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Thought Leadership Philanthropy

Insights on Emergency Financial Assistance from the COVID-19 Fund

By Mindy Kao, program associate for equity, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

Early last month, over the span of five days, the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund received over 650 grant applications from nonprofits around the metro Atlanta region. These applications highlighted the stories of need among individuals, families and communities impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the myriad of actions that nonprofits have been taking in order to meet those needs. 

Of these applications, 110 were requests for emergency financial assistance-related efforts, aimed at providing financial relief for the thousands of individuals and families experiencing loss of income and difficulty paying rent and other living expenses. These requests totaled nearly $12 million. Last week, we awarded $990,000 in grants toward these efforts.

In the metro Atlanta region, a handful of nonprofit organizations offer emergency financial assistance as a component of their standard services. For example, Buckhead Christian Ministry (BCM) offers a year-round program to individuals and families experiencing crises; this program pays a portion of their rent, mortgage or utility bills in order to help them maintain stable housing. Several organizations with existing programs like BCM’s applied to the COVID-19 Fund to expand their work in this area to meet the increased needs caused by the pandemic.

In reviewing these applications, however, we also received an overwhelming number of requests from nonprofit organizations with little to no experience in providing emergency financial assistance. Some organizations with people-focused missions you might expect, such as churches and disease-specific health organizations. But others, such as animal shelters and recycling programs, were entirely unexpected. 

Several assumptions and theories can be extrapolated from this trend, but an important one is this: the need for cash to cover basic needs goes far beyond what our government has provided, and it’s putting pressure on nonprofits to fill the gap, even if that means entering territory outside of some organizations’ expertise or missions.

When given access to massive amounts of information (like our 657 applications) and asked to sift through them, we would be remiss if we did not take time to reflect on the bigger picture it provides us. I offer a double-edged sword:

  • On the one hand, we see and recognize the importance and deep touch certain organizations have within given populations or communities. This week, we proudly support organizations like Miles for Cystic Fibrosis in its effort to provide emergency financial assistance to people living with cystic fibrosis and the Center for Civic Innovation with its similar support of civic entrepreneurs. Without organizations like these, marginalized and other hard-to-reach populations would be just that much harder to reach.
  • On the other hand, the collective information reveals an incredibly fragmented financial aid support system for cash poor individuals and families living in our region. And when any given support system is fragmented, additional burdens are placed on those seeking help to identify the resources that are available to them. Organizations like ours are grappling with this dynamic and the dual role we play in perpetuating it versus ameliorating it.

While this may not be a novel insight, it underscores how a weak social safety net puts undue pressure on our region’s nonprofits. Solving this systemic problem will require political will and forward thinking at the highest levels. However, there are things that you can do today:

  • Stay informed and advocate for policy to strengthen the safety net for those hardest hit by the pandemic. Did you know that as a result of the pandemic, Georgia has the option to use its unobligated Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reserve funds to provide limited emergency cash assistance to low-income families, and that many advocates are pushing the state to do so? Following state policy and advocacy organizations like the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute is a great way to learn about these policies and how you can plug in.
  • Donate to a nonprofit organization that is providing emergency financial assistance to its clients or constituents. To date, the COVID-19 Fund has awarded over $3 million towards emergency financial assistance efforts, but this only begins to scratch the surface of need for organizations and those they serve. You can find a list of nonprofits that the COVID-19 Fund has supported here (Note: The listed nonprofits reflect all funding needs totaling $17.3 million distributed to date, not just emergency financial assistance. Please read the descriptions to make sure you’ve identified them correctly). 
  • Give cash directly to an individual or family in need. Back in March, writer Roxane Gay announced that via Twitter that she would transfer $100 to 10 people who were struggling to afford groceries and bills using the money-transferring app, Venmo. She ended up supporting 20 people instead. When asked why, Gay responded, “A lot of what people need right now is just cash, no questions asked. I could probably weather this a few months but what about people who can’t?” Sometimes, it’s just as simple as that.

Ensuring that everyone in our region can afford and access the essentials to make it through this pandemic will require all of us. What role will you play?

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    RICHARD HIGGINS May 19, 2020 2:15 pm

    Insightful article. Emergency Financial Assistance in the COVID era is important but everybody wants to be doing it. Who to support, and how to decide?

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