A Timeline: United Way’s Local COVID-19 Response

In March of 2020, a global pandemic demanded we reimagine every aspect of daily life. At the United Way of MA Bay and United Way of Greater Seacoast, it was no different – our work had just begun.  

Thanks to our generous community were able to mobilize over $9 million in emergency financial assistance directly to individuals impacted by loss of income.

It was a team effort: 

  • Over 10,000 donors responded to our call. 
  • 348 companies and foundations stepped up. 
  • 189 community organizations distributed relief funds. 

Together, we were able to empower more than 400,000 of our neighbors with the emergency financial relief they needed to care for their families during the pandemic. This series tells the story of those efforts. 

The beginning 

On March 13th, Governor Baker announced the emergency closure of businesses and schools.  People were scrambling as the educational, nutritional, and healthcare systems they relied on shut down or adapted around them.  As an organization with a mission of cross-sector collaboration, United Way was ready to respond. Alongside our partners, we sprang into action to address the sudden loss of food, supplies, employment, childcare, income, and staggering challenge in adapting to public health guidelines. We connected with local nonprofits, municipal leaders, media, and corporate and philanthropic partners. MA and NH 211 call centers received thousands of phone calls.  

The COVID-19 Support Fund launches 

On March 14thUnited Way launched a COVID-19 Family Support Fund and began to distribute flexible financial assistance that week.  In the early days, this support bridged the gaps while key social safety supports like food pantries and school meals programs adapted to operate safely. For families facing abrupt loss of income and childcare, United Way’s relief fund, channeled through community organizations, was a critical lifeline. Our longtime partners at BEST Hospitality Training Center shared,   

“It was United Way who first stepped up to provide direct support to hospitality workers who lost their jobs in March. For this, and for the continued support of our ongoing work, we are eternally grateful.” Joan Abbott, Best HTC  

Many of our partners echoed this sentiment: United Way was the first funder to stand at their side.  

Creativity, collaboration, coordination 

To date, your support of United Way’s COVID-19 Family Support Fund enabled 189 community organizations to do the following:  

  • Ensure Continual or Emergency Service – United Way’s speed allowed critical services to remain open by covering direct assistance. Agencies did not have to choose between operations and clients, as United Way funds allowed a stream of funding to purchase food, diapers, formula, and financial assistance.  
  • Creatively Adapt – United Way’s flexibility allowed agencies to adapt or expand services when and where they were most in need. Agencies found new ways to engage clientele, addressed emerging needs, and adapted to safety measures. United Way’s involvement provided a ‘Seal of Approval’ many vendors, landlords, and government agencies trusted, which leveraged more funding and resources.  
  • Reach Critical Masses – United Way’s scale allowed communities to target those who are often ineligible for public assistance, including single parents, immigrants, and youth experiencing homelessness. 52% of people who received United Way funding received assistance from the nonprofit for the very first time – a scale that would have overwhelmed systems of support without additional resources.   
  • Collaborate – United Way’s coordinated approach fostered a sense of partnership, including collaboration with non-traditional stakeholders in the community, sharing information and resources to provide a faster, more equitable, and more comprehensive response. United Way established a dozen municipal partnerships to localize relief funds, allowing communities to mobilize neighbors to support each other and nonprofits to organize a localized, coordinated approach that aligned private and nonprofit resources effectively.  

Additionally, United Way established localized relief funds in partnership with elected leaders in Chelsea, Lawrence, Lynn, Everett, Revere, and Boston neighborhoods of Mattapan, Dorchester and Hyde Park, among others, to specifically target relief to residents most deeply impacted or those unlikely to qualify for unemployment and other types of assistance. We will cover more on the impact of these local funds in future posts. 

24/7 support 

Over the past yearUnited Way programs Mass 2-1-1 and 2-1-1 NH also emerged as critical lifelines during the pandemic. 2-1-1 provides phone and online information referral services for residents statewide 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  Trained 2-1-1 Information and Referral Specialists connect callers to the local human service organizations and resources that meet their needs.  In Massachusetts, 2-1-1 fielded an average of 615 calls per day – more than double the number of calls from the same time the year before. Nearly half of requests were for Covid-19 assistance. As Katherine Provost, a United Way 211 Information and Referral Specialist explained 

“People were almost in a state of panic over losing the roof over their head which is a terrible feeling. The majority of the callers now are looking for how to stay in their home. How can I pay my rent, I have a 14-day notice, how can I pay my mortgage? One of the fundamental changes we have seen through the pandemic is callers calling from every single community across the state, almost every line of profession, all ages.”  

While the pandemic left no one untouched by loss and disruption, it has also put a spotlight on the alarming disparities that exist within our system. This pivotal moment demands an equity-forward response, and this is the lens that will guide us as we move forward in reimagining and rebuilding a better community for all.  


Stay tuned for more posts covering our local impact and what we’re imagining next.