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Nonprofits innovate through COVID-19 crisis

Bryn Parchman.

Bryn Parchman, Port Discovery president and CEO.

Spring is a very busy time for Port Discovery Children’s Museum. Schools often bring large field trip groups. Families come to partake in fun, educational hands-on activities, events and exhibits.

This year, however, the nonprofit’s doors remained closed due to the statewide stay-at-home order issued for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“About a third of our earned revenue is generated through the March through June time frame,” said Bryn Parchman, president and CEO. “We use that earned income revenue to support our work in the community. Not having that revenue coming in is tough, but we are trying to figure out new ways of serving audiences come summer and fall.”

Since having to close in mid-March, Port Discovery has focused on three main areas. Play experiences have been moved online, including to social media and their website, so they’re now featuring content in the areas of STEM, arts and culture and health and wellness.

“(This) allows us to keep serving members and target audiences while we are not open,” Parchman said. They also moved their annual fundraiser Play It Forward online in mid-May.

For those unable to go online, the nonprofit has put play packs featuring LEGOS, jump ropes and Play-Doh together for distribution to vulnerable children through area food programs.

They are also looking at resetting their revenue and what reopening could look like.

“What we are learning now from our online delivery is how can we maybe convert some of that for schools in the fall and work with the school systems to be able to continue to provide that supplemental material and learning that we have been doing,” Parchman said.

Ronald McDonald House Charities Maryland has continued to operate with a skeletal staff through the pandemic, hosting families with children in medical crisis. They have not been able to take on any new families or allow volunteers and external visitors inside.

Sandy Pagnotti.

Sandy Pagnotti, Ronald McDonald House Charities Maryland president and CEO.

“Our operations are incredibly scaled back, and we are mapping out our plan for full program operations, but it is going to be a phased approach back to full operations,” said Sandy Pagnotti, president and CEO.

A nonprofit based in volunteerism, the Baltimore facility regularly has hundreds of volunteers come through during a normal week.

“We miss everybody,” Pagnotti said. “Operationally, it is very, very different but I think the families that are staying with us still would tell you that they still feel loved and taken care of despite the 6-foot distance and all the protocols in place.”

As a way to keep people engaged and involved, the RMH staff did a video to send out to all of their volunteers. They hosted a virtual trivia night in mid-May that helped to raise more than $2,300 — enough to feed 40 families of four for a day.

“Because everything we do is based in community, we are trying to keep community going,” Pagnotti said. “Every week or two, we put something new out there.”

Quarantine Flower Bombing has also helped raise money for RMH. People donate through the group and request paper plate flowers created by volunteers and placed in a person’s lawn. Many flowers have been created and donated to celebrate birthdays, graduations and Mother’s Day.

“They are happy messages going up all over Baltimore in people’s front yard,” Pagnotti said. “It is great outreach.”

The Women’s Giving Circle of Howard County has been working with nonprofit partners to support them as much as they can during the pandemic, including by setting up a COVID-19 fund. “We decided to set aside additional money right away knowing that the needs in the community were going to be great,” said Buffy Schwartz, executive director.

Traditionally focusing their giving toward programs that benefit women and girls, the nonprofit decided to broaden its scope when it came to grant making during the pandemic to be able to stay nimble and flexibile and be as responsive as possible to the growing needs of the community.

It also partnered with the Community Foundation of Howard County, Horizon Foundation and the United Way of Central Maryland to create HoCoResponds.com. Schwartz said the website makes it easy for the community to donate to emergency funds. As of mid-May, the website had collected more than $400,000, with Schwartz hoping to reach half a million.

One of the main services CASH Campaign of Maryland provides is free, in-person tax preparations. They typically help around 25,000 Marylanders annually with filing their tax returns.

When businesses were ordered to close, the nonprofit decided to move to 100% remote service. In Baltimore alone, the staff had to cancel 3,500 appointments.

Robin McKinney

Robin McKinney, CEO and cofounder of CASH Campaign for Maryland.

“The digital divide is just so real for our clients,” said Robin McKinney, CEO and cofounder. “The people that we serve are all low income. Most of the people that we serve earn less than $20,000 a year. That means most people we serve don’t have a laptop or a desktop. They certainly don’t have a scanner. There may be one cellphone in the house, but we still have a lot of people that still have flip phones.”

Some have smartphones, but the nonprofit staff has had to talk to many clients on how to upload documents securely because of the sensitive, private information of the material. “We went from being able to serve 1,000 plus people a week to basically 24,” she said.

They have been keeping people involved by hosting webinars and offering financial counseling and coaching over the phone. “I think what has been helpful for folks with that is they have a place where they can get their questions answered,” McKinney said.

Because of the pandemic, many grants have had their restrictions removed or lessened. Nonprofits can now get funding to use for general operations, which helps as they try to meet demands during this worldwide crisis.

“That just gives us a lot of flexibility to say ‘OK. What do we need to do to help people now?’” McKinney said. “… You can trust the nonprofit sector to be responsive. If you want them to be resilient, you have to give them flexible funds because that is what allows us to pivot.”

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.

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