Mary Fanning-Penny believes nothing can replace the feeling of being in the same room with a group of people working toward a common goal.

Nonprofit leaders have missed that feeling since the coronavirus pandemic reached the area a year ago, obliterating in-person events and any sense of normalcy.

“Many organizations were able to adapt to digital platforms for outreach and engagement, but the synergistic electricity of dozens or even hundreds of supporters in a shared space for a cause they’re passionate about just isn’t the same,” said Fanning-Penny, president of the United Way Blackhawk Region.

Nonprofits have endured “devastating blows” to their budgets caused by the cancellation of the in-person events and fundraisers they relied on, she said.

Virtual events don’t have the same energy, and most nonprofits likely will stop having Zoom fundraisers when they can, Fanning-Penny said.

But not all changes have been negative.

Amped-up reliance on social media and more digital communication have been positives for many organizations, allowing them to connect with larger audiences, Fanning-Penny said.

The United Way added online and text message options for fundraising, which were “game changers,” she said. Those strategies will continue post-pandemic, but they’ll be used to supplement in-person events and activities.

“There is something so inherently empowering about standing shoulder to shoulder, united for a common good, that not only touches people’s hearts, it inspires action,” Fanning-Penny said.

Beyond fundraising, organizations have had to learn how to adapt their services to keep people safe from COVID-19 while also meeting their basic needs.

Michelle Genthe, a self-proclaimed wallflower who oversees the nutrition program at Head Start, watched as her organization was forced to close its in-person educational programs for low-income children in Rock and Walworth counties.

Even worse, it had to end the lunch, breakfast and snack programs those children relied on to keep them healthy.

Genthe said she could not stand idly by knowing that people needed food. That prompted her to push herself out of her comfort zone and start a new food-delivery system to get nutritious food to those in need.

Some people can’t get to food pantries because they lack transportation, medical problems or scheduling conflicts, Genthe said.

Her delivery system worked around that, bringing boxes of food with items and recipes for specific meals right to families’ doors.

Each box has enough food to feed a family of four for two days. Genthe said she now serves about 100 people per week, but at one point she was helping about 180 people a week.

The program has been funded through federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act dollars, which will soon run out, she said.

Genthe was able to stretch it a little longer with help from the federal Farmers to Families program, which donated 1,092 boxes of fresh food to Rock County in early March.

The food boxes supported the Head Start delivery program, but they also provided food to many others across Rock County through partnerships with churches and other nonprofits, she said.

“I have always felt very strongly about the power of community and partnerships,” Genthe said. “One cool thing about where I work and the people I partner with is I feel like it will create opportunities for future things together.”

Genthe said she would love to continue the food box deliveries because food insecurity plagues the community all the time.

However, Head Start would have to secure significant funding to continue the program.

“Each person has a story that makes them who they are,” Genthe said. “The more we can serve each other, the more power there is and the more we can do.”


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