The COVID-19 pandemic has hit social service agencies in Polk County with a big challenge: At a time when demand for their services is way up, they’re seeing major drops in donations.

That was the assessment of Alice Koehler, CEO of Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, who represented United Way agencies in a teleconference Wednesday on Polk County’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. The Zoom teleconference, sponsored by United Way of Central Florida, was attended by about 65 people.

“While I have not spoken with every agency, I have spoken with quite a few,” said Koehler, vice chair of United Way’s Agency Directors Council. Among her findings:

* Every agency is showing resiliency at adjusting to social distancing guidelines. Most agencies’ staff members are telecommuting.

* All agencies are experiencing extreme financial impact due to decreased fundraising.

Camp Fire Sunshine Central Florida, the Alliance for Independence and LVIM are among organizations that have had to postpone their major fundraisers of the year.

A lot of mid-range donors have not been able to give due to loss of income, and agencies dependent on membership are seeing impact as layoffs have impacted dues.

Some agencies that receive financial assistance from local sales taxes, including the tourism tax and health services taxes, will see the impact as the business shutdown is reflected in government revenue.

* Health care agencies, such as Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, are seeing upside-down cash flow as they take measures such as filling prescriptions for 60 days and 90 days, rather than the usual 30 days, to help clients maintain social distancing.

* Some agencies have had to furlough employees or do mass layoffs, although Koehler declined to say which ones.

* Partner agencies in some of the more rural areas, especially in Highlands and Hardee counties, are having more problems pivoting because of technology issues than agencies in more densely populated Lakeland.

During a comment portion of the meeting, Stacy Walsh, chief development officer of the YMCA of West Central Florida, said that all Y facilities are providing child care services for health care workers, first responders and other essential workers, and those child care services include working with Polk Public Schools to provide mentoring for lessons.

Monday is the first deadline for local nonprofit organizations to apply for grants through the United Community Relief Fund, a joint COVID-19 response by United Way of Central Florida and GiveWell Community Foundation. Donations to the fund can be made online.

During the teleconference, Christina Criser Jackson, United Way, president and CEO, said, “Our team rapidly adjusted. United Way and GiveWell did an immediate needs assessment. We identified the greatest needs as food, shelter, medical equipment and child care.

“This is an adjustment to our typical operations,” Jackson said. “While COVID-19 will not change our mission, we must change how we react to fulfill our mission.”

Any 501c3 non-profit is invited to apply for a grant, she said. Priority will be given to organizations working in food distribution, shelter assistance, health and medical protective equipment and childcare for essential workers.

Tip Fowler, chair of United Way resource development and of the 2019-2020 fundraising campaign, facilitated Wednesday’s meeting. He said that normally this time of year United Way would be making a final push on its annual fundraising campaign but that campaign has been “sunset” so that all can focus on strategic issues of the COVID crisis.

“That does not mean that the efforts of staff will not be on our 2020-2021 United Way campaign as we come out of this,” Fowler said.

Barney Barnett, vice chairman emeritus of Publix Supermarkets, who spoke about philanthropy, said, “There is a lot of opportunity to be generous in this cause. We will see if there is opportunity for the Barnett family and others to get involved.”

With money coming from state and federal governments to offset the shutdown’s impact, “it is very difficult right now to figure out where voids are and where we can best fill that with money. Hopefully, within the next couple of days we can figure that out.”

Publix Charities has placed its emphasis on filling food shortages, he said.

John Attaway, the new president and CEO of GiveWell, said that “now our purpose is to aid nonprofits on the front line of the COVID issue. A lot of effort now is working to raise dollars through GiveWell donors, United Way donors and others.”

Mayor Bill Mutz said the city of Lakeland’s shutdown of parks has been controversial, but the emphasis remains on social distancing and preserving health.

“We do want people exercising, but in the neighborhoods where they live. I cannot imagine we will open parks until end of May and probably into June. It is important that we keep them closed longer than we would like.”

Mutz said he applauds Lakeland Regional Health for its planning, including the possibility that as the number of cases in Polk County wanes, “we may have to take up sharing some of the care of more populous neighboring Orange and Hillsborough counties, even Miami-Dade.”

Mutz said that overall social distancing seems to be working well and the Police Department is helping with that by talking with people and businesses that do not seem to understand the importance of following guidelines.

“We want to keep it simple. If you are not an essential business and you want to do business, you should do it electronically and provide shipping. Otherwise, you are closed. Our job is to protect people, protect lives, nothing else.”

Jackson said that a question she has heard over and over is will this shift in focus have an impact on the annual United Way campaign, which raises funds for partner agencies throughout the community.

“Absolutely,” she said.

While the traditional fundraising model is still operating, in this time of the pandemic crisis the shift to to the United Community Relief Fund shows donors and the community the effectiveness future donations will have, Jackson said.

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