Guest column

4 challenges Houston nonprofits are facing during the COVID-19 crisis — and how they can pivot to stay afloat

Nonprofits are being forced to rethink the way they traditionally reached the community and their donors. Getty Images

As nonprofits struggle to keep funding, staffing, and services afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, Houston organizations are having to get innovative with their fundraising and service to their communities.

My organization, the Easter Seals Greater Houston — which has been a leading provider of services for Veterans, people of all ages with any type of disability and their family members for over seventy years — has decided to pivot its annual Walk With Me fundraiser that is typically held at The Houston Zoo. It's just one of the difficult changes and decisions we are having to make. Here are four things we are keeping in m keep in mind when making a digital pivot as a nonprofit that provides mental health and therapeutic services.

The financial impact on the organization and its staff

As Easter Seals Greater Houston provides face-to-face services for military families and people with disabilities, we've already lost significant billable revenue that will not be recaptured. While there is hope that help may come soon, many nonprofits are being forced to lay people off.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston has already instituted a 10 percent pay cut for remaining employees with the hopes that we do not have to lose more staff. We are seeing this all over the country and city of Houston, as huge organizations such as the entire Theater District Houston shutter in the wake of COVID-19 and the current devastation of the oil and gas industry. Houston area philanthropy will be particularly hard hit as wealthy individuals and foundations make most of their gifts from funds earned or based on the market or oil and gas.

As such, all NPOs should be focusing on communication with their current funders — private and corporate foundations, letting them know how they are addressing the needs, and how their already committed dollars are helping with funding or asking if they can reallocate to new more pressing priorities.

Organizations can also demonstrate their focus on funding by applying for emergency assistance if applicable such as the new United Way Fund, following the local and national Association of Fundraising Professionals — they have mentors helping right now, and — if federal and state dollars are at risk — now is probably the most important time ever to galvanize supporters, volunteers, board members and staff.

Above and beyond all — do not stop communicating to your individual donors. If anything, ramp it up.

Fundraising digitally

As the development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston, I already face the challenge of less than five percent of charitable giving going to the disability sector, despite the fact that one in four people lives with a disability.

Like all good development officers, I start my elevator speech with the misnomer that is disability. Everyone has a stereotype in their head and disability is so much LARGER than that. Our lives are touched by it every day and demand that our services continue to increase, while funding continues to decrease.

So, with that in mind, we are not going to let COVID-19 defeat our fundraising, our programs, our events — it is too important to our programming and clients. Thankfully, our lives already exist and depend on the internet, online information, and telemedicine. And greater than that, our clients with disabilities also rely on communication boards, eye gaze and voice control technology and apps to help with just about everything.

Nonprofits already use many online tools and naturally our first instinct is to "go virtual" with everything. I see many of my counterparts are online and bringing clients and supporters donation opportunities, updated website pages for the ever-changing COVID-19 information, general communications, real-time information with apps and tutorials for you to stay healthy, calm and engaged, and even events, like Easter Seals Houston Walk With Me.

Going virtual for our walk took a heroic effort and days of dizzying decisions and changes, but in the end we are confident that it will be worth the effort. Overnight, we have seen NPOs make agonizing decisions — to cancel, reschedule, or go virtual. I am expecting it to change the way we all think about our events in the future and truly believe that incorporating virtual efforts can only mean an increase in fundraising efforts for years to come and an opportunity to provide inclusive options for involvement.

Serving the community online

Most Easter Seals Greater Houston's services and programs are provided face-to-face and even though we've gone to telehealth for some, such as for clients who live in rural areas or do not have a means of transportation, our staff have always thought in-person services to be better.

Over a month ago, we began adapting our services to keep our staff and clients safe while continuing to provide as many services as possible through telehealth and virtual meet-ups. In all honesty, I think we have all seen the light. We don't have to worry about canceled appointments for babies or staff being sick for Early Intervention or Children's Therapy visits anymore.

BridgingApps.org, our technology program, has especially shined for us all, sharing an amazing amount of online resources and ways to stay connected (follow them on Facebook to see new ideas, and resources daily). Its YouTube hits have more than doubled for people needing help to connect and we are so grateful to be the place they trust. Our families are already stressed to the hilt because of limited insurance coverage and other financial burdens, and now they have the added mental health issues with the current crisis outside of their already stressed lives.

We do have programs that truly can't be done virtually, but our amazing staff are still devoted to figuring out temporary work-arounds through the amazing technology they have at their fingertips. Our families have shown more strength and resilience than ever and we are incredibly proud of them too.

For the last year or so all anyone had to do was turn the TV on to see a host of celebrities talking about apps for mental health, using the telehealth options of insurance policies and connecting remotely with loved ones who are home-bound. The future is here and we have been forced, not gently prodded, to take note, to adapt and in the end strengthen NPOs who take advantage of the tools.

For example, using Zoom for board members and other key stakeholders for ease of their already overflowing calendars and commitments; HIPAA compliant video conferencing systems for NPOs supporting clients medically; podcasts and platforms supporting education, students of all ages and so much more. The amount of online resources for NPOs means that we can have a farther reach, help more, and overall grow stronger and more adaptable as organizations.

Working thought medicaid and insurance at this time

Through many Easter Seals Greater Houston programs including Children's Therapy Program, Mental Health Counseling and more, we bill for services. When we first began prepping a month ago for tele-health, providing services this way hadn't even been approved.

Technically, we can now bill for our services through Medicaid but at a much reduced rate. Some insurance companies have authorized this, but many have not, which translates to yet another loss of funding. Our Early Intervention and Children's Therapy Staff have embraced it. Every day we see emails about telehealth trends and positive experiences with virtual health. The numbers our Early Childhood Intervention program alone delivered in March are stunning. We have enrolled 105 children, delivered 3187.63 hours in direct services, delivered 592.37 hours in Case Management, and 366.50 hours in Evaluations (that's new babies getting services).

Many other NPOs offering Early Childhood Intervention across the state of Texas are on-board with telehealth options as well. I can think of several other federal and state supported programs such as Early Childhood Education, Head Start, Work Force and Literacy Initiatives that are and should be moving to this virtual format. These programs all answer to our state and federal governments with very specific requirements and measurement outputs. Moving to virtual and online isn't an overnight decision within these guidelines — protocol, restrictions and ultimately funding are at risk. Due diligence is the key and lots of homework must be done — online or not.

If you're looking to support locally, you can take a walk, stroll, or roll around your own block regularly between now and April 25 to support the virtual Walk With Me program — use the hashtag #WWMVirtually and tag @EasterSealsGreaterHouston when you do. Your participation ensures that Easter Seals Greater Houston can continue its mission of providing life-changing services for veterans, children and adults with all types of disabilities. Join Walk With Me Virtually today by registering online at walkwithmehouston.org.

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Kelly Klein is the development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

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