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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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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