San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom nonprofits refocus to meet basic needs, uncertain future

The Bellingham Food Bank has updated its operations to serve clients during the COVID-19 pandemic, including providing pre-packed food boxes via a no-contact car queue and participating in a home-delivery program coordinated by the Whatcom Unified Command. Above, volunteers load pre-packed boxes to be delivered from locations around the city. (Carlos Rexach photo © 2020)

By Matt Benoit

— For the 375,000 people living in San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties, community foundations and other nonprofits are adapting to provide the most essential services to people affected by COVID-19 and unemployment. Throughout the region, many organizations are seeing dramatic increases in demand. People need help ranging from mortgage and rent relief to mental health support to deliveries of food and medicine.

Most local organizations have been able to serve their clients with minimal restrictions, and many have seen an influx of donations. But if social distancing guidelines persist for many more months, some nonprofits will have to postpone or cancel the fundraisers vital to their sustainability.

Fortunately, community organizations throughout the region are bringing in funds to help nonprofits maintain high levels of commitment to financially vulnerable populations. The Whatcom Community Foundation, which regularly distributes various levels of funding to around 250 county nonprofits, has seen an uptick in both grants and donations, along with more requests for funding help.

“We’re definitely hearing from a wide range of organizations,” said Mauri Ingram, WCF president and CEO. “I can’t think of a single nonprofit in the community that hasn’t been disrupted in some way.”

Ingram said the large increase in funding requests has temporarily pushed the foundation to choose which groups can apply for funds coming from their emergency resilience fund. Some of its major funders are also choosing to focus on larger population centers, like King County, that have been harder hit by the outbreak. This leaves fewer outside funds for distribution to rural areas, making local donations even more important right now. 

Combine that with event and fundraiser cancellations, which often rely on business sponsorships and there is certainly cause for concern. 

“It’s really a bunch of dominoes that are falling, all at the same time,” Ingram said.

As of April 21, WCF had already distributed more than $490,000 in recent weeks from their resilience and donor-advised funds. Aside from $200,000 the WCF board decided to move into the resilience fund, corporate and individual donations have raised another $500,000, Ingram said. She estimates that several million dollars more will need to be raised to properly address both response and recovery from the pandemic. 

To allow funds to be released more quickly, WCF is streamlining its application process, asking nonprofits a few basic questions regarding both the scale of need and how funds will be used. Once they receive those funds, WCF is forgoing its standard requirement of detailed, timely reports about funding usage, as many nonprofits are focusing solely on maintaining basic needs.

Partnering to meet pressing needs

In Skagit County, the Skagit Community Foundation has raised $150,000 through their disaster relief fund as of April 21, and is establishing partnerships with the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County, United Way of Skagit County and county government. The foundation distributed $53,000 in its initial round of funding, with another $30,000 scheduled to be dispersed by April 25. It has so far provided assistance to 15 organizations across Skagit County, for pressing needs such as food insecurity and rental assistance.

In San Juan County, the San Juan Island Community Foundation had raised about $160,000 through April 20 for its emergency relief fund. Carrie Unpingco, SJICF’s executive director, said current funding goals are to raise $100,000, with hopes for an additional $150,000 after that. 

San Juan Island has more than 50 active nonprofits, Unpingco said, the majority of which are now part of a weekly conference call to identify the island’s most pressing needs during the pandemic. These needs include funding for the island’s family resource center and food bank, the former of which received a $22,000 grant on April 6. 

Other concerns, Unpingco said, have included rental assistance and the delivery of both food and hygiene products to those unable or unwilling to visit a food bank or grocery store in person. Delivery options have been especially important for the island’s elderly residents, she added.

On Orcas Island, the Orcas Island Community Foundation had raised more than $517,700 for its Community Emergency Respond Fund and distributed $445,200 for essential services and critical needs, as of April 27. Hilary Canty, OICF executive director, said an additional $229,500 was raised through the organization’s annual spring fundraiser, the “Give Orcas” campaign. One-hundred percent of both funds go directly to nonprofits without any administrative fees. 

Grants to organizations are being hand-delivered in self-sticking envelopes, to avoid both postal delays and envelope licking. In addition to donations to the island’s community resource center, food bank and senior center, many donations are helping Of People And Land (OPAL) Community Land Trust. OPAL is providing residents with mortgage and rent relief, even though just over 25 percent of those they’ve helped actually own or rent through them. Canty estimates it will take about $175,000-200,000 a month until the tourist-based economy restarts to fully meet the island’s mortgage and rent relief needs.

OICF has also formed a shelter task force to ensure homeless islanders are looked after, giving them temporary shelters, food, hygiene, and mental health resources. OICF funds have also ensured that caregivers to the elderly have access to proper personal protective equipment, as the island is home to more than 300 residents ages 80 and up. 

“Our primary goal is to ensure that access to financial resources does not limit a good response,” Canty said. “I can’t predict what we’re going to need, but I do know that we need to keep the flow going. So far we haven’t had to turn anybody down, and I hope that’s going to continue to be the case.”

Adapting to the new normal

In Whatcom County, nonprofits like Opportunity Council, DVSAS and Lydia Place are adapting to the new normal. Their most important services are all still functioning at full capacity, though they’re taking care to abide by social distancing guidelines between staff and clients. 

Some services, though, have been temporarily curtailed.

The Opportunity Council serves more than 18,000 clients annually throughout three counties. Greg Winter, the executive director, said they’ve had to suspend their community meals program and restrict low-income weatherization projects to exterior-only work of occupied homes. The council’s current biggest concern, he said, is to ensure they can provide enough hotel and motel vouchers to keep families sheltered and away from sleeping in their vehicles. A recent Bellingham Herald article helped bring attention to the issue, for which the council is seeking to raise $30,000. After that, he said, they’ll raise the goal to $80,000.

At a time when stay-at-home orders have caused extra concern for those at risk for domestic violence, DVSAS — which served some 2,100 clients last year — continues operating all three of its emergency shelters. Jessica Heck, DVSAS development director, said they’ve suspended support group meetings, prevention education in still-closed schools, and in-person advocacy at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center. Typically, advocates are sent to the hospital following a victim’s post-assault forensic exam to comfort victims and let them know their rights and resources. Instead, advocates and victims will be connected via phone.

At Lydia Place, which serves about 800 local residents annually, services like mental health counseling and case management are being done via phone and virtual means. Executive Director Emily O’Connor said the biggest impact has been to finding housing for homeless clients, as many property management companies have closed their offices or severely reduced operating capacity.

All three organizations have already cancelled, postponed or re-organized spring fundraisers, but so far, none of them are facing extensive budget problems. Grants and donations are still coming in, and the directors can only hope that continues. 

“If we have to cancel all our fundraising events for the year, we’re going to be in a much different situation than we are right now,” said Heck. “But as it stands, we’re doing okay as an agency.”

Matt Benoit is Bellingham-born and raised. He’s written for the Bellingham Herald, Tri-City Herald, Pacific Northwest Inlander, Discover Magazine and WhatcomTalk, among others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media production from Washington State University.