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Social service agencies still adopting to challenging climate

COVID-19 was originally named the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. It is no longer novel— 2019 is long done, the struggle of 2020’s closures and cancellations now history, 2021 and the tentative return to some activities about to draw to a close and 2022 nearly upon society. Yet, non-profit organizations, community outreach groups and others who regularly raise funds for public programs continue to contend with the pandemic, reinventing how to serve communities under permanently changed conditions.

Spokespersons from organizations across the county have a similarly positive observation: San Diegans gave more in 2020 than expected and that generosity trickled into 2021 as agencies shifted how they gathered donations. However, those same people also noted they are now seeing effects of the pandemic beginning to affect their bottom line and even as they navigate a return to in-person events, they are also navigating fewer donations.

Salvation Army Divisional Secretary for San Diego County Lee Lescano said the holiday season is when people most depend on help from the organization, yet they are starting to see “an uncertainty and tightening budgets” taking a toll on both volunteerism and donations.

“We’re beginning to see inflation show. Donations actually stayed up over the first 12 months of the pandemic but we’re now showing we’re down 10% since last year,” Lescano said.

In 30 years of working with the Salvation Army, Lescano said, he’s learned that an economic dip usually only lasts about a year.

“It is still early on, this is when we start to put out our red kettles,” he said in an optimistic tone.

Santee Santas President Tonya Hendrix said organization leaders changed their entire approach to fundraising and outreach for 2020, believing it was a temporary solution.

“We finally came to the conclusion, we’d have to repeat last year’s process for 2021 as well,” Hendrix said.

Usually, she said, they lean on local businesses and schools for food and toy drives, then enlist the help of volunteers to wrap toys which are later distributed to Santee families who could use a little help through the holidays.

“Every year, we have a huge corps of volunteers to wrap presents and normally we’d give out turkeys and fresh oranges, butter, milk for holiday dinners. Instead, we gathered financial donations last year and purchased gift cards to grocery stores so families could buy their own food, along with canned and boxed goods,” Hendrix said.

Instead of toy drives, they used financial donations to purchase gift cards that could be used by older teens or by parents of young children to shop online or in local stores at their discretion. The Santee Santas included a family board game and a book for each child along with the gift cards.

Hendrix noted how helpful it was to have government funding available in the form of a Community Block Development Grant, an unexpected boon in an otherwise destructive pandemic.

“The CDBG grant was specific to COVID and we were able to serve seniors throughout the entire year with a home grocery delivery, which is different from what we usually do,” Hendrix said.

San Diego Oasis President and Chief Executive Officer Simona Valanciute said the facility, which serves older adults with intergenerational programming, health and learning programs also benefited from government funding they don’t normally receive.

“Pre-pandemic, we did not get any government support and it is a huge compliment to our government that they provided 20% of our budget so we could keep going steady. Another 20% insight is that fewer people and fewer funders were giving money but those who did so donated about 20% more than they usually give, they were more generous,” Valanciute said.

That government funding triggered a shift in their approach and instead of focusing on the impossibility of public meetups, they launched a program to bridge the digital divide for seniors.

“We started applying for grants and launched this service for low-income seniors living alone: providing an easy to navigate tablet with fewer icons, in-person training on how to use email and basic services, and making sure the tablet came with internet connection. That program really struck a chord with many grantors and donors,” Valanciute said.

Seeing the social isolation many of their seniors were experiencing made them “a little more sensitive to our mission” and changed how they approached fundraising efforts.

“We have the largest growing population of aging adults and I talk about social isolation as a healthcare issue. You and I have phones in our hands— imagine a senior living alone, no technology or internet and suddenly every day for a year or more they need help but all the typical services where you can go get help in person are closed. Having a device and knowing how to use it is a lifeline,” Valanciute said.

Where Valanciute sees digital literacy as a key to health, others see it as an avenue for donations.

United Way of San Diego Chief Executive Officer Nancy Sasaki said building relationships, a key point in donor-based fundraising, was a tremendous challenge, especially with seniors.

“When you’re building relationships with a new donor, someone you’re trying to excite about what you’re doing, so much of it is one-on-one and it was so hard to build that rapport with individuals in the pandemic,” Sasaki said.

Shifting to virtual fundraising posed challenges with some older donors, she said, who were not as comfortable in an online setting.

“The younger generations are fine with it, that’s how they communicate with their best friends,” Sasaki said, but some older adults might not be as comfortable in that setting she said.

San Diego Humane Society Director of Public Relations Nina Thompson said the pandemic absolutely changed volunteerism.

“We had to cut back on volunteerism to keep staff safe on campus, had to put more animals in foster homes because we were following county guidelines and regulations on how many bodies we could have in the building,” Thompson said and while the holidays generate more donations than usual, they are also when the facility needs the most help, posing a different challenge.

Santee Santas’ Hendrix said they know there is a risk in suspending most of their volunteers a second year: It might be safer but they aren’t entirely sure who will return after so long away.

The 2020 social justice reckoning also impacted where people put their donations, Sasaki said, and time might prove some of those changes are permanent. It might have been less challenging, she said, for organizations that “are tangibly helping people, where someone heard the story of a person in their community or felt personally impacted” by a cause. Arts organizations faced— and continue to face—  a bigger challenge as it can be tough to conceptualize the important role they play in the community, Sasaki said, despite their mental health benefits.

“I cannot emphasize enough the need to volunteer, to give, to serve your neighbors because nobody else will,” Valanciute said.

Social service agencies still adopting to challenging climate

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Source: East County Californian

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