October 7, 2020

The Word of the Year Is Pivot

By Tom Linfield

Tom Linfield

“Food pantries will never work the same again,” says Marcia Kasieta, Executive Director of the Badger Prairie Needs Network (BPNN). She is referring to the changes made under the pandemic to serve clients and volunteers in safer ways while responding to the tremendous growth in need. Food cannot be packaged or distributed in the same ways. Visitors drive through outdoor spaces, never entering the actual pantry. Overall, the need for services has grown by 60%, and BPNN has gone from serving 14,000 visitors in 2019 to more than 22,000 so far in 2020.

To cope with change, BPNN, and many other nonprofit agencies, have completely changed the way they work, pivoting to different methods while focusing intently on their missions. For BPNN, this means new software to better track donated food opportunities, the addition of a 1,000-foot cooler to accept and provide more food, and a capital campaign to add an outdoor structure and heating so that they can continue to provide outdoor service during the coming winter months. They are doing more work during COVID, and they are not alone.

With nearly 3,000 nonprofits in Dane County, the pandemic has hit charitable organizations hard. From food and basic needs, to art, to the environment, every sector of the nonprofit community that makes Dane County so rich has evaluated the situation and, in many instances, reinvented the way they work. For so many nonprofit agencies, their tenacity, mission, and creativity have served them well. They are changing the way they provide services, changes that likely will continue post-pandemic.

Kanopy Dance, a resident of Overture Center, has turned to teaching more than 20 fall classes online, offering both group and individual teaching options. They are able to bring in guest artists from other cities and are participating in a national, virtual dance experience.

The Literacy Network learned that more than 70% of its students had lost their jobs due to the pandemic. So they deepened the work they did, and built on the trust they have built with both their volunteers and clients to help provide grocery cards, gas cards, and job referrals. This brought them success in 2020, both deepening their mission and increasing their fundraising.

Maydm, an organization that provides girls and youth of color with skill-based technology training, has traditionally done face-to-face workshops. While offering remote learning was part of Maydm’s long-term plan, Executive Director Winnie Karanja explains, the pandemic forced their hand and sped up those plans. As a result, Maydm has been able to increase the number of youth served and completed a successful $50,000 campaign to get laptops to students. After the pandemic ends, Maydm plans to integrate remote learning into its regular programming.

We all are looking for silver linings during the pandemic. For some nonprofits, like these, that silver lining involves embracing technology, becoming even more essential to clients, and delivering services in creative ways. Hopefully these groups can weave these innovations into the fabric of their organizations once this storm passes.

A favorite film of mine is Apollo 13, a film in which engineers and astronauts are tested when a lunar flight faces catastrophe. After an on-board explosion deprives the spaceship of most of its oxygen supply, NASA engineers on the ground must help the astronauts build an air compressor to increase cabin oxygen, using only spare parts on board. An engineer throws onto a table all of the spare gear and parts that could possibly be cannibalized from inside the capsule: This is all they have to work with to save their lives. They rise to the challenge and are able to pivot! Their deep knowledge and commitment to the mission help them save the day.

That is how I like to think of Dane County’s nonprofits in 2020.

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