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Covid-19 Fund worried about filling gap left by looming government cuts

Dozens of foundations and corporations in Western New York came together rapidly in response to Covid-19, giving out $5.5 million to help 109 nonprofits in two rounds of funding in April, with a third planned in the coming weeks.

But the prospect of major cuts to state and municipal budgets – unless there is emergency federal assistance – is raising deeper fears. The needs of nonprofits are already substantial, but without government assistance they threaten to become considerably worse.

"That is the unknown right now everyone is preparing for," said Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

The organization – along with the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York and the John R. Oishei Foundation – founded the WNY Covid-19 Community Response Fund in March. An additional 51 foundations and corporations quickly joined after a letter went out March 13, one week before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's "pause" order went into effect.

Dedecker said concerns about budget shortfalls are raised by nonprofits in weekly conference calls from around Western New York facilitated by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

"What we are hearing across the board from these nonprofits, who have joined the calls to problem-solve together and share resources and solutions, is the pending government funding cuts anticipated this summer," Dedecker said.

New York State is spilling red ink, with a projected deficit of $13.3 billion. Buffalo's deficit is estimated to be $35 million. While both Cuomo and Mayor Byron W. Brown are looking to the federal government to provide emergency funding due to the pandemic, those prospects appear to be dimming as Senate Republicans signal their opposition to another massive round of assistance.

"The understanding is that the philanthropic community cannot backfill the government cuts that are expected," Dedecker said.

Over 40 nonprofit organizations are expected to receive funds in the next few weeks to acquire personal protective equipment from the WNY Covid-19 Community Response Fund. That's after the results of a survey going out shortly provide more information to better understand the sustained need for PPE.

The fund awarded $4.5 million to 74 small, midsize and large nonprofits on April 7, and followed that up with an additional $1 million on April 29 to 35 more organizations. The funds have been spread through eight Western New York counties.

"Our objective is to put money on the front lines rapidly to help the helpers," Dedecker said.

Thirty-nine individuals and families, following the lead of Dr. Michael Cropp, president and CEO of Independent Health, have contributed around $500,000. An additional 1,800 individuals have also given donations at wnyresponds.org.

"The community has mobilized in a way that is very heartening, but the public systems are working around the clock and are overwhelmed by demand," Dedecker said.

Tara Ellis, president and CEO of Feedmore WNY, said the fund's assistance has been vitally important at a time when April costs alone were $530,000 more than was covered with grants.

The month saw a 51% increase in the volume of home delivery meals and a 42% rise in the volume of food going to pantries, food kitchens and mobile distributions, with the cost for food alone reaching $3.5 million.

"The fund has provided an amazing infusion of assistance and stability for us at a time when we are spending more money than ever before," said Ellis.

Those needs aren't expected to let up anytime soon, she said.

"I believe May will be the same, but we will be dealing with this for quite a while to come," Ellis said.

Support from the Community Response Fund is helping the Buffalo Urban League's Senior Multi-Service Center, at 86 Pine St. provide food, personal care items, cleaning products and masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to those in need. The funds have also supported tutoring, mental health services and telephone activities, said Brenda McDuffie, the organization's president and CEO.

"It really was a godsend because it gave immediate access to resources to serve communities that are most vulnerable," McDuffie said. "Because of the high demand of services there was absolutely no way we could have done or are doing the work we are able to do unless we had those funds provided to us.

"We are a very resilient community and a very generous community, and we are very grateful for that," she said.

A grant from the Community Response Fund allowed Plymouth Crossroads, a shelter in Lancaster for runaway and homeless male teens, to reopen its doors after suspending operations three months ago due to a shortfall in funds.

The nonprofit reopened May 11 with three teens taking up temporary residence.

"This helped us to open the doors back up, which is wonderful," said Michele Harrington, the outreach and development manager. "We are more than grateful."

While short-term challenges are daunting, the foundation community is strategizing for the long haul. Robert Gioia, chairman of the Oishei Foundation, said it's incumbent during the pandemic for community leaders to step up.

"It is quite astonishing to see what has happened because of Covid-19," Gioia said. "I can tell you my folks are studying these issues all day and are just stunned to see what is happening. Everyone recognizes that we really have to dig in deep and help these folks."

The volatility in the stock market could have a bearing on the ability of foundations – which invest in the market – to respond as the pandemic continues, but Gioia said most, including the Oishei Foundation, don't get overly concerned about short-term peaks and valleys.

"Difficult times are not when you retract," Gioia said.

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