‘Change is the new normal’ for Vineyard nonprofits

Benevolent organizations adapt to public health crisis with ingenuity and agility.

Nonprofits on Martha’s Vineyard are finding new ways to support the community that relies so heavily on the multitude of services they offer.

These benevolent organizations have long been the backbone of the Island, and that hasn’t changed since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In the past couple of months, the need for those essential services, provided by nonprofits like Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), the Island Food Pantry, MVYouth, and many more, has become even more pressing.

But the abnormal, uncertain times we are living in have created new obstacles for nonprofits, and new goals to meet. For some, their ambitions have simply spread to a broader array of support services — others have had to entirely rethink where their efforts should be focused, and reorient their services accordingly.

Jackie Friedman, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Nonprofit Collaborative (MVNC), said her organization has had to shift its focus from long-term strategic initiatives to more immediate needs in the recent months.

One main goal of the MVNC is to increase visibility for nonprofit organizations and advocate for them within the larger Vineyard network. Friedman said this involves helping nonprofits with public seminars, fundraising, and other events to support their goals.

But with so many events and fundraising initiatives canceled because of public health guidelines, Friedman said, the collaborative is currently working to identify which nonprofits need the most support, and where they fit into the fabric of the Island currently.

Friedman said she has been impressed with the speed with which nonprofits on Martha’s Vineyard are pivoting to meet the changing needs of the community. Within just a few days of the pandemic hitting, Friedman said, MVCS was already thinking of new ways to assist.

“They were approached with the need for diapers and wipes, because those items were becoming increasingly hard to find. They immediately started to fill that need for people,” Friedman said.

After the lockdown, MVCS also quickly found ways to make their mental health support services accessible without having to see people in person. They began offering all their mental health programming and private sessions online, so that people who are struggling will continue to have support. MVCS also took on the immense task of creating a comprehensive online platform where volunteers are matched with the best jobs for them as individuals.

While most nonprofits have conventionally relied on donor contributions and fundraisers to garner financial support, most of those gatherings have either been canceled or postponed. But some organizations have found innovative ways to continue with some of their most anticipated events, such as the MVCS Possible Dreams Auction, which will now be held in a virtual format.

“There is always this pressure to get your voice out there and garner support. I would say that challenge became exponentially more difficult when our nonprofits couldn’t depend on these big summer fundraisers,” Friedman said.

She said that in the larger response, all nonprofits have had to reimagine what they deliver, or deliver it differently, in order to continue engaging with the community.

Friedman noted how the food equity programs on-Island, such as the Island Food Pantry and Island Grown Initiative, have rallied to make sure that nutritious food is accessible to all.

She also highlighted the YMCA, and how it has converted all programs and classes into a virtual format.

“If early childhood services aren’t there, we can’t recover. If people can’t have access to food, we can’t be the same Island we always have,” Friedman said. Many organizations that might normally be in competition with one another for a particular donor base, Friedman said, are now looking to share their donor access, and collaborate. Despite all this quick thinking and teamwork, Friedman said, there are some nonprofits that will not make it through this unprecedented time. “I think what we need to be doing now is looking at what nonprofits are the most integral parts of our community, and how we can support them so they can survive through this,” Friedman said.

One organization that has continued to support the Island community in new and unique ways is MVYouth, led by executive director Lindsey Scott. MVYouth has always sought to enrich the lives of young people on Martha’s Vineyard by providing financial support.

Scott said that in early April, the MVYouth board of trustees met to discuss various community organizations that would need financial support, but weren’t necessarily in their conventional youth-focused wheelhouse.

In the past, MVYouth grant processes were normally conducted in the fall. Trustees would go through an extensive vetting process to determine finalists for grants. This time around, the process was more of a needs assessment, where MVYouth spoke to a variety of nonprofits to determine which ones needed the most support.

In April, MVYouth generated $500,000 in emergency funds to help combat the COVID-19 crisis. The recipients of these funds were deemed essential to the community by MVYouth.

“We felt that we had the money to be nimble. And because we can be quick, we should be,” Scott said. “We made $50,000 in grants to the Food Pantry and IGI in order to respond to food insecurity, which is an immediate and glaring community need.”

Even though MVYouth and many other benevolent organizations are stepping outside of the norm, Scott said, she has great trust in the nonprofits she works with.

“What all of our awards have in common is that we are building a relationship with these nonprofits, even if we are stepping out of our normal behavior,” Scott said.

For the Island Food Pantry and many other nonprofits, pantry executive director Kayte Morris said, “change is the new normal.”

Immediately following the implementation of state and local health guidelines, folks at the Food Pantry started to think outside the box about how to provide consistent access to food while also being safe.

And out of all that quick thinking came an ingenious approach that led to at-home deliveries for homebound or elderly pantry members, and outdoor food pickups that minimize contact between pantry workers and members of the public.

“When this whole thing started, we had to completely rethink the way we distribute food,” Morris said. “When we realized we couldn’t bring clients to the basement of the church anymore because of distancing measures, we thought about how to approach that.”

Currently, the Food Pantry is delivering to about 170 seniors and homebound families every Thursday. And that takes a lot of assistance from volunteers, who plan out delivery routes, pack the trucks, and drive all around the Island, delivering food where it’s needed most.

The next step for Food Pantry is to begin doing preorders for food pickups. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to food access, Morris said it will be more efficient to tailor-fit each bag of food to an individual or group’s needs.

“We have learned that when people pick what they want, they leave what they don’t want,” Morris said.

If a family has one vegetarian in the mix, Morris said that family could opt for more fresh produce and less meat. And if there is one person who chooses not to get a particular item, Morris said there will be someone in line to grab it soon after.

“It still feels like we can’t plan anything more than like three days out,” Morris said. “Right now, all we can do is focus on making sure we have enough food and volunteers to manage our organization for the next week or so.”

MVCS executive director Julie Fay said that after clinicians’ and counselors’ offices were forced to close their doors, Community Services worked fast to go virtual with all their connections to the public.

“Within a couple days, we had donated laptops in the hands of clinicians and counselors, and we had them utilizing a telehealth platform,” Fay said. This means that the folks who have always relied heavily on MVCS for mental health support services and substance use counseling could continue accessing those resources.

The Island Counseling Center (the only outpatient mental health clinic on-Island) has been tracking units of service, and found that counselors are serving 110 percent of their usual client base. “So the need for mental health services has gone up. Behavioral health issues as a result of COVID-19 have increased rather dramatically,” Fay said.

Now, Fay said, the complex task of reopening buildings and shifting back to a more conventional way of doing business is on the horizon for MVCS and many other nonprofits.

“This has impacted every single aspect of all that we do,” Fay said. “I believe as an organization, we have gotten stronger. But now the question is, How do you ensure the safety of clients and staff upon reopening?”