Buffalo Business First  |  August 13, 2021

Roundtable: Nonprofits face down pandemic challenges

Nonprofit Executives

A small group of nonprofit executives from around Buffalo (JOED VIERA)

The region’s nonprofit organizations might have the trickiest adjustment from the pandemic of all sectors because of their unique business model.

Their operations, in many cases, rely on both paid and volunteer staff, earned revenue, government and other grant funding, and generous public donations. Add to the mix the community’s expectation that the organizations will survive the pandemic and continue to provide their essential and popular services.

A panel of leaders from nonprofit organizations from in and around Buffalo gathered to discuss their shared challenges and their plans and hopes to come back to normal, post-pandemic operations in a recent forum hosted by Business First of Buffalo.

Participants were:

  • Renee Filip, president and CEO, Aspire of Western New York
  • Norah Fletchall, president and CEO, Buffalo Zoo
  • Rhonda Frederick, president and CEO, People Inc.
  • Jill Jedlicka, executive director, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
  • Robbie-Ann McPherson, marketing and communications director, ECIDA
  • Sharon Prise Azurin, partner, Phillips Lytle LLP
  • Catherine Roberts, CEO, Resource Council of WNY
  • David Rust, executive director, Say Yes Buffalo
  • Anne Ryan, executive director, Read to Succeed Buffalo
  • Michelle Urbanczyk, CEO, Explore & More Children’s Museum
  • Lynsey Zimdahl Weaver, executive director, Kevin Guest House

The panel discussion was sponsored by Phillips Lytle LLP and the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

Robbie-Ann McPherson, marketing and communications manager, said the ECIDA will continue to support nonprofit organizations. If another state of emergency is declared in New York, the ECIDA will restart its Personal Protective Equipment grant program, which allows a nonprofit organization to be reimbursed up to $10,000 for expenses related to PPE. The agency made $800,000 available in the first round. Also, the ECIDA’s tax-exempt bond financing is available for major capital expansion projects.
“If you want to buy the building you’re in or acquire something new or expand, anything that is related to a capital expansion, you can borrow literally millions of dollars,” McPherson said. “Our business development officer will guide you through the process.”

Nonprofits also have a partner on the legal side. Lawyers in the Phillips Lytle nonprofit team during the pandemic responded to urgent questions posed by the firm’s nonprofit clients, all done amid the swiftly changing information and executive orders, said Azurin, head of the team.

“The urgency was a significant challenge,” she said. “Things often come up, and you have to respond quickly, but it was all those daily changes on the legal side that were certainly impacting our organization.”

Each nonprofit had and continues to have shared Covid-19 related challenges and some that are unique to their mission and client base.

Aspire of Western New York

Aspire has been supporting individuals with developmental disabilities from infancy to end-of-life, for 74 years. The agency supports more than 4,000 people through its group homes, schools and community-based programming and has 1,500 employees. “Whether you’re small or large, the impact of the pandemic came quickly. It was almost like a switch was flipped,” Filip said.

The agency suddenly was engaged in securing personal protective equipment, navigating the state and federal mandates, and communicating with clients and families. “The workforce crisis was a problem prior to the pandemic and now it’s really exacerbated,” Filip said. “It’s not news to anyone, but it’s keeping us up at night.”

Staffing issues put greater pressure on the waitlist for Aspire housing and services, which stands at about 1,400 individuals. The state is trying to encourage providers such as Aspire to provide less-restrictive supportive housing, Filip said, which creates the challenge to evaluate individuals for their ability to be in a less-restrictive environment.

Buffalo Zoo

When the Buffalo Zoo closed for 115 days of the pandemic, it lost half of total operating revenue, Fletchall said. About 80% of the facility’s income is drawn from what is generated itself. The 20% generated by government has stayed level for more than 20 years, she said.

Fletchall believes the pandemic will continue, and to withstand the challenges, Zoo staff has developed a recovery plan that spans three years. Despite the turmoil from the pandemic, Fletchall is intent on growing the facilities and keeping to the conservation and education mission of the Zoo.

“We exist to compel people to develop empathy and understanding wildlife and wild places and make choices in their life that will have a positive impact on wildlife and wild places,” she said. “Gone are the days when zoos were just places where you come for the afternoon and stare at an animal.”

People Inc.

It was serendipitous that People Inc., a year or so ahead of the pandemic, assigned its emergency services director to develop a response plan for fires, floods, snowstorms and other crises, so that when the pandemic hit, the organization was ready, Frederick said. At the time, People had 140 group homes for individuals with developmental disabilities.

“They were in quarantine,” Frederick said. “They could not come out. Their families could not come in. The only people in and out were staff. Unfortunately, the state of New York did not recognize us as essential employees, so getting PPE, recognition and celebrations, we didn’t get that.”

Regardless, the staff was incredible in their response to clients, going daily into homes with residents with Covid-19 and supporting group-home families touched by death, Frederick said. Western New York developmental disabilities agencies have a provider association and they worked together, sharing resources and best practices, and even driving to New York City in a caravan to bring back supplies.

Frederick is facing similar staffing challenges as many employers in most industries.

“We can’t close, we can’t raise our prices. There’s very little we can do,” Frederick said. “The majority of agencies have raised the starting rate of the staff. We have no idea how we’re going to cover that in the future.”

People is addressing retention by trying to keep current workers motivated and recruiting others by demonstrating the benefits of a career in health and human services, she said.

Meanwhile, the organization has a lengthy waitlist for housing, Frederick said. To illustrate: There are 600 on the waitlist just for the 93 apartments in its Jefferson Avenue facility.

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper is best known for restoration of the Buffalo River, a 20-year, $100 million project, but the organization’s concerns extend to many other areas of the community that were especially challenged during the 18 months of the pandemic. There were social justice issues, equitable access to natural resources and climate change, Jedlicka said. The massive storms created by climate change, for example, took out major infrastructure on the waterfront, undoing much of Waterkeeper’s past investments of time and money.

“All of this was happening at the same time,” she said. “It was a perfect storm of a lot of things that started to culminate for our work and our mission over the last year and a half.”

She is hopeful that federal infrastructure funds will come into Western New York to fund a comprehensive plan to address not only roadways and bridges but improve water, sewers and multimodal transportation.

Resource Council of Western New York

The Resource Council, a social services agency, opened about six years ago to serve youth, adults, families, senior citizens on the East Side. The range of programs include after-school, tutoring and other youth education, adult education, veteran services, and athletics.

The board took advantage of the closure during the pandemic to regroup and restart with Roberts as the new CEO. She started the lead job June 1.

As the sole employee, Roberts said she is looking forward to hiring staff but is concerned about being able to offer salaries that will attract the best and brightest who will be committed growing the organization.

“The second greatest challenge is making sure that the community we’re serving is safe,” Roberts said. “I know when it’s time to announce that we are ready to serve that community, that we still need to promote the importance of getting vaccinations. Safety is going to be my number one priority, making sure that those individuals from toddlers to seniors are safe.”

Say Yes Buffalo

Say Yes is best known for the college scholarships offered to every high school graduate of Buffalo public and charter schools and increasing high school graduation rates and post-secondary matriculation and completion. The organization also provides services in the city schools and on college campuses, Rust said.

The organization is looking to increase its social services programs, extending hours of mental health clinics, and adding case workers, particularly to address the stresses the pandemic had on families.

A year ago, combined family income for 60% of Say Yes students in Buffalo was $25,000; today that has dropped by 20%, Rust said.

“This has absolutely disproportionately impacted families in the city and their ability to earn and learn,” Rust said. “So, there’s a lot of work to do. The scholarship means nothing if you’re hungry, if you’re not being supported at home, if you’re not wearing proper clothing.”
Say Yes is adding a high-level apprenticeship program in the advanced manufacturing, IT and business operations. Several large employers – M&T Bank, KeyBank, Lowe’s, Wegmans, Rich Products, Tesla and Harmac – have signed up for the first round of students. Highmark is signed up for round two, Rust said.

All those workforce challenges are real. This region is projecting over the next decade 165,000 open jobs, two-thirds of them requiring some level of post-secondary degrees.

“We can help families double their income quickly with a certificate aligned with an apprentice opportunity,” Rust said.

Read to Succeed Buffalo

At Read to Succeed, one of the first worries in March 2020, was for the safety of volunteers working in Buffalo schools and the livelihoods of the organization’s eight staff members, half of whom are women head of households, Ryan said. However, the federal Paycheck Protection Program forestalled layoffs, she said.
“The government kind of reacted well and gave us the ability to do shared work where we could still have people earning a living but justify to the board that we’re spending money responsibly,” Ryan said.

The wider concern extended to the children and teachers in Head Start and the child-care programs and Buffalo public schools served by the program. The program’s workers were considered essential and were among the first to be vaccinated.

The agency was able to use remote conferencing to reach out to students, which had the reciprocal effect of helping volunteers feel less isolated, Ryan said. She anticipates that volunteers and staff will return to in-person teaching in the fall.

Like others, Ryan is hopeful that federal and state aid coming to schools will be distributed wisely.

“How do we make sure that it’s just not spent, but it’s invested?” Ryan said.

Explore & More Children’s Museum

Explore & More was opened just nine months when it was forced to close by the pandemic.

“We didn’t have that operating capital,” Urbanczyk said. “We were in a capital campaign where people made pledges that they couldn’t meet all of sudden. Ninety-eight percent of our budget is self-revenue, meaning no government funds. We have to sing for our supper all the time.”

In February 2020, the museum put together a six-week plan to weather the pandemic, but made it stretch when it became apparent that the shutdown was going to be a long haul. The museum received PPP funding and got creative with job sharing and on and off week-long layoffs.

Cleared to reopen, the museum was at 12% capacity and incrementally increased to the current 70%, a level that will stay for the time being.

Capacity can’t go much higher given the layout of the museum that requires visitors to pass each other frequently, Urbanczyk said. Labor issues are a challenge, she said, and that will mean increasing entry-level pay.

Urbanczyk is concerned about stress levels of museum staff, as well as fatigue for the staff and the all-too-important donors.

Kevin Guest House

Kevin Guest House, the first health-care hospitality house in the country, never shut the doors of its four properties. The properties worked with hospitals to make changes. The biggest challenges were keeping up with the protocols, Weaver said.

“Through this experience we’re probably going to keep a lot of the cleaning protocols in place,” Weaver said. “The expenses of that for a small nonprofit was a lot more than we could normally handle. With fundraising down, we had to find unique ways to support that.”

Though the facilities have been full, they haven’t been at capacity. The hospitals asked Weaver to restrict the capacity at one house because the guests there shared bathrooms, and the guests requested isolated spaces.

“Our mission is you’re together, you’re in a common space with people going through the same things, and sharing a meal, making it feel like a home,” Weaver said. “So, we had to change everything and safely isolate everybody.”

Weaver, too, said staff is spread thin and it is difficult to hire. Another challenge is accommodating the greater space and more privacy that the guests want, which ultimately means less revenue because serving fewer people, Weaver said.