SeaChange Capital Partners, an organization that helps nonprofits with complex challenges, warned a year ago that nonprofits would have to take decisive action to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the strategies they recommended were that nonprofits refocus on their missions, plan for the future and explore new fundraising options. That is exactly what local nonprofits have been doing.
The Manitou Art Center, for example, has repurposed its two buildings, and its leaders have used the pandemic slowdown to do the strategic planning they didn’t have time to do before.
After closing its facility in March 2020, the Colorado Springs Senior Center found new ways to provide services and new collaborative partners.
The YMCA switched its focus to offering emergency child care, then found new ways to offer exercise classes. The Y also instituted a novel program called Dues to Donations to keep some membership fees flowing.
These three organizations are what the SeaChange analysis termed hybrids — nonprofits that offered programs that could still be provided to some degree despite the pandemic. The other two broad categories were hibernators — organizations like arts venues that had to shut down and remain closed; and responders — organizations like health clinics and homeless centers that saw a spike in demand for their programs.
Here’s a look at how three hybrids — the MAC, the Senior Center and the Y — found creative ways to continue serving their clientele and how they’re preparing to reopen as restrictions ease.
MANITOU ART CENTER
The pandemic has been game-changing for the MAC in more ways than one, said its director, Natalie Johnson.
“When we are fully open, I believe that the art center will be five years ahead of where it was as an organization,” she said.
While supporting 65 events per month and dealing with hundreds of people every day, the center’s staff had no time to assess and plan strategically. But as soon as the center shut down in March 2020, Johnson started having regular staff meetings.
“We were working a five-year strategic plan,” she said. “We were working on a PR plan for the art center. We were working on converting all of our galleries into virtual experiences. Those are all things that will not go away.”
As the center started to reopen again in May 2020, its members told Johnson that they wanted to continue to use their work spaces and the center’s facilities.
“But they said, ‘If you choose to open to the public, we can’t be here” because of pre-existing conditions and other issues, she said. “So we made a choice as an organization to support our members and our artists so that they could continue to use the art center and work out of here, with the understanding that we would need to be closed to the public.”
Johnson said membership has increased from about 65 in early 2020 to about 90 members now.
“We’re just seeing so much energy around our spaces,” she said.
MAC makerspace members pay a monthly fee to access the center’s wood and metal shops, a printmaking space, darkroom, ceramics lab, textile lab, computer lab and smaller individual spaces where artists and craftspeople do their work.
The center shuffled the makerspaces after the pandemic closure forced the end of its preschool program.
The biggest change is that the Pikes Peak Library District’s Manitou Springs Community Library now is housed at the MAC while the city of Manitou explores options for renovation and use of the historic Carnegie library building on Manitou Avenue.
Books line a long hallway at the MAC’s building at 515 Manitou Ave. and fill what used to be the café at the front of the building.
One benefit of the partnership is that patrons with library cards have access to the makerspaces during certain hours of the day.
Johnson said the MAC still is limiting the number of people who can convene in its meeting spaces, participate in classes or enter the galleries during First Friday openings.
“However, we haven’t had to turn anyone away,” she said. “They may have to wait 10 minutes before they can enter a gallery, or we may schedule two additional clay instructional classes so that we can keep the classes smaller. I feel like we are adjusting to the comfort level of our users, and they are appreciating a gradual rollout.”
Indoor events this summer will overflow into the parking lot between the MAC’s two buildings.
“We’re going to have an outdoor beer and wine garden, just to eliminate that factor of folks having to remove their masks inside to take a sip of wine,” she said. Prepackaged foods will replace buffet-style service.
The outdoor wine and beer experience, as well as live music outdoors, will greet visitors at next month’s First Friday event on May 7.
Several other summer events, including a farm and art market, are in the works, and the library is planning to offer programming as well.
“We really are at this sort of transformative moment where access is increased,” Johnson said.
It took a close look at the Colorado Springs Senior Center’s core services and a lot of creativity to continue providing services after the pandemic forced closure in March 2020, said Mary Duran, operation and programs director.
Before the pandemic, the center, which is owned by the city of Colorado Springs and operated by the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, offered numerous events and classes, plus daily meals. Hundreds of people filled the center every day.
The center’s management wanted to continue operating meal service, check in with patrons and somehow provide social engagement in their homes, Duran said. The Y and other partners supplied resources and helped figure out the logistics.
“The big thing we did in the midst of all this was transition our meal program to be picked up once a week,” Duran said. The center worked with Silver Key Senior Services, which prepared meals, froze them and bagged them in packages of five meals.
“For those seniors who are homebound and couldn’t get transportation to come pick up those meals, we had a group of volunteers step up and hand-deliver those meals to people’s houses,” she said. “We’ve been doing that through the whole pandemic.”
Each week, about 70 people pick up their meals at the center, and meals are delivered to about 70 people in their homes.
When the lockdown began, Y staff called about 16,000 older adult members to ask what they needed.
“Out of those calls, we gathered about 300 special projects,” Duran said. They included surprise delivery of a birthday cake at the request of the honoree’s husband, and help for an older woman who broke her ankle and wasn’t able to take out her trash.
“It was a unique opportunity for us to engage in ways we wouldn’t normally,” Duran said.
The center’s program director emailed daily challenges to homebound seniors that included new recipes to try and short dance lessons. The center also enlisted high school students as pen pals to correspond with seniors.
Last summer, the center conducted meetups in several city parks, where people would bring their own lunches and enjoy each other’s company while wearing masks and socially distancing. It also offered outdoor tai chi and yoga classes.
“As we could, we offered in-person classes,” limited in size, “and we really focused on virtual classes,” Duran said. The center used grant funding to build a platform for virtual delivery of classes.
The senior center is planning a soft reopening in May. While it will not immediately offer a coffee bar or food service or host programs like the bridge club, “we’re hoping we can slowly get back to where we were,” Duran said.
“I think our partnership with the schools has definitely strengthened over this time,” she said. For the volunteers who have been delivering meals, “I love the personal connection that has been created,” she said. “I want to try to incorporate that back into what we offer.”
The YMCA shut down all of its fitness facilities and turned its focus to child care for first responders, emergency personnel and essential workers.
“For maybe two months, that’s all we did,” Marketing and Communications Director Jenna Press said.
As restrictions started to lift, staff got creative to figure out how to offer fitness services.
To meet distancing guidelines, treadmills and free weights were moved into hallways.
Group exercise classes were a particular challenge.
“We did 10 feet of social distancing rather than 6,” Press said. “That drastically decreased our capacities, so we implemented a reservation system.”
The Y also offered virtual group classes, free to members, that turned out to be quite popular.
“We ended up launching on a virtual platform called BurnAlong in December,” Press said. The Y plans to keep that service going indefinitely.
A three-event race series the Y usually sponsors during October through December had to be canceled, but at the last minute, Press’ team decided to resurrect the popular Turkey Trot race in November and turned it into a virtual event.
“We ended up with a couple thousand people signing up from all over the country” and as far away as Germany, she said.
The Y plans to open outdoor pools on Memorial Day and is taking reservations for summer camps. The Stars and Stripes golf tournament, an annual fundraiser for military families, will go ahead on June 7 at The Club at Flying Horse.
As a nonprofit, the Y depends on sources of income that include grants, program fees and membership dues.
The organization allowed people to put their memberships on hold during the shutdown, but more than 10 percent of members participated in Dues to Donations, where they kept on paying their dues but had them credited as donations.
“It was absolutely touching how everyone stepped up to make sure that we could continue to serve the community,” Press said.