Tulsa World: Local nonprofits figuring out how to thrive despite pandemic: ‘It takes adapting’

Alison Anthony

By Rhett Morgan
Tulsa World
Dec 31, 2021 Updated Jan 1, 2022
Click to read the Tulsa World version online 

The United States has about 1.8 million nonprofit organizations, many of which thrived before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute.

From 2015 through 2019, 58% of nonprofits sustained growth in donations. But more groups (37% overall) reported decreased donations in 2020 than the previous five years combined, according to a recent Urban Institute study.

Events in 2021, including supply-chain issues, labor shortages, high inflation and the lingering public health crisis, have only exacerbated that instability, local nonprofits say.

“The common theme over the last couple of years is that everybody didn’t just work differently, they also had to work harder,” said Alison Anthony, president and CEO of the Tulsa Area United Way. “Our 59 partner agencies, alone, employ more than 4,000 people to serve the community, so they have the same workforce challenges and labor challenges that the for-profit community are seeing. We are seeing labor shortages. We are seeing salaries go up.

“One organization lost two employees to an out-of-state, for-profit organization because they are able to work virtually. People are hiring virtual remote workers. The nonprofit community, whose wages might not be as high, … are trying to be creative in the packages and the flexibility that they put together. It’s certainly mission-driven work, but if someone can work from home and make 20% more, you can’t blame them for doing that.”

The Pencil Box, a local nonprofit that provides supplies to needy schools, recently conducted a capital campaign to break ground on a new $2.2 million, 11,000-square-foot facility in west Tulsa. The current economic climate made attaining that goal tough.

“We are persistent,” said Nancy Bolzle, founder and executive director of the Pencil Box. “That’s what it takes. It takes adapting and just figuring out how to do it.”

Martha Zapata was a licensed psychologist in Colombia before coming to the United States in 1998. She earned her U.S. citizenship in 2006.

In July 2020, Zapata founded the Tulsa nonprofit Uma Center, which develops curriculum and workforce
development programs for Latinx and other under-served populations.

“Some people don’t understand that it takes a long time to become fluent in a second language,” she said. “They underestimate that. It is a challenge to learn.”

The Uma Center is funded primarily through contracts and grants. The George Kaiser Family Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health are among those supporting her work.

“Latinos, we primarily work in the service industries, hospitality, construction,” Zapata said. “Those sectors have been impacted heavily during the pandemic. A lot of Latino families did not have a security blanket.

“It was very hard for most Hispanics to access that government funding that was available to most of us. So many Hispanic families were left behind.”

At the Tulsa Area United Way, it reached the goal for its annual campaign, raising about $25.5 million in 2021. But $2 million of that was generated in the two weeks leading up to the deadline.

“It’s harder to connect with people when they are working remotely,” Anthony said. “People are just deluged with online information. Does anyone really want to get on one more Zoom call to talk about the United Way? So it was a little harder and a little slower out of the gate to connect with people remotely, and companies haven’t shifted to in-person United way campaigns.”

In 2019, TAUW ran 12 campaigns that were entirely virtual, generating $200,000, she said. In 2021, the
organization oversaw more than 200 virtual fundraising events that resulted in several million dollars’ worth of impact.

“The workforce has changed more than it has probably since the industrial revolution,” Anthony said. “Many of these things aren’t going back. Over the last couple of years, we saw a whole different group of people in need who haven’t reached out for help before. Certainly, the needs have increased.

“We’re all having to figure out how to deliver these services in new ways, really re-inventing and re-imagining the way they do work while dealing with all of these new challenges.”

That’s not to say that every alteration was bad. Historically, the nonprofit’s annual Day of Caring attracts more than 5,000 donors on a single day.

In 2021, that grew to four Days of Caring, drawing an additional 3,000 volunteers.

“This year we’re going to have 8,000 people this year, alone, who built playgrounds, gardens, mentored, wrote notes to teachers, served coffee carts to hospital workers,” Anthony said.

Topsy-turvy year aside, she said it’s important to remember the resiliency of the human spirit.

“I will honestly and very pointedly say that United Ways around the country, other nonprofits around the country, are calling me, saying, ‘Wow, how is Tulsa doing this in a second year of a pandemic?’ she said. “I just say Tulsa is an amazing community. We really are one of the most generous communities.

“People just don’t give up. They care. They know their friends. We’re a small enough community that people know one another. They know we’ve faced hardships, and they know we all need help sometimes.”

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