When the pandemic hit Omaha last March, its effect on many local nonprofits was immediate and intense. For many organizations, the national Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act stimulus bill, also known as CARES, provided a much-needed boost of funding that sustained organizations through 2020.
Douglas County was allotted $28 million in CARES Act funding to be distributed to local organizations. Because getting this funding into our community as quickly and efficiently as possible was so crucial, Douglas County turned to the Omaha Community Foundation (OCF) to manage this important project. This partnership was built on the Foundation’s ability to quickly and efficiently distribute funding to organizations in need. We had already gained a great deal of knowledge in the process of launching our own COVID-19 Response Fund within days of the pandemic’s arrival in Omaha. Additionally, we had longstanding relationships with nonprofits in the community and a deep understanding of the work being done locally.
On September 3, the Foundation launched two CARES Act grant programs—one specifically for Arts organizations, and one for nonprofits that were focused on human services. One month later, on the Foundation’s recommendation, we launched a Stimulus program for these same nonprofits. In all, $28 million was infused into our community via 323 grants to nonprofits adversely affected by the pandemic.
It’s now been a year since COVID-19 arrived in the region and we wanted to follow up with local nonprofits to see how they are doing. We spoke with several Arts & Culture organizations who received CARES Act funding. They candidly shared how the grants have made a difference for them, how they’ve adapted during the pandemic, and how they and those they serve are faring now.
New Safety Measures and Virtual Programming
CARES Act funding helped to save the Great Plains Black History Museum from closing, according to Executive Director Eric Ewing. The funding enabled the nonprofit to set up safety measures to reopen under new public health guidelines. And, the museum was able to purchase a new computer, which equipped them with the tools to conduct online presentations and tours. This new worldwide audience of students, businesses, and organizations totaled 1,000 more people reached in 2020 versus the previous year. Eric is bolstered by this positive response to their programming but is hesitant to bank on it as a new model for the organization. Issues of uncertainty rise here, too: “What will happen when people get back into a normal mode of habit? I’m concerned people might be burned out on online programming,” he says.
Eric also shared that businesses and nonprofits in his community in North Omaha are working hard to keep their doors open. However, they are having more difficulty than other parts of the city, aptly pointing out,
When America, as a whole, catches a cold the minority communities get the flu.
Longer-Term Protection for Nonprofit Budgets
CARES Act funding allowed Amplify Arts to roll over some of their 2020 budget into 2021, providing a bit of longer-term protection for the organization. Andy Saladino, Executive Director of Amplify Arts said, “We still don’t know the implications of COVID-19 on our organization two years out – or on the arts long-term. There are a lot of unknowns.” Andy went on to express uncertainties about the future of philanthropy, and especially the arts in Omaha, saying,
I think it’s a miracle that none of the local arts organizations have closed their doors yet. For that to remain true, we need more thought leadership and collaboration, more strategic investment, and more advocacy and support on both the state and national level. This is an American issue not just Omaha – the arts is seen as a luxury and amenity and not essential.
Training and Employment for Arts Teachers
Virtual programming was also something CARES Act funding allowed Nebraska Writers Collective to implement in 2020, including a new avenue for training their teaching artists. The organization pays their contracted teachers to attend the virtual training. This provides much-needed employment for writers, and “it serves us because we get higher quality teachers from it,” Executive Director Matt Mason said. Matt also expressed how the arts make a difference in the lives of the students and incarcerated individuals the organization serves,
These are the times when the arts are most important because they give us hope and sustenance. Our work is about community building and processing the world around you; our students need that more than ever now.
Matt believes that we will see the payoff in Omaha-Council Bluff’s investment in the arts as it comes out of the pandemic. “People will be in better shape overall because these are the things that keep our brains and our hearts alive,” he says.
Donna Kush, OCF’s President and CEO, spoke to the Foundation’s role in the grant distribution saying,
I’m proud to say we have a well-earned reputation in our ability to swiftly and securely distribute funds to nonprofits. We were honored to partner with Douglas County to give our community’s nonprofits a lifeline during this challenging time.
We’re grateful for the ways that local nonprofits have so passionately and efficiently put CARES Act funding to use on the important work they do. We hope these investments in the community will echo in lasting ways throughout the Omaha metro.
To learn more about the impact the Omaha Community Foundation made in 2020, including more information about CARES Act funding, please read our most recent annual report.