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Crisis responders: the state’s resourceful nonprofits, which navigated a year like no other

Funny Asian Women Kollective (FAWK) and Walker West Music Academy, for example, both embraced their roles working at the intersection of art, performance, community, healing, and learned to find new ways to engage and support their served communities.

In Minnesota we have a creative, resourceful and resilient nonprofit sector and extraordinarily generous donors who acknowledge and support the essential work they do. As we head into another winter, likely made more difficult for our nonprofit community by the pandemic, we must ensure ongoing support for the critical services they provide to our community.

Dr. Eric J. Jolly
Dr. Eric J. Jolly
The arrival of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 disrupted the ability of nonprofits of all varieties — arts and culture, social service, youth development, education, elderly programming, mental health, housing stability and more — to fulfill their missions and serve their targeted communities. Amidst that crisis, the trauma and unrest following the murder of George Floyd only exacerbated the urgent need to close our state’s disturbing racial disparities in health and wellness, economic opportunity, educational achievement and home ownership — work in which so many of our state’s nonprofits are constructively engaged.

To help meet the needs, our state’s private philanthropists, business community and foundations came together. At the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, inflows to our donor advised funds reached record levels in 2020, helping to enable grants totaling more than $100 million to some 9,000 organizations, initiatives and projects. In March 2020, a broad coalition of family, community and corporate foundations quickly formed and funded the Minnesota Disaster Recovery Fund. This fund eventually disbursed more than $11 million statewide specifically to support recovery and resilience in our nonprofit sector. Working through community-level intermediaries, the fund helped support more than 1,700 nonprofits and more than 3,000 businesses statewide.

Our community recognized a need — and we all rose to the challenge.

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While the philanthropic response to 2020’s challenges was certainly gratifying, the creativity and agility demonstrated by so many nonprofits in these exceptionally trying times were equally energizing. There are myriad examples among our foundation’s grantees of organizations that recognized an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent themselves in the midst of the pandemic’s impact and the trauma and unrest in the community.

Among those examples are two organizations that, at first glance, would not seem like organizations we would view as crisis responders, but they did respond: Funny Asian Women Kollective (FAWK) and Walker West Music Academy. However, both embraced their roles working at the intersection of art, performance, community and healing, and learned to find new ways to engage and support their served communities.

At FAWK, even as performances were canceled and affiliated artists struggled with the financial consequences, leaders recognized the need to push back hard against heightened pandemic-induced xenophobia and violence against Asian Americans — xenophobia that struck close to home given what some of our own staff and their families experienced.

FAWK responded in its uniquely irreverent and humor-infused way, keeping its anti-racism messages prominent through collaborations with other arts and advocacy organizations, moving its anti-racism workshops online and literally taking its work to the streets via “trunk shows” performed from the back of a pickup truck. “Through comedy and laughter, we were able to help our communities talk about our identities and how to deal with Asian hate,” said FAWK co-founder May Lee Yang.

At Walker West, 2020 required reassessing its commitment to families to determine what they needed in the face of the year’s challenges, how Walker West could provide it and what other services it could offer. Rooted in the African American experience and grounded in their mission to help community grow and heal through music, Walker West made an intentional pivot to online instruction and online recitals, enabling the organization to serve students from outside the immediate area, as well as attract new visitors from as far away as Brazil and Kenya. This pivot was far from a simple shift to online platforms. Rather, it required persistent communication with staff and families, special training for instructors and identifying and developing new training formats for individual and ensemble lessons, early childhood programs and Walker West’s Amazing Grace Chorus. In addition to music instruction, Walker West successfully adapted to a virtual format to stream its Rondo Community Music Series broadening its reach nationally and internationally.

The foundation’s support for FAWK and Walker West is representative of the work we do on behalf of our donors to nurture our region’s nonprofits of all sizes in all stages of development. We do this to help foster a nonprofit ecosystem that contributes to quality of life, equity and engagement and to ensure that emerging nonprofits, those growing or reinventing themselves and established organizations all have the potential to thrive. Our Management Improvement Fund which, since 1985, has been helping nonprofits with essential capacity-building work like strategic planning, board development and organizational assessments, also supports this essential work.

As the pandemic lingers and progress in closing race-based disparities remains painfully slow, we cannot let fatigue undermine our nonprofit sector. At the foundation we will continue to work with donors as they remain alert to the unmet needs in our community, so that our nonprofit sector can continue to innovate, pivot and again rise to the timely challenges that we face as a community.

Eric J. Jolly, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, which oversees $1.7 billion in charitable assets.

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