With an unprecedented demand for services, the Urban League and Coburn Place outline plans to support critical community needs, employees and partnerships

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

“Unprecedented.” That’s the word that immediately comes to mind for many Central Indiana nonprofit leaders in addressing the new challenges in carrying out their mission in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And many of those experiences are now critical in shaping how nonprofits are shaping plans to operate in 2022, including new ways to approach donors, addressing employee burnout and collaborating with other nonprofits, according to two local nonprofit CEOs.

The Urban League of Indianapolis, which promotes economic empowerment among underserved communities through education, job training and workforce development, unexpectedly entered into new terrain during the pandemic, according to Tony Mason, CEO and president. 

“At the onset of the pandemic, we started receiving calls from the senior living communities who were concerned about how their residents were going to get food,” Mason recalled.

After connecting some of the senior living communities to Gleaners, Second Helpings and other food banks, Mason assumed that request had been fulfilled. The team continued to focus on how to shift its operations to a virtual format. 

“But the calls kept coming in,” Mason said. “And they were coming from citizens. We had to do something.”

As a result, the Mason conferred with the rest of the Urban League team about launching a plan to operate as a drive-through food and resource distribution center. Assuming that the drive-through operations would only last a couple of months, the team decided it would serve as a good opportunity to engage and connect with the community while meeting an urgent need, Mason recalled. 

However, by the end of 2021, the Urban League  had continued to provide the service for more than 80 consecutive weeks, at times distributing food to up to 900 households each week, Mason said.

For Rachel Scott, president and CEO of Coburn Place, those challenges included serving an increasing number of victims of domestic violence, a trend that was reflected nationally and globally in response to lockdowns.

“We were inundated with new clients due to an unprecedented increase in domestic violence,” Scott said. “This meant not only hiring and training new staff, but redefining how we serve survivors. We were already set up for mobile advocacy, but suddenly that was all we had. Our staff had to be creative. They did intakes by phone with abusers in the next room because meeting at a coffee shop wasn’t an option.”

Adjusting to growing domestic violence needs

At the same time, Coburn’s development team was forced to turn away donations.

“For the development team, the in-kind donations we rely on to furnish safe homes for families disappeared because we could no longer have people dropping off items in our building, and of course, we couldn’t accommodate our regular volunteers,” Scott said. 

“We produced volunteer opportunities people could do virtually and found other ways to make up for the loss of in-kind donations. We found that many of the things we did because we had to are things we will continue — creative advocacy, engaging volunteers remotely, virtual support groups and new partnerships.”

The team also relied on innovation to meet needs.

One of the answers to meeting the needs of domestic violence survivors was to develop individualized housing safety plans during the lockdown, Scott said. “We worked with other organizations to create solutions for survivors, like hotel stays so they could get to safety immediately,” she recalled. “Our support groups went to a virtual format.”

While delivering programming is critical, it also is important to focus on internal needs, Scott said.

“Nearly every nonprofit organization that provides direct services to the community was pushed to the brink of its capacity in the last two years. We need to prioritize the well-being of nonprofit staff so we can continue to give our best to the people we serve,” Scott said. “That likely means addressing the mission creep many of us have experienced during this time. We all need to step back and make sure we are the best option for clients and, if they would be better served elsewhere, work with other organizations to make sure their needs are met.”

From the perspective of the Urban League, one of the most critical developments from the pandemic has been the formation of collaborative partnerships, Mason said.

“We established partnerships with some of our neighborhood-based, grassroots organizations, such as CircleUp, MD, Before You Fall, Purpose of Life, and Ministries of the Street,” he said. “We had about 10 to 12 organizations which would, from week to week, would come and would also pick up resources and take them back to their congregations or to people in the neighborhoods. We recognized that everyone can’t come down here.

“In some ways, it became an important part of what we’re doing because it positioned us to where we were collaborating more and with emerging and existing grassroots neighborhood-based organizations that would have probably in the past not considered being connected to us.”

Mason said those relationships will continue to be instrumental in meeting the needs of the community in 2022 and beyond.

“It allowed me and my team to better understand who else is out there on the ground doing this work, people who are committed to it,” he said. “People need help 24/7. It doesn’t change. We have pockets of poverty all over the city. Poverty is everywhere. So it’s important to have  this level of connectivity and be in relationships with groups that are doing this work all over the city.”

Scott also said it is important to be transparent when talking to donors. “See and speak the truth about where you are as an organization — not just what seems impressive,” she said. “What a donor wants is tangible ways to help and partner, not just have their own egos inflated. Be candid with your closest donors and supporters. Let them partner more deeply by letting them in on the areas where you need help.”