How a Community Grants Program Pivoted to Address Local Needs During the Pandemic

Posted February 1, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Fusion Partners works to provide services to the Baltimore community during the pandemic

Image provided by Fusion Partnerships

As the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic cre­at­ed a lot of new, press­ing needs for Bal­ti­more res­i­dents, Fusion Part­ner­ships, a city non­prof­it, felt that it need­ed to change the approach of its inFu­sion Com­mu­ni­ty Grants pro­gram — which typ­i­cal­ly funds res­i­dent-led projects in three neigh­bor­hoods on the city’s east side.

So, the orga­ni­za­tion, which is fund­ed in part by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, trans­formed the mis­sion of its small grants com­mit­tee that typ­i­cal­ly selects local grantees. Instead of review­ing grant appli­ca­tions, the com­mit­tee — which is made up of sev­er­al res­i­dents from the three east-side neigh­bor­hoods: C.A.R.E., McElder­ry Park and Mid­dle East — would iden­ti­fy needs in their com­mu­ni­ties spurred by the coro­n­avirus out­break and fund projects to help address them.

The small grants com­mit­tee knew 2020 required some­thing dif­fer­ent,” says Alli­son Dug­gan, who man­ages the com­mu­ni­ty grants pro­gram for Fusion Part­ner­ships. So, it decid­ed to use its col­lec­tive ties to neigh­bor­hoods to iden­ti­fy, and then help address, some of the top con­cerns we were hear­ing from our neigh­bors. We expect the small grants com­mit­tee will con­tin­ue to make sim­i­lar invest­ments in 2021.”

Below are some of the efforts the small grants com­mit­tee fund­ed, start­ing in spring of 2020:

  • Short­ly after the coro­n­avirus out­break began, the com­mit­tee moved quick­ly to pro­vide as many res­i­dents as pos­si­ble with clean­ing and hygiene prod­ucts, such as soap, wipes and dis­in­fec­tant sprays. Many com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers had lost wages because of the out­break and were strug­gling to afford and access such items. The com­mit­tee con­tin­ued these dis­tri­b­u­tions in the sum­mer and fall — pro­vid­ing 800 pack­ages of clean­ing and hygiene prod­ucts to res­i­dents at four local events.
  • The com­mit­tee also pro­vid­ed small grants to four local ele­men­tary and mid­dle schools meant to sup­port efforts to help stu­dents as they learned remote­ly. This includ­ed sup­port for school pro­grams meant to help stu­dents pur­chase books, note­books and oth­er learn­ing mate­ri­als; boost enroll­ment in tutor­ing ses­sions; and offer stu­dents prizes, such as small toys or books, as incen­tives for reg­u­lar atten­dance in online classes.
  • Last Octo­ber, the com­mit­tee fund­ed and host­ed a work­shop for com­mu­ni­ty res­i­dents on how to reg­is­ter to vote and fill out the 2020 Cen­sus form. Near­ly 15 peo­ple reg­is­tered to vote at the out­door gath­er­ing (which adhered to mask-wear­ing and social-dis­tanc­ing guide­lines) and sev­er­al filled out their Cen­sus forms, too. At anoth­er Octo­ber work­shop, more than a dozen peo­ple learned how to nav­i­gate Maryland’s unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits web­site and were giv­en advice on how to find and apply for jobs online.

As a com­mit­tee of res­i­dents, we under­stand what peo­ple need on the ground,” says Don­ald Gre­sham, a Mid­dle East res­i­dent who is a mem­ber of the small grants com­mit­tee. We also know where some of the gaps are in terms of sup­port and have based our rec­om­men­da­tions and fund­ing deci­sions around that knowledge.”

Sup­port­ing res­i­dent-led efforts

Dug­gan says that it’s impor­tant that non­prof­its sup­port­ing com­mu­ni­ty response efforts trust res­i­dents to under­stand their neigh­bor­hoods’ needs and view local peo­ple as key advi­sors in iden­ti­fy­ing projects and ini­tia­tives to fund. Res­i­dent-led efforts also require guid­ance and admin­is­tra­tive sup­port for man­ag­ing bud­gets, order­ing sup­plies, exe­cut­ing projects and sched­ul­ing meet­ings and events — sup­port that Fusion pro­vid­ed to the small grants com­mit­tee and that oth­er local non­prof­its can offer to sim­i­lar efforts.

We’re so pleased to see the many cre­ative ways com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in East Bal­ti­more have worked to address con­cerns aris­ing from the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic,” says Bur­gun­di Alli­son, a pro­gram asso­ciate with the Casey Foun­da­tion. We hope that key stake­hold­ers in Bal­ti­more and else­where see this and rec­og­nize that local res­i­dents are key to under­stand­ing and address­ing com­mu­ni­ty needs.”

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