The United Way Blackhawk Region has created a mayday fund to help area nonprofits grappling with shortfalls in resources and volunteers as they respond to a cascade of new needs linked to the COVID-19 crisis.

In a live streamed announcement Monday, United Way Blackhawk Region CEO Mary Fanning-Penny said the Janesville-based United Way office has released $100,000 in “seed funds” from its emergency reserves to a new fund it’s calling the COVID-19 Action Fund.

United Way will funnel its seed funds and private donations from the Action Fund to local nonprofits as they provide humanitarian services to people the agency says will be “disproportionately affected” by the virus.

The United Way is now canvassing for nonprofit volunteers and accepting donations specifically for the COVID-19 response. Donations could cover such services as food and paper goods delivery to families, social services to those who have mental illnesses and are isolated because of the virus, and people who could face a rise in family violence.

The agency’s announcement came in the midst of a rapidly changing public health crisis and just before a state crackdown that will close many businesses temporarily and send thousands of working people home.

On Monday morning, Gov. Tony Evers instituted a statewide stay-at-home order that requires the closure of all “nonessential” businesses starting today. The mandate requires most people to stay in their homes and limit trips outside to only essential needs, such as getting groceries or medicine. Certain professions, such as health care and grocery workers, will be exempt.

It’s not clear if the governor’s decree will further fracture the network of volunteers who help nonprofits operate.

Fanning-Penny said the United Way was still seeking guidance from the Rock County Public Health Department and the governor’s office on whether nonprofit caseworkers and volunteers will be exempt from Evers’ stay-home order.

“We’ve been heartened and impressed with how many people have been inquiring about volunteer opportunities. But now, we’ve come into a holding pattern,” Fanning-Penny said Monday afternoon. “I’m not certain if there will be any level of special classification for nonprofits’ work.”

She said some businesses facing the temporary furlough of employees have proposed “community redeployment,” or “loans,” of their employees to local nonprofits.

She did not specify which local businesses have made such proposals.

Fanning-Penny said some nonprofits face a particular shortfall in “virtual volunteers” who could help them communicate their COVID-19 responses on their websites, social media pages and other platforms.

Earlier Monday, Fanning-Penny and Al Hulick, United Way Blackhawk Region board president, said the initial infusion of $100,000 would cover just a fraction of needs that will arise as the area’s most vulnerable populations experience the economic, social and public health impacts of the virus.

Calls last week to United Way’s local 211 service line increased more than 240%—just one indication of the mounting need, she said.

As of Monday afternoon, private donors had added $43,000 to the United Way’s initial seed fund.

People can donate to the COVID-19 Action Fund by visiting a designated page on the United Way Blackhawk Region’s website.

The United Way is offering a special COVID-19 platform through its website that will have a rolling inventory of nonprofit needs and create a clearinghouse to help nonprofits canvass for volunteers and resources as more people become homebound.

The United Way’s COVID-19 Action Fund is separate from other funding initiatives, Fanning-Penny and Hulick said. Donations will be funneled through an oversight committee, but all Action Fund donations will go directly to registered nonprofits without an administration fee.


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