Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund

Philanthropies from Cleveland to Columbus are taking the lessons learned over the past many months to continue addressing the pandemic, including community-wide efforts to provide for health and safety where local government agencies have been unable to do so.

A coalition of more than 80 corporate, civic and philanthropic organizations, including the Cleveland Foundation and the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation, established the Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to address the pandemic right after Ohio issued its first shutdown orders in March. The fund was established to “complement the public sector pandemic response and help meet the needs of the community,” said Susanna H. Krey, president of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.

More than 2,300 individuals and families joined the coalition to provide more than $11.8 million in grants that have been distributed to more than 160 organizations throughout Northeast Ohio. The coalition used its collective expertise in several sectors to pinpoint top priorities for the region, providing for basic needs such as food, housing and health care.

The first phase of the response has been so effective because of how well coalition members worked together, leveraging their different strengths. Or, as Dale Anglin, the Cleveland Foundation’s program director for youth, health and human services, puts it, “we put all of our egos aside.”

Daniel Cohn, vice president of Strategy for the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation, said this approach speaks to the attitudes of Clevelanders.

“I’ve learned that when push comes to shove, Clevelanders come together. Period,” he said.

The groups used the fund to provide critical personal protective equipment, including masks, to residents, in part, because the local government was not doing so. The city and county were not helping the community members with this, Anglin said. She said she found herself asking, “Who’s helping the person on the street?”

To address this problem, the coalition established a system to source, purchase, and distribute PPE, along with cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items, to people throughout Cleveland. Essential to this effort was the coalition’s decision to fund two PPE program coordinators.

The coordinators, Christina Keegan and Ginaya Willoughby, worked as part of Neighborhood Connections to build an entire purchasing and distribution system for PPE citywide. Anglin said the two “basically built a system out of nothing.”

Keegan and Willoughby connected with community members to determine the supplies needed. They also established relationships with two nonprofits, MedWish and Matthew 25, to source those products at lower prices in bulk. As well, Keegan and Willoughby established distribution centers on the east side at County Emergency Operations Center in Newburgh Heights and the west side at May Dugan Center.

More than 150 organizations in the city have received PPE through this system. Those items include cloth masks, surgical masks, rubber gloves, face shields, shampoo, soap, cleaning products and disinfectants.

Providing ready access to these items at no cost has a significant health benefit, Neighborhood Connections Director Tom O’Brien said.

“The more we can encourage people to use the masks and to supply individuals, families and communities with the necessary supplies so they can reduce their likelihood of infection, the better we will all be,” he said.

Cohn said the fund contributed to several other accomplishments, including the depopulation of local homeless shelters to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the expansion of home-delivered meals, healthy food access and food provision to older adults.

The coalition reviewed the fund’s early phase to determine lessons learned and priorities moving forward. The group collected input from nearly 750 stakeholders, including almost 320 nonprofits and more than 300 residents.

The coalition determined it needed the fund to address three priorities during the next phase: Response, adaptation and recovery. Responsive grantmaking addresses urgent, basic needs, such as food, shelter and medical supplies. Adaption grantmaking focuses on ensuring local nonprofits have the infrastructure necessary to serve the community’s most vulnerable residents. Recovery work takes a long-term view of cross-sector collaboration, leadership development and policy and advocacy, including systemic issues, such as racism and economic inequality.

“The coronavirus pandemic has not been society’s great equalizer; it’s been our mirror,” said India Pierce Lee, senior vice president, program at the Cleveland Foundation. “COVID-19 has laid bare historical and systemic racism that has resulted in disparate health and economic outcomes throughout our region.”

Anglin said more details on these priorities will be available soon as coalition members receive responses to the surveys sent to community members. In the meantime, the coalition will support the continued government provision of child-care vouchers, food stamps and access to telehealth for lower-income individuals. The coalition also plans to work more closely with local government in the next phase. The funders will convene a community advisory group, including government officials, community members and funders. This way, Anglin said, the funders are not the only ones considering applications and awarding grants.

However, the coalition faces an immediate financial obstacle. Many foundations are low on funds because of the impact of the pandemic on their fundraising. So, while groups can begin applying for grants, many foundations will not be able to contribute support until January, Anglin said. Despite the obstacle, the fund has accumulated nearly $3 million in funds for phase two. This support comes from 14 funders, including the United Way of Greater Cleveland, the George Gund Foundation and the KeyBank Foundation.

Columbus JCC Programs Continue

Meanwhile, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus’ strategy to have members shift membership fees to a sustainability fund helped the organization make it through earlier shutdowns.

This summer, the JCC asked members to apply their membership fees to a fund to keep staff in place until it could reopen its doors and start programming again. The effort was a success, said Anna Shabtay, JCC’s chief advancement officer, as more than 60% of members donated to the fund.

“The JCC has been amazed by the support of the community and our volunteer and professional leaders,” she said.

The benefit of this support was twofold. Not only did these funds help ensure that the JCC was able to resume programming again when it could reopen its doors, but it also provided the resources necessary to continue offering virtual programming during the shutdown.

Virtually programming, while at first a necessity, has become a part of the regular programming, Shabtay said. That approach “allows us to reach audiences all over the country that we would not otherwise be able to reach,” she said.

The organization held Columbus Jewish Film Festival events virtually this fall, as well as virtual bookfair events and fundraisers. Eventually, community members will have the option to attend events either in person or virtually.

The biggest takeaway, however, is that the JCC can pivot quickly if unexpected changes take place. That’s essential as, with the pandemic still ongoing, “flexibility is currently the name of the game,” Shabtay said.

Tri-C offers emergency funding 

Cuyahoga Community College continues to provide low-income students with emergency funding to ensure they do not need to drop out of school amid the pandemic. Tri-C awarded nearly $287,000 to 683 students in fiscal year 2019-20.

“A sudden and unexpected emergency should not be the end of someone’s education,” said Megan O’Bryan, vice president of development at Tri-C and president of the Tri-C Foundation.

O’Bryan has previously made the point that keeping these students in school is so important because the education and training they receive puts them on the path to a sustainable wage. She also said alleviating concerns about finances helps students better focus on their studies.

“We know that if we can offer help to get beyond a short-term problem, students can concentrate on finishing their coursework, and staying on track to achieve their goals,” O’Bryan said.

The funds average $450 per student, with a maximum of $500. The funds are used for, among other things, technology assistance, tuition assistance, books, rent assistance and food. Regarding technology assistance, Tri-C has instituted a program to reduce significantly the costs of new laptops, which are especially essential as students continue their studies remotely.

O’Bryan said students who qualify economically for the program will pay half the discounted cost for a laptop. Donors, including the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Foundation, AT&T and PNC, will cover the rest of the price. She said students will also receive tech support, Office 365 access, an orientation and other assistance to get up and running.


Stephen Langel is a freelance writer from Pepper Pike.

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