The COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected catalyst for change at the SECU Foundation, allowing the nonprofit to expand its sphere of influence while also changing its operations model to gain some efficiencies.
“We’re forever changed because the grantees we’re here to support have had to do their work very differently and manage their nonprofits very differently,” says Jama Campbell, the foundation’s executive director.
Before COVID-19, the foundation had already started focusing more on programmatic funding, but the pandemic accelerated those efforts, says Scott Southern, vice president, director of grants administration. For example, the pandemic offered new opportunities for collaborations with groups the foundation hadn’t previously worked with, such as a $2.5 million grant for the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation that helped meet needs related to personal protective equipment, mental health services for healthcare employees, and more.
According to Campbell, the crisis also increased the number of opportunities for the foundation to collaborate with other funders. Although that was already in the works prior to March 2020, the pandemic helped the SECU Foundation expand its footprint throughout North Carolina, partnering with other foundations it wouldn’t have historically had an opportunity to collaborate with.
Engaging with more partners and building relationships in communities that have been difficult for the SECU Foundation to reach is one silver lining that has come out of the pandemic, Campbell says.
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Throughout 2020, SECU Foundation staff focused heavily on collaboration with other statewide partners. Additionally, a statewide network of advisory boards ‘ composed of 12 members representing each branch ‘ helps with understanding local needs. Those groups generally meet quarterly but pivoted to virtual meetings in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.
The COVID crisis also brought about a new type of requests for the foundation. Normally, the foundation takes requests for funding related to its four focus areas: education, health care, housing, and human services. The coronavirus, however, forced staff to confront new needs, including requests for funding for personal protective equipment, supplies for medical providers and other first responders, and more.
The board also focused heavily on serving nonprofits that didn’t have access to government funding, in part because those organizations didn’t have the capacity to apply for those dollars. Through collaborations with the North Carolina Community Foundation and others, the SECU Foundation was able to meet the needs of nonprofits in rural and underserved communities.
According to Jamie Applequist, SECU’s executive vice president and chief property officer, who spent more than two decades in the branch network interacting with branches and advisory boards, two of the biggest lessons the foundation learned from the pandemic were the need for flexibility and speeding up processes.
Some of the flexibility the pandemic forced on the foundation, such as virtual meeting options for those who can’t attend in person, is expected to carry over into the new normal. What won’t change, however, is the focus on maximizing impact in all corners of the state. Communities will continue to need capital for brick-and-mortar projects, along with programmatic funding, all of which offers the foundation an opportunity to collaborate with new partners and stretch members; donations further.
“One of the things we have always focused on and will continue to drive home is, How can we multiply every one of those member dollars?” Campbell says. “We want to be good stewards of that funding and make sure the projects and programs we’re taking to our board of directors are sustainable and will be here for years to come.”
As the nonprofits the foundation works with continue to change their operations in the wake of the pandemic, Southern says he expects to see a continued increase in the need for organizational capacity building. Although the foundation had already begun providing some of that assistance before March 2020, those needs are likely to grow, and the foundation is working with regional universities to help identify communities with nonprofits that need that assistance.
If the SECU Foundation can identify those organizations ahead of time, it could have a foot in the door to assist with their future funding needs.
Like many organizations, foundation board members held virtual meetings during the pandemic, reviewing projects with a large-scale, statewide focus.
“We looked to see what type of funding was coming from the federal and state government, because we want to make sure our dollars are going to areas that aren’t covered by those,” says Campbell. The end result was $16 million in pandemic-related funding.