COVID-19 has challenged nonprofits like never before—and nonprofits have risen to the occasion in their own unique ways.
In this podcast series, we explore how nonprofits are adapting their fundraising strategies to a difficult moment. We sat down (virtually, of course) with leaders from across the sector to hear what they have been doing and what they have learned. Follow us as we discover strategies that have helped a diverse array of organizations survive and thrive during a challenging time.
Our first episode features Campbell & Company Senior Consultant Elizabeth Suffredin Boyle speaking with Josh Hale, President and CEO of Big Shoulders Fund.
Check out other episodes:
Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below:
Elizabeth Suffredin Boyle: We're so happy that you're joining us today! Today, we'll be discussing how Big Shoulders Fund is navigating both the challenges and opportunities brought about by COVID-19.
Josh, while Big Shoulders Fund is well known throughout Chicago and in philanthropic circles, for those listening who may not be familiar, can you share a bit about not just the organization, but yourself?
Josh Hale: Thank you again, it's great you guys are doing this, and I look forward to seeing all these podcasts and learning from them.
Big Shoulders Fund has been around since 1986, and it's a charitable nonprofit organization that works to ensure all children in Chicago, particularly in under-resourced communities, have access to a quality values-based education in a safe and structured environment that prepares them to be successful for a brighter future and to be our neighbors here in Chicago contributing to the leadership of our city, state, and nation.
We do that by working through inner-city Catholic schools. We have 75 Catholic schools we work with primarily in the South and West sides of Chicago. They serve about 20,000 children, 80% minority, about 70% living in poverty.
We ensure that our classrooms have the best teachers and supports and access to new curriculum and technology. We support teachers in their efforts to be better and better at their craft. We work at building a pipeline of leaders in our schools, from recruiting teachers into our schools to becoming assistant principals and principals.
But we also invest a lot in the children and making sure that they have all the experiences we would want for any child. Whether it's test prep, going to a museum, doing a college visit, or getting a chance to attend the camp we run in Wyoming, which is focused on STEM and leadership. So really giving them all those supports to be successful.
But these 75 schools, while they are primarily a provider of education, they are also a community-based organization. We think that by them being open in that neighborhood, emanating good beacons of hope, that strengthens neighborhoods and communities where we need a strengthened community. So that's been another major focus for our work.
While there's a lot more we do, what we look at over time is, certainly an individual year and test score growth and all those important things, but really we look at where our eighth graders go to high school. We want to make sure they transition to the top high schools in the city of Chicago.
Elizabeth: What's the most innovative fundraising or programmatic initiative you have introduced during these past few months?
Josh: That's a great question. I think survival was probably part of that somewhere along the line, which is the mother of all innovation. I don't know how innovative we are. I think that in large part, our innovation has been in really listening to the needs of our communities and trying to respond as quickly as possible and be as nimble as possible to meet those needs.
First and foremost, again, going back to our schools as community-based organizations, what we heard from our schools was not only their children, but their communities were facing increasing food scarcity. So access to meals on a regular basis. We certainly had a lunch program that was federally funded, that was active in a lot of our schools, but we also had the great benefit of a great supporter of ours, Carol Lavin Bernick and her family foundation.
They knew that our neighborhoods and our schoolchildren were facing food scarcity, and they had a great interest in helping local, community-based restaurants. So just like our schools, community-based organizations remain open in feeding those that needed access to food.
So the Carol Lavin Bernick Family Foundation offered funding if we would build partnerships with local, community-based restaurants and use our schools as distribution centers. Certainly to feed and provide meals to our students and families but also the broader community. We started out with a couple of schools, and it grew to 20+ schools. Then a lot of others followed that lead.
A lot of people liked that model of achieving multiple goals or outcomes through this program of helping restaurants and helping those in need. Then a lot of other restaurants came in, a lot of other food manufacturers. So, to date, we have served over 100,000 meals through this program, through these 20 distribution points.
We also use those distribution points to listen to schools. Children needed Chromebooks, so we were able to raise funds and get Chromebooks so that students were actively e-learning. We heard they needed paper, pens, crayons, all sorts of supplies; we got those donated and out to the schools.
We knew that access to clothes was an issue. So, with Cee Cee's Closet, a nonprofit here in Chicago, we were able to work with them and get lots of clothes—not just for students, but for families—and get those out in the community. We were able to really push a lot through this.
Bernie's Book Bank was another great partnership. We had known them in the past, we've worked with them, but they came up huge in providing hundreds of thousands of books. Again, using these distribution points to get them out to our students and their families but also the broader community.
What was natural to us was our schools being community-based organizations that feed out into the community. What was new was we weren't in the food business or forging partnerships with restaurants and the like. We weren't in the process or in the habit of setting up distribution points to get out to folks like that.
But it became a real throughput and that attracted, thankfully, a lot of support. Certainly from our community of supporters, but with word getting out through media coverage, social media, we had a lot of new supporters, hundreds of new supporters that said, "I heard about what you do, and I want to be part of it." A lot of them were from nearby, but we also got notes from people down in Texas, Atlanta, Seattle, New York, and Boston, which was remarkable.
I think that's the American spirit of recognizing quick, nimble action and mission-oriented people.
Our principals and teachers were on the front line, our team was on the front line, getting those meals out, getting the books out, getting the clothes out. I think maybe it was innovative on the part of Carol Lavin Bernick and her team, but we were there with her, and I think sometimes just saying yes and being willing to meet the needs of your community leads to other things.
On top of helping the community, which is most important, I think in the darkest days of COVID, or this pandemic, it was unbelievably soul filling to have a real purpose and a mission to meet an immediate need. That fuels all our spirits as well as very soul-filling work.
One more point to the innovation, which is the other part of our work, which is more natural, was the education part, pivoting to e-learning. A lot of support came in to help with investing in that.
We pivoted very quickly. Our school buildings closed on a Friday afternoon and on Monday we were up and running distance learning. We have a great team, a young woman who's written books about this, thankfully you never know how much of a gift that is until it happens, but Kristin Ziemke has talked about this and taught about it for a long time. She helped our schools pivot, and that's also attracted a lot of support, again, for innovative platforms and ways of supporting teachers in classrooms but also students.
Elizabeth: I mean, it was remarkable to watch. I should have disclosed in the beginning that I'm involved personally with Big Shoulders Fund. So I have a kind of front seat, if you will, to the work that you've been doing, and it's really just been amazing, the impact, not on just the school community, that you've made in those different regions.
Josh: We all needed it. I think there's a part of it that was about us, too. That it was a way to be active and be involved, in hopefully part of a lot of efforts trying to look at this pandemic in the face and say, "How do we as Americans help one another?"
Elizabeth: Well, I want to thank you, Josh, for joining us today. I look forward to continuing to support your work and see how, as we continue through in this pandemic and other significant changes, you guys continue to grow and innovate and pivot so well.
Josh: That was nice to say, Elizabeth, we appreciate you and all you do in supporting our mission and leading our mission and really being the very best of what we're about. Thanks for celebrating this work and all the work of the nonprofit sector, which you are a leader in, here and nationally. It's a huge compliment, so thank you.