Funding worries keep leaders of nonprofits "up at night" as they work to meet pandemic needs

Jon Simpson, volunteer manager at Great Plains Food Bank, prepares some produce for volunteers to separate and bag Thursday, July 2, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO - Area nonprofit leaders say that so far, their organizations are holding their own through the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the long initial shutdown to flatten the curve of infection cost some groups significant funding, while others had to curtail some services.

Even as operations ramp up again, there are worries about a second wave of COVID, more shutdowns, and whether needs on the horizon can be paid for - or if survival means some services will be cut when they are needed most.

The Great Plains Food Bank has seen “a pretty significant spike” in the need for food assistance in Fargo-Moorhead and throughout North Dakota, CEO Steve Sellent said.


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Steve Sellent

Food distribution is up more than 40% since the start of the pandemic, and the food bank established a $12 million effort to meet the growing need.

“Rather than pulling back, we’ve been adding staff and equipment and other resources,” Sellent said Thursday, July 2.

He’s thankful for added help from private donors and government agencies, but he ponders the potential for donor fatigue.


"If an effective vaccine isn’t found or there’s some future big waves, that’s probably the thing that’s keeping us up at night. Will we be able to continue to generate that large amount of increased resources that will be needed to meet those needs?” Sellent asks.
Great Plains originally planned a $30 million budget for the year. About $5 million in cash for operating costs (salaries, warehousing, distribution) and $25 million in food donations. For the pandemic response, they have budgeted $2 million in cash and $10 million in food. Typically, 75% of donations come from private donors and the rest comes from government sources.

“An awful lot of it is coming from the smaller individual donations that come in. At one point, we were receiving in the neighborhood of 1,000 donations a week, specifically for COVID 19,” Sellent said.

Last year, Great Plains served 102,000 people, but Sellent said partner food shelves in North Dakota have reported “a 44% increase, and about half of that was from new clients.”


Distributions from mobile pantries are up 70%.

Great Plains now works with USDA’s Farm to Families Food Box Program. They distribute about 10 semi loads of food a week.

But there is no road map for dealing with a pandemic.

“We know we put a plan together that goes beyond just needing the immediate need. But again, if this continues and a vaccine isn’t found, and there’s future big waves, … will we have the resources to meet all those needs?”

Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch had to close its popular thrift stores for seven to 11 weeks, depending on the location, for the pandemic shutdowns, President and CEO Joy Ryan said.

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Joy Ryan

That cost the organization about $60,000 a week, money used to help children not covered by insurance to get help with psychological and behavioral issues.


“Now we’re trying to recover from being closed that period of time. I don’t know … if we’re going to continue to stay open. I don’t know if there’s another wave coming,” Ryan said. “The safety of the community is really important. We’re trying to stay on top of everything we need to stay on top of as a retail operation.”

But delivery of services - classes and therapy - did not stop, even if they had to be done over the internet.

“We stayed open the whole time. We were one of the few residential child facilities, psychiatric or qualified residential treatment, that kept taking kids throughout the whole pandemic,” Ryan said. “We kept accepting children into care because there weren’t a lot of alternatives for them.”

The Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch Thrift Store on 32nd Avenue South in Fargo had a steady stream of customers over the noon hour on Monday, July 6. DBGR thrift stores were among the businesses shut down recently to stem the spread of COVID-19. During the shutdown, the organization lost about $60,000 a week. The money is used to fund ranch operations that help children with psychological or behavioral issues, DBGR President and CEO Joy Ryan said. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

The Boys and Girls Ranch raises money nationally, because it’s recognized by the four major Lutheran denominations. And there is strong support, including an increase in major donations and online donations.

But the future is uncertain, Ryan said. .

“I’m really worried about the fourth quarter, the political climate, the stock market, all of those things affect people’s ability to give,” Ryan said. “People are concerned about caring for their own needs, their own health, their families, job loss. All of those things affect people’s ability to be as generous as they want to be. You can only give so sacrificially. At a certain point, you have to eat and pay your mortgage and all of those pieces.”


But people are generous, and care about children, she said.

“I really have to trust in the goodness of others. We keep Christ at our center and I trust that we’ll get to the other side of it,” Ryan said.

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Jerry O'Neil

At the Salvation Army, Maj. Jerry O’Neil said the pandemic dramatically altered the meal program.

Since mid-March, meals have been distributed to-go out the front window.

“We don’t want to open the dining room until we can go to full capacity, because a big part of the meal program is the community,” O’Neil said.

Other emergency services had been put on hold for a time, he said. Now, the organization is trying to determine where its help will be needed most in the months ahead.


”The need hasn’t gone away. The need is going to actually be astronomically larger. This situation put people in need that maybe thought they’d never be in need. People are laid off, people are let go, different situations like that.”

Donations are coming in, but O’Neil worries about the Christmas campaign, which brings in more than 50% of the Salvation Army’s operating budget.

“A lot of our (volunteer) bellringers are older folks. If we’re in an environment where people aren’t going out, then we’re not going to have the folks that are going to be out there bellringing. … We don’t know how that's going to impact our Christmas campaign,” O’Neil said.

The real need for help post-shutdown may be on the horizon, as unemployment aid runs out, he said.

“I think we haven’t seen the real storm yet. I think the real storm is coming as far as the vast amount of need that is going to exist,” O’Neil said. “The challenge for all of us is how do we negotiate our need?”

Kristi Huber

Kristi Huber, president and CEO of the United Way of Cass-Clay, says the organization has been working with its community partner groups to keep people in their homes, and to get child care and food.


The United Way has already raised $90,000 in a coronavirus response fund to help fund the added needs.

But much will rely on the success of the United Way’s annual fall fundraising drive, Huber said.

“If (area residents and companies) can continue to recognize how important it is to make these investments in the community … that is how we will continue to grow as a community,” Huber said. “We’ll get through this. And hopefully be stronger on the other side.”

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Patrick Kirby is the founder of Do Good Better Consulting

Patrick Kirby, the founder of Do Good Better Consulting, wants to see the region’s community and private foundations increase their payouts to nonprofits.

If the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the rainy day that those foundations have been saving for, he asks, what is?

“Generally, the stress of fundraising (for nonprofits) is now exponential,” Kirby said.

He’d like to see foundations double or triple their payouts, saying that unless there’s a complete financial collapse, the money could be replenished in the next decade.

“The impact is so needed now. … This is the rainy day that everyone has been saving up for,” Kirby said.

Whether its food pantries, domestic violence intervention groups, groups serving the developmentally and intellectually disabled or delayed, the need is “all over the board,” Kirby said.

Kirby is calling on organizations such as the Ford Foundation, Bush Foundation, Dakota Medical Foundation, North Dakota Community Foundation, and Otto Bremer Foundation to depart from more conservative funding philosophies.

“They have the resources. They have the capacity. They have the connections; I think they can do it,” Kirby said.

He also encourages wealthy individuals to lead.

“I think if you’re an individual of high capacity, this is the time to be that superhero to the nonprofit world,” Kirby said.

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