ON THE SCENE: Adirondack Foundation takes the lead

Brian Byrd, a program officer with the New York State Health Foundation (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Since mid-March, the Adirondack Foundation has raised a little over a million dollars, distributed nearly $450,000 of those funds, and leveraged another $1 million in donor-advised funds to address critical community needs across the Adirondack region in response to the impact of COVID-19.

Less than two months earlier, Cali Brooks, president and CEO of the foundation, had no notion of the scale and breadth of the calamity about to sweep our region. Still, she had an inkling that the coronavirus would have consequences. Brooks began preparing for what might be coming by first reaching out to public health officials and non-profits best suited to address a public health crisis. Brooks wanted to know what they were hearing and thinking.

“On Friday, March 13, the foundation sent an email out announcing our Special and Urgent Needs (SUN) Fund in anticipation of COVID-19’s impact on our region,” said Brooks. “We were concerned about such challenges as families cut off from food, transportation and childcare, and the cascading impacts that COVID-19 could have on our communities. Since then, we have seen these challenges play out across the region, but we’ve also seen people stepping up with generosity and compassion.”

A critical move for the fund was assembling a team of partner agencies that included United Way of the Adirondack Region, the Cloudsplitter Foundation, the Charles R. Wood Foundation, Adirondack Energy’s Adirondack for Kids, Champlain National Bank, along with more than 360 other organizational and individual donors.

“These are unprecedented times,” said Chenelle Palyswiat, director of the Cloudsplitter Foundation. “We recognize that this is something none of us has encountered. Combining forces felt like the right thing to do. The Adirondack Foundation has the most amazing staff and along with the best infrastructure for large-scale grantmaking. Here at Cloudsplitter, we have more unrestricted assets but a smaller staff. We typically make fewer but larger grants. We feel that during this process, we complimented each other very well.”

Cali Brooks, president and CEO of the Adirondack Foundation (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The SUN Fund is a program established to enable the Adirondack Foundation to respond to unforeseen regional challenges, such as Tropical Storm Irene. On Thursday, May 7, the Foundation invited people and agencies who contributed to meet through a Zoom presentation led by Brooks, its Vice President for Philanthropy Matt Donahue and Program Officer Andrea Grout. The presentation featured a panel moderated by Donahue that included Palyswiat; Kathy Snow, United Way’s director of development; and Brian Byrd, a program officer with the New York State Health Foundation.

The purpose of the call was three-fold: review how much had been raised and distributed, hear from donors and let people know that for all the success thus far, we’re in the early stages — the ramifications have not been fully felt.

An important message was how agencies receiving grants leveraged additional contributions through partnering with other agencies. One outstanding example is AdkAction’s partnership with Hub on the Hill to provide high-quality food produced by local farmers to individuals in need. They used funds received to launch a $50,000 drive to cover the cost of delivering 100 packages of food a week (each box containing 17 meals), a goal they hoped to reach by mid-June. Having achieved it in just nine days, they upped the target to $75,000. They blew passed that to the point that they are now delivering 235 food packages per week and expect to be able to continue doing that through July.

“AdkAction tried to step up and pivot to the COVID need as fast as we could,” said Tom Boothe, chairman of AdkAction. “Our executive director, Brittany Christenson, is well connected to the local farm community as well as the Hub on the Hill. She said we ought to bring these two resources together to bring food to people. That’s what we did. We set up emergency food packages. Every week a box is delivered to doorsteps, food pantries, and other local distributors. They go to people that are identified as people in need.”

Also, partner agencies such as Champlain National Bank have contributed significant funds to various agencies in the communities where they are based and helped facilitate over $25 million in forgivable PPP loans to small businesses in our region.

Tom Boothe, chairman of AdkAction (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“I think it’s astonishing what’s been accomplished thus far,” said Peter Paine, chairman of the Champlain Bank, who was on the call. “A million raised for the special needs fund. I was impressed. In Willsboro, we have a micro-equivalent of the SUN Fund, the Community Housing Assistance Fund, CHAF. It’s very broad-based. We kicked in $25,000 beyond what we contributed to the Foundation. In addition to the $25 million worth of PPP loans, we provided $7.5 million in other forms of assistance. It’s all a part of our ongoing interest in helping out.”

The challenges will not go away soon. Connie Prickett, vice president for communication and strategic initiatives, said that the accelerated needs are going to continue pointing out the cascading impact of Adirondack Experience not being open this summer on Blue Mountain Lake.

“The museum is part of the package of why people come to the Adirondacks,” said Prickett. “All those things are deeply concerning. There are just so many things that come together to make our communities thrive. There are a lot of breaks overall picture.”

Another takeaway from the call was the level of trust people have in the Adirondack Foundation to allocate funds where they are needed most, and they get the funds out quickly. Holly Wolff said she feels that all the work the foundation has done up to now has provided it the credibility, knowledge, and relationships with others to be able to pull together a group effort like this.

Along with grantmaking, the foundation has hosted six virtual meetings for regional non-profits covering topics from fundraising to partnerships and mergers. They’ve convened religious leaders, funders who support the Adirondacks and others.

“One of the things we’ve seen, and this was our experience in New York City with Hurricane Sandy, is that a lot of the problems that are being discussed and that the SUN Fund is focusing on now have always existed,” said Byrd. “They are just being exasperated and brought to light as a result of this crisis. Food insecurity, housing, unemployment, child care are issues that all have been with us for a long time. These issues all overlap and interact with each other. Health is that interconnecting thread. You need a good source of food to be healthy. If you are not healthy, you can’t go to school, go to work, maintain your housing. These challenges are all interconnected. Our opportunity is to work together to build social resilience.”

What is understood is that the foundation, and its growing web of partner agencies, will be focused on helping us build our social resilience through a combination of grants, leveraged funds, providing educational experiences, connecting people and agencies and sharing examples of best practice.

To support their work, and learn about their array of initiatives, their website is www.adirondackfoundation.org.