In the Face of COVID-19 Challenges, Nonprofits Innovate and Partner to Solve Community Issues

August 25, 2020

United Way’s 2020 Venture Fund Competition, presented by Aetna, awards $300,000 to four game-changing Ideas

BOSTON — To help local nonprofits innovate and address the critical needs that are growing by the day in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, in collaboration with Aetna, a CVS Health Company, is awarding new grants of $75,000 each to four nonprofits who are partnering around issues of food insecurity, homelessness, school readiness and juvenile justice.  Winning ideas include the development of a digital food pantry in Malden, an initiative that incentivizes landlords in New Hampshire to make rental units affordable, a kindergarten readiness program on the South Shore, and a new partnership to serve justice-involved youth in Boston.

“Like many industries and sectors, nonprofits have had to quickly adapt and innovate their service delivery models during the COVID19 crisis,” said Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.  “The urgency for innovation and change has only increased as the pandemic has significantly impacted nonprofit resources while intensifying the needs and inequalities they are trying to address in their communities.  We’re incredibly proud that our annual Venture Fund competition in partnership with Aetna was able to move forward virtually this year and stay focused on awarding funds to get promising new ideas into practice.”

In this year’s United Way Venture Fund competition, eight nonprofits were chosen from a pool of over 50 applicants to pitch their innovative initiatives to tackle challenges faced by the most vulnerable members of our community. The following four partnerships were chosen, and each lead organization will receive $75,000 to bring their idea to life and scale:

As the COVID-19 crisis hit, the Malden YMCA transformed their facilities into food distribution sites, distributing groceries to 300-800 families per day from three communities and distributing 350 boxed breakfasts and lunches per day to children.  The dramatic increase in families requesting food created some challenges for their 900 sq foot food pantry – tracking inventory, collecting household data to plan what inventory was needed and being able to send alerts to families.

To address these issues, the Malden YMCA partnered with Deep Why Design to design a digital pantry. The new digital pantry will provide scalable technology for pantries of all sizes to track clients and inventory in real time, provide a system for homebound individuals to select their own food, allow individuals the dignity of online ordering and the ability to see the what is available at pantries in their area before they make their way to there. The goal is for all food pantries in Eastern Massachusetts to have access to this computer system and to expand “digital pantries” to other locations where brick and mortar pantries are not available.

“People now realize that many families are one paycheck away from needing to use a food pantry like ours’ said Debbie Amaral, President and CEO at the Malden YMCA.  “Access to food is something that is a basic necessity that can help you make a decision between paying for medicine, electricity or another basic need for your children. Being able to apply and receive funding for this idea was incredible.”

More Than Words (MTW) will partner with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office (Suffolk County DA’s Office) and the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) to develop a shared understanding of how to best serve justice-involved youth. They will establish training about trauma, brain development, and the needs of young people to create formal policies for both offices that support these needs. The training will be delivered jointly to defense attorneys and prosecutors to build working relationships and enable conversations centered on problem-solving and positive outcomes. The goal is to drive systemic change and reroute young adults facing adult criminal charges out of the justice system as early as possible.

“This investment really matters, especially during this difficult time with COVID and during a real moment when the light is shining on racial injustices,” said Jodi Rosenbaum, Founder and CEO at More than Words. “For United Way to lean in and invest in our young people in the midst of everything going on is an incredible testament to the potential of our youth and the power of this idea.”

Home for All, a collaboration of nonprofits, housing providers, and government agencies will expand their Affordable Housing Incentive Program (AHIP) which will reduce the current shelter bottleneck by half and waitlists by a third. AHIP is a comprehensive set of tools for landlords to incentivize making rental units affordable and to prevent eviction. These efforts will lead to 30 new units of affordable housing for at least 70 individuals and family members in its first year.

“We’ve seen a 20% increase in the length of shelter stays over the past five years, and our efforts have really been stymied by a lack of affordable housing,” said Paige Farmer, Director, Home for All.  “This solution goes right to the source of the housing market and creates a slate of incentives, both financial and programmatic, that might tip someone to take less rent in order to help a community.  We’re grateful to have an investor and a champion that can help us launch a project that has not been tried in its totality anywhere in the country.”

South Shore Stars, in partnership with Brockton Area Multi-Services (BAMSI) will launch PRISM (Preschool Integrated Supports and Modeling) to better meet the needs of children with developmental delays during the “gap years” between early intervention services and kindergarten. Stars has created a multidisciplinary team composed of speech, occupational, physical and mental health therapists, to provide extensive training and coaching to Stars’ 40 preschool teachers and parents, developing individual plans to support different children and help them successfully transition to Kindergarten. PRISM will develop 75 plans to support children and their families in its first year.

“Our solution is unique because it brings two agencies together to meet a need for children ages three to five who fall into what we call “the gap’” – they have finished early intervention services at age three but they don’t start public school until kindergarten,” said Debby Stratton, Preschool Program Director at South Shore Stars.  “With this funding, we will be able to support our most at-risk children and help them get ready for kindergarten.”

United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, in collaboration with Aetna, a CVS Health company, created its first-ever Social Innovation Venture Fund competition last year to seed new, innovative and collaborative solutions to entrenched community issues.  Through this process, United Way makes one-year grants to a portfolio of nonprofit organizations that have the experience, community presence, and relationships to approach a big problem in a new way, as well as a long-term vision for how their approach can be scaled to achieve lasting change for all those who need it in their community.

One of last year’s winners, a partnership between FamilyAid Boston and Boston Public Schools to support children experiencing housing instability, leveraged its Venture Fund grant to design a research proposal with Boston College School of Social Work that aims to better understand the impact of earlier intervention and help build the capacity of schools and community agencies to apply that learning to benefit more families. This proposal was recently funded by the WT Grant Foundation with a highly-selective $635,000 Institutional Challenge grant.

Other past winners include a ground-breaking partnership between Urban College of Boston and Tufts Medical Center to create clinical research career opportunities for underserved communities, an initiative spearheaded by Lawrence CommunityWorks to transform local manufacturers into bilingual workspaces, and a community-wide effort to end food insecurity in Newburyport led by Our Neighbor’s Table.