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Pikes Peak United Way gave away backpacks and school supplies.

Pikes Peak-area nonprofits have been busier than ever in recent months as they try to meet a tsunami of need caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agency budgets are stretched, demand for assistance is through the roof and many organizations have to offer entirely new services to meet their clients’ most pressing needs.

To understand the challenges nonprofits are facing, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation — which works with local nonprofits  — recently commissioned a survey.

Published at the end of June, it found that 72 percent of 236 responding nonprofits in El Paso and Teller counties reported that they have less than one year’s liquid assets, and almost 70 percent reported having budgets under $1 million.

Most organizations reported that their staffing levels have not changed and said they had no plans for layoffs, but 20 percent said they’ve already had to reduce staff, and 44 percent of those have also had to cut services.

Most funding sources and budgets have also seen reductions, and while non-grant funding options are generally unpopular with nonprofits, 38 percent expressed interest in acquiring low- or no-interest loans.

Lori Bellingham, the vice president of philanthropic services for PPCF, says that in a typical environment, nonprofits tend to rely on individual gifts or grants for their funding.

Grant funding is always highly competitive, she says, and COVID-19 relief grants have been no exception.

Several nonprofits also generate large portions of their funding by hosting events, Bellingham says, many of which have been postponed or canceled due to the pandemic.

And funding is being stretched further than ever as nonprofits provide services outside their usual offerings.

“Organizations may have begun providing services that they never planned to before, perhaps becoming a food pantry, or providing toothbrushes or providing for the immediate needs of their community,” Bellingham says. “So they’re trying to meet unexpected needs at this time … and those are translating into many different expenses at a time when their revenue may be challenged.”

Funding for unexpected services or expenditures was one of the top five current needs identified by survey respondents. The others were the ability to acquire safety and personal protective equipment, provide appropriate technology, meet payroll, and purchase supplies.

In El Paso and Teller counties — where nonprofits sustain more than 21,500 jobs and $2 billion in annual direct spending — some organizations are likely to close before the end of the pandemic because of their financial constraints.

But every nonprofit is different. Some have weathered the storm better than others. 

Bellingham says organizations that make it through the pandemic will do so with a clearer understanding of their core businesses, allowing them to emerge with new resiliency.

“They will have to look at their financial health, they will have to look at the core services they provide and they’ll align all of that to be a healthier organization three years from now,” she says.

Joanna Wise, director of marketing and communications for Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, says the organization has seen an unprecedented increase in the need for food.

It distributed 38 percent more food during the first four months of the pandemic than it did over those same months in 2019.

From the beginning of March to the end of June, Care and Share distributed 8.5 million pounds of donated food in southern Colorado counties, with nearly 67,000 pounds donated through its mobile market and nearly 23,000 pounds in COVID emergency food bags.

Before the pandemic, hunger was already a daily challenge for southern Coloradans, Wise says. Care and Share estimated one out of every nine people faced food insecurity. 

Now, they estimate that number is closer to one out of every six.

Most of the food that Care and Share distributes is donated by retailers, manufacturers, food rescue programs and local and national farmers. But certain essentials, like peanut butter, must sometimes be purchased.

“We’re finding, like any other person who is going to the grocery store, that there’s not as much supply for certain foods,” Wise says. “The impact is in the timing of how long it takes to get the food to the food bank. And then there’s also the cost — it’s costing us twice as much now to be able to purchase peanut butter.”

Fortunately, the organization has seen a significant increase in donations during the pandemic.

Wise says they saw “waves of supporters” when the pandemic first hit Colorado, supplying both food and monetary donations.

Care and Share is likely to see a greater demand in coming months. Congress has yet to pass a second COVID-19 stimulus package, and the additional $600 in unemployment benefits implemented through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act expired July 31. 

Schools delaying openings, Wise says, and potential school closures down the line present other obstacles.

“Those are things that we’re having to evaluate over the next few months to see with that increase in need, what do we have to do to be able to serve those kids and families?” Wise says. “We anticipate that even once we can say that the pandemic is over, that the recovery efforts will be much longer than that.” 

In the Pikes Peak region, more than 50,000 people have filed for unemployment during the pandemic and the phones at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center have been ringing off the hook.

Traci Marques, PPWFC’s executive director and CEO, says pre-pandemic, it received about 20 calls per day. In recent weeks, they’ve seen a daily call volume as high as 300.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Marques says much of PPWFC’s activity involved consulting with businesses on layoff-aversion strategies, which they still do. 

But more recently, they have been more involved in answering unemployment questions.

The workforce center, which is the American Jobs Center for El Paso and Teller counties, has shifted some of its workshops to a virtual platform.

Using relief funds from El Paso County, they also opened a temporary location on North Academy Boulevard in a large space that provides the technological tools jobseekers need to search for employment and compile résumés, while still accommodating social distancing.

Its permanent office on Garden of the Gods Road could handle about six socially distanced people at a time, and the new space can accommodate more than 50.

The temporary office is leased through December, but the lease could be extended into next year, Marques says.

The bulk of the center’s funding comes from the U.S. Department of Labor and is determined by a 20-year allocation formula, and has remained stable. 

Marques says the organization has had to hire nine new employees to handle the increased demand.

“The [new employees] are really important because the people that we’re seeing coming into our doors that need help with job-search assistance and job coaching are able to work one-on-one with someone to coach them into another job or help them discover what they want to do next,” Marques says.

Long-term, it’s unclear how the pandemic will affect the workforce, and the American Job Centers that help keep people working.

“It truly is anyone’s guess,” Marques says. “In terms of what resources are not only going to be available now for the immediate need, but what are the long-term effects this is going to have on our workforce?

“Those are some of the things that we’re talking about with our community partners to help shed some light on.”

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Some area nonprofits are combining resources to meet the community’s needs.

 

Pikes Peak United Way has been “busier than we’ve ever been,” says CEO Cindy Aubrey.

The organization is still focused on fundraising and hosting some of its usual philanthropic programs like its annual back-to-school giveaway, the Backpack Bash, but has undergone major shifts during the pandemic.

United Way is bolstering the efforts of nonprofits that provide essential services like rent and utilities assistance, and providing some relief for the El Paso County’s Emergency Operations Center by fielding all of the calls for El Paso County Public Health through the 2-1-1 hotline.

Aubrey says they’ve received thousands of calls in recent months and that call volume for the 2-1-1 line has grown by 200 percent.

“We have added to our 2-1-1 staff, increased food distributions, delivered food to homes with a team of other nonprofits and are working with El Paso County to distribute $1 million in CARES funding for local nonprofits,” Aubrey says.

The organization relies heavily on volunteers, and though Aubrey says they’ve seen a decline in participation, people do continue to offer their support. The organization takes strict precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, requiring masks, social distancing and symptom checks for all volunteers.

So far, United Way’s funding has not been significantly affected by the pandemic, but that could change. They’re currently gearing up for their 2020-21 fundraising campaign.

But despite the numerous challenges posed by the pandemic, Aubrey says many nonprofits and churches have been stepping up to the plate and doing “extraordinary work.”

“These organizations could not do the work they do without help from the community,” she says. “We have helped many people who were ashamed to ask for help — but didn’t know where else to turn.”