Fine Art of the Pivot

Emilee Geist

When the shutdown happened, it happened very quickly. One week businesses were open, the next closed. Uncertainty, fear, and apprehension were thick in the air. Nowhere was this more true, perhaps, than for Maine’s nonprofit community. Four nonprofits were particularly adept at pivoting during COVID-19. All have come up with […]

When the shutdown happened, it happened very quickly. One week businesses were open, the next closed. Uncertainty, fear, and apprehension were thick in the air. Nowhere was this more true, perhaps, than for Maine’s nonprofit community.

Four nonprofits were particularly adept at pivoting during COVID-19. All have come up with creative solutions to continue serving the populations that need them most. It hasn’t been easy, but these dedicated organizations filled with caring individuals, are determined to maintain safety nets for their clients during the pandemic.

How Good Shepherd raised funds, found scarce supplies and collaborated with others

Good Shepherd Food Bank, which is based in Auburn, partners with more than 500 organizations across the state to ensure that hungry Mainers have access to nutritious food. Erin Fogg, vice president of development and communications, noted that during COVID-19, the organization’s entire sourcing and distribution model shifted.

“About 70% of the food we distribute annually is donated by retailers like Hannaford and Walmart,” says Fogg. “As consumers, we all know the challenges retailers were facing during the pandemic and we felt the impact at the food bank.”

Good Shepherd struggled to find new ways to obtain food.

“To make up for backlogs in our donated food supply chain, we shifted to purchasing shelf-stable food by the tractor-trailer load,” Fogg says.

This was funded by the outpouring of support from Maine residents who all pitched in to help. But a new problem arose: other organizations and retailers were all clamoring for the same food shelf-stable food products. At one point, the shelves at the food bank became so low that it distributed Hannaford gift cards to food pantries throughout the state.

The loss of volunteers was another big blow.

“We knew we needed to find a way to distribute food safely with minimal work for our partners,” says Fogg. “Thankfully, L.L.Bean came forward and offered to truck food to its fulfillment center in Freeport and have its employees pack emergency food boxes.”

In total, L.L.Bean packed more than 45,000 boxes which were then distributed to food pantries and other partners around the state. “Our COVID-19 response would not have been successful without the help and support of L.L.Bean and its employees,” Fogg says.

Good Shepherd provided an additional 4 million meals in the fiscal year ended June 30, buying 60% more food than in the previous year. Additionally, it granted more than $1 million to food pantries, schools and other nonprofit partners during the pandemic. This was possible due to the support of Good Shepherd by individuals, as well as the Harold Alfond Foundation, John T. Gorman Foundation, New Balance Foundation and Maine Community Foundation. Likewise, corporate gift sponsors such as Hannaford, Harvard Pilgrim, and Maine credit unions provided much-needed financial assistance, says Fogg.

“We cannot underscore enough how much Mainers helped the Food Bank and our network of partners throughout the pandemic,” Fogg says.

Photo / Courtesy Good Shepherd Food Bank

Amistad creates a new way to offer services

Imagine serving clients with peer support and addiction recovery services and suddenly not being able to meet in-person. That’s been the case for Amistad, a Portland-based nonprofit.

“All of our programming is in southern Maine where we have nine programs,” says Brian Townsend, executive director.

The pandemic shutdown forced the sites to close, which left the nonprofit grasping for ways to serve its clients.

Many of those Amistad serves experience homelessness and the majority struggle with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Typically, the organization offers free meals, some 150 to 200 per day, along with showers, laundry facilities, computers and peer support.

“Those centers are really vital resources in the community,” says Townsend.

Amistad had to pivot — and quickly.

“There was a need for a very intense, very immediate deliberation about what we do next for the community, and how we do it,” says Townsend. “The team really solved it and leadership just enacted their solutions.”

The most immediate need was for food. Partnering with Cooking for Community was a “natural connection point,” says Townsend. From there, the nonprofit obtained masks and PPE in order to stay connected to its clients.

“We basically shifted our entire agency from being mostly site-based to being entirely outreach defined without any space for the general public,” Townsend says.

Most of the nonprofit’s clients were staying in tent villages, campgrounds, motels or emergency shelters. So the Amistad staff hit the streets, meeting clients where they were.

While there were challenges to address — particularly keeping staff safe and advocating for hazard pay for those on the front lines — Townsend says that the result of the pivot has been transformative in a positive way for the organization.

“It feels like a very authentic human connection with the people that we’re supporting,” says Townsend. “It’s breaking down some very old divides. I think there’s more empathy and less stigma in the atmosphere and I think that’s something we’ve been able to leverage in the work.”

In Her Presence faced a host of complex needs

Navigating the nonprofit system to find food, shelter, childcare and other necessary services can be difficult for anyone. For immigrants who are unfamiliar with the landscape and language, additional barriers must be overcome. In Her Presence is a nonprofit that serves New Americans through language groups, food, assistance, help filing legal paperwork. It also supports women socially, emotionally and culturally.

When COVID-19 hit, the nonprofit had to quickly develop a new way to work with its clients. Claudette Ndayininahaze, executive director at In Her Presence, stated that the language barrier — a challenge during normal times — was heightened during the pandemic. Still, the organization addressed client needs. The nonprofit helped 25 mothers continue working despite their school-aged children being home. It delivered food to clients and purchased phone cards so that clients could continue to participate in programs remotely. One volunteer even offered to keep a U-Haul storage container on their property, allowing clients to safely pick up essential goods.

Participants in the program gave back, too. Clients sewed hundreds of masks for the community which were donated to Preble Street and Wayside Food Programs, says Ndayininahaze. Other changes were required too.

“IHP programming has transitioned from weekly classes to a variety of virtual supports,” says Ndayininahaze. These include services to make stressful home environments safe for women, children, and the elderly during the pandemic by increasing knowledge through a public-health education campaign.

“In the end, the big challenge was to keep hope, which was difficult at the beginning,” says Ndayininahaze. “But we came together to build strength.”

The organization’s two co-founders, Ndayininahaze and Abusana Micky Bondo, had a clear vision of how to swiftly direct support during the COVID-19 outbreak. Because of this, the nonprofit was able to maintain the confidence of its clients. It was also able to help families learn about new opportunities and resources available to mitigate the pandemic, says Ndayininahaze.

“We were able to advocate for different funding and become unrestricted in the face of the crisis for direct support,” she says.

Portland Stage Co. found a new form of creativity during the pandemic

Hannah Cordes, education director of Portland Stage Co., says that the nonprofit — with its in-person art form — no longer had the option of performing the way it always had.

“Theater as we knew it had to pause,” says Cordes. That included the many educational offerings that the organization offers to children and teens.

Portland Stage had scheduled both an April vacation theater camp for children and a Shakespeare program for teens.

“Both of those things obviously had to pause as well,” Cordes says. “But we pivoted to Zoom and did our first-ever virtual vacation camp, which went amazingly well.”

How to turn the online offering into something that really engaged young people was at the forefront of the Cordes’s mind. The question remained, Could she keep their attention and get them up and moving?

The answer was yes. Portland Stage created a week of fun where campers participated in everything from costume challenges to living room plays, a fashion competition, and games around theme, monologues, and other key aspects of theater.

“A lot of parents commented how much laughter they heard coming from the campers’ rooms,” Cordes says of virtual vacation camp. “The ability to do theater with young people during this time is what’s kept me going.”

In addition to the vacation camp, Portland Stage also ran an online camp for teens which covered things like monologues, improv, playwriting and more. Professional actors did dramatic readings of picture books for the younger crowd via Facebook Live events, Cordes noted. “Our biggest Saturday we had 1,500 views. We were really thrilled with the accessibility of it.”

Following these offerings came an in-person, eight-week summer camp. Social distancing and masks were part of the event, but so was creativity, outside-the-box thinking, and a non-traditional setting: a parking lot.

“We’ve been able to keep it fun, exciting, and engaging during a time that feels devoid of a lot of that,” Cordes says. “We’re really grateful for our community of supporters, patrons, and families for sticking with us and continuing to support us.”

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