, in my opinion means that you’re wise enough to know that you may not be best suited to get this handled.

“We’ve got to get our resources deployed as quickly as possible. If that’s best handled through another organization, so be it. There is no shame in saying this is not what we can do well, we’ve got to pass it off to someone else,” King said.

CHILDCARE AS AN EXAMPLE

During the quarantine period – and in the aftermath in the reopening – childcare for essential workers and other became a priority.

“Disaster has a way of pulling people together in fresh ways. We lay aside unessential things to focus on the urgent and important,” said Kara Waddell is president-CEO of Child Care Associates.

“In the first days after the declared state of emergency, I hopped on a call with our data lead, a university partner and a foundation, and we quickly envisioned a way to pull off a parent-facing platform to help essential workers find available childcare.”

The setup involved physically calling more than 1,100 childcare providers in a matter of days,

“We re-tasked classroom mentors reassigned to working from home across three organizations – Child Care Associates, CampFire and Educational First Steps – who support early education teachers in 700 early learning classrooms across schools and childcare centers,” Waddell said.

Child Care Associates entered data into a secure platform that was built in one day, and launched http://find.bestplace4kids.com, which guided thousands of essential workers to childcare.

“And we paid 100% of care for three months for over 1,100 children. This platform was inspiration for the State of Texas who launched a statewide childcare ‘find’ function – basically using the same platform we launched in Tarrant,” Waddell said. “Today this platform is now open for all working parents, guiding them to over 9,000 open, available childcare slots as families return to work.”

SERVE FIRST; FIGURE OUT FINANCES LATER

Michael P. Grace became president at Catholic Charities in Spring 2019 after what he describes as 25 years of serial entrepreneurship.

“COVID-19 has brought unprecedented collaboration among nonprofits, foundations, city and county officials and the community at large. The entire community has come together in the spirit of ‘find a way to serve first and figure out the finances later.’ If there can be a silver lining, I think the global impacts of this give a sense of local duty, mutual protection and benefit, and the good will to look out for all of our neighbors,” Grace said.

As evidence, he said Catholic Charities is working closely with the Tarrant Area Food Bank and Meals on Wheels, among others, “doing things we hadn’t planned on doing mere months ago, but we all knew instinctively were exactly what we needed to do when the needs arose.”

“Our part to play in those partnerships had much to do with some of our internal teams trying to be innovative about how to best utilize our transportation fleet once things began to slow down,” Grace said. “It really is remarkable what opportunities present themselves when you are looking to do the most good with whatever resources you have.”

UNPRECEDENTED IMPACT

Brandom Gengelbach, president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce says COVID-19 has impacted daily life on an unprecedented scale.

“But it has also given us a common cause to rally to. Fort Worth has a tremendous sense of community and we have seen our community come together over the last several weeks to help those who need it most,” he said.

“From a chamber perspective, we share a need to support our small business community during this time with the Hispanic Chamber and the Metropolitan Black Chamber, as well the City and Visit Fort Worth,” Gengelbach said. “By coming together, we have been able to amplify our impact. Looking ahead, I am excited to continue this close collaboration and partnership for the greater benefit of Fort Worth.”

The foundation for a more unified community approach started in 2017 when the chamber and the city’s Economic Development Department signed a memorandum of understanding for economic development in Fort Worth, and then with the Metropolitan Black Chamber and Hispanic Chamber as well as Visit Fort Worth, he said.

“That knowledge will make it easier to come together again as we try to recover and grow our economy. There will always be competition for funding and resources, but I anticipate that we will continue to use creative problem solving when issues do arise,” Gengelbach said.

“This crisis has given us an opportunity to build trust and credibility in a very condensed time frame. It has forced us to bypass the usual red tape and protocols that would delay our ability to deliver resources quickly. Will we all move back toward a ‘business as usual’ model after COVID? Yes, most likely. But we have proven that we can come together, with equal seats at the table, and build something bigger,” he said.

“Our teams meet on a weekly basis ​to stay informed on upcoming projects and initiatives. ​We are transparent about our challenges/issues and lean-in if needed. ​This open dialog has helped us overcome barriers and you are seeing the results of these efforts during COVID-19,” Gengelbach said.

At the time, said Anette Landeros, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the chambers had no idea how timely and necessary that commitment would be once crisis hit in 2020.

“Over the last three months, our chambers have been working directly with our city partners, promoting each other’s initiatives to the benefit of our own members, and partnering on various initiatives to put resources in the hands of our small business owners,” Landeros  said.

“Together we’re working hard to meet the needs of our greater business community and get our local economy back on its feet,” Landeros said.

Devoyd Jennings, president & CEO of the Metropolitan Black Chamber, also referenced the memorandum as a significant step.

He did say that he hoped the COVID-19 pandemic would not interfere with work on the city’s Race and Culture initiative, a part of which dealt with employment in key positions both public and private.

CRISES CUTS THROUGH BUREAUCRACY

Kathryn Jacob, president and CEO of SafeHaven of Tarrant County, runs the county’s only state-designated family violence center, operates the county’s only domestic violence shelters and hotline, and operates many other exclusive pieces of programming, specific to domestic violence.

“We have long worked with Alliance for Children as a partner – we both deal with issues of violence and abuse. But now it feels like we’re in a battleship together. We both know cases are rising. We’re being creative about solutions to those cases,” Jacob said.

She said domestic violence is on the rise and Tarrant County has experienced more presumed intimate partner violence homicides in the last 10 weeks than it would normally see in 10 months.

Working in a crisis has a way of cutting through obstacles and bureaucracy.

“I do not have time to play games with other CEOs now for attention. Since SafeHaven provides a lifesaving, essential service, I have been pulling 12-hour days regularly since the beginning of Tarrant County’s stay-at-home order,” Jacob said.

“I can only speak for SafeHaven, but I’m sure that others who offer these extremely essential services right now simply don’t have the capacity – time, energy, brain bandwidth – to keep tabs on the competition,” she said.

The impetus for the current level of innovative cooperation can be summed up with one word.

“Crisis. Crisis has made this possible. We keep saying, at SafeHaven, that since the start of all this so many things that were once nebulous, once subtle, once arguable either way through a gray space, many of those things have become so clear. Who is essential? Who is not?  What services are lifesaving? What are not?” Jacob said.

“The same is true at our agencies. Superstar staff rise to the top while others fall behind.  It has become clear, in very specific ways, where we intersect with other agencies and where other relationships are not critical to our mission.

“It sounds crass, but again, in a space and environment that evolves sometimes by the hour, a leader has to be decisive and strong and forward-focused. There is no time for fluff or nuance or ego,” Jacob said.

Todd M. Morris Liles is executive director and trustee of The Morris Foundation.

“Over the past several weeks, the Fort Worth philanthropic and nonprofit community has responded to the needs of the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis with an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach,” Liles said.

“Fort Worth is a large city, but it retains its historic small town, help thy neighbor, relationship-driven culture.  Perhaps never before has this culture been more evident than in our response during the pandemic quarantine,” Liles said.

RETHINKING THE TRADITIONAL

Barber said nonprofit leaders are rethinking traditional partnerships and agreements and the way they do business.

“Innovation and new thought leaders are working together to be creative and forward-thinking in our approach to the future. As well, we are being nimble and swift in our reactions in the present,” she said.

“No one entity can change the course of history and the impact on humanity doing the work alone. The issues we address through pursuit of our missions are far-reaching, spanning across generations, and transverse diverse socio-economic groups. We are realizing that the possibility for maximum impact on the community and achievement of our individual missions requires cross-sectional teams and playmakers,” Barber said.

“Resiliency, hope, and change will be the keys that open the doors of unknown possibilities, foster purpose, independence, and dignity of older adults, create synergy and connectedness in our communities, and help us discover the true spirit of philanthropy,” Barber said.

Reaction to the quarantine was rapid.

“Within a matter of days after COVID hit, local funders came together to develop North Texas Cares, a grants portal where nonprofits can record their COVID related needs in one spot for the foundations to review instead of having to file individual applications all over town,” Bradshaw said.

Over the past two months, North Texas Community Foundation donors have made grants of more than $2 million for COVID-19 relief, local private foundations have granted more than $7.2 million, and North Texas Giving Day donors contributed $2.5 million to help Tarrant County-based agencies handle the surge in demand for services.  PPP loans are providing temporary relief.

“That said, the cancelation of fundraising galas will strain nonprofits’ finances, capacity, and resources in the months, and possibly years, to come.  As a community, we need to figure out how to meet the critical funding needs at hand while simultaneously supporting longer-term recovery.” Bradshaw said.

For some agencies, program demands were beyond their capacity while others were unable to deliver services to their clients because of social distancing and other complications presented by the COVID-19 virus.

“The most effective among them are staying focused on their mission, shedding outmoded ways of operating and re-envisioning the delivery of services with 21st century tools, resources and know-how,” Bradshaw said.

Agencies were problem solving in real time.

­– ACH Child and Family Services, Alliance for Children, Cook Children’s, FWPD’s Crimes against Children Unit and the Department of Family and Protective Services collaborated on a Child Abuse Identification and Prevention Initiative to protect vulnerable children who have lost the protective layer provided by teachers, coaches and after-school programs.

– Meals on Wheels, Sixty and Better, Catholic Charities and Tarrant Area Food Bank have figured out how to navigate these difficult new circumstances and provide nutritious meals to isolated seniors.

– United Way of Tarrant County is coordinating the distribution of free PPE to local nonprofits.

– Child Care Associates, Camp Fire, Educational First Steps and Boys & Girls Club are providing quality childcare to first responders.

– Best Place for Kids and Workforce Solutions have developed an employment platform to redeploy furloughed workers.

“Many of these strategies were long overdue, and we need to make sure they remain in place post COVID,” Bradshaw said.

LEADERSHIP IS KEY

King said new leaders in place played a part in the response although there’s nothing negative to say about previous leaders who did not have to operate in a global pandemic but did deal with emergencies like hurricanes, tornadoes and similar issues. But the community impact of those emergencies did not reach the magnitude of COVID-19 on the local community.

“There’s not a single entity or individual within our community that isn’t touched by this in some form or fashion. It requires all of us to be working together. And fortunately, we all have great relationships and are forming greater relationships through this to help one another and ultimately to be able to help the community,” King said.

Some say this is the new normal, but the old normal wasn’t so good for some people.

“There were already too many people that were struggling with hunger. There were already too many people who were afraid of whether they would have to choose between paying utility or paying their rent. There were already too many people in Tarrant County that needed our help. That normal wasn’t good enough,” King said.

“We all know where we stand today with unemployment and uncertainty in our economy. Our new normal needs to be head and shoulders above where we were before. And I’m confident that if we continue to work together, that we can get there,” King said.

Bradshaw put it another way.

“COVID lays bare realities that existed pre-pandemic. Too many local families have inadequate housing, insecure employment and limited access to educational and professional attainment opportunities. These are our problems to solve – together.  Let’s get to work,” she said.

END STORY