COVID pushed Colorado nonprofits to their limits

Leaders stayed, money did not

Monte Whaley
The Colorado Sun
Posted 3/7/23

Colorado nonprofits took a beating during the COVID-19 pandemic, bleeding volunteers and employees who were either forced to stay home or were terrified of leaving their homes for fear they would get …

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COVID pushed Colorado nonprofits to their limits

Leaders stayed, money did not


Colorado nonprofits took a beating during the COVID-19 pandemic, bleeding volunteers and employees who were either forced to stay home or were terrified of leaving their homes for fear they would get infected by the virus.

“We had older and retired volunteers who had to stay home because they were the most vulnerable to the virus,” said Dayna Scott, executive director of Broomfield FISH, a nonprofit providing help with food and housing. “There were real fears about death. No one knew what was going to happen day to day.”

Local food banks that help feed and clothe low-income and homeless people were hit especially hard. Grocery store shelves emptied almost overnight and businesses and food banks, including FISH, shuttered for more than a year. Nonprofits had to pivot, sometimes in 24 hours, to hand out groceries and other donated staples to clients driving through their parking lots.

The rapid turnaround needed to keep things running at FISH burned out many staff members, Scott said. “For some people it was the breaking point. The turnover was brutal.”

Scott said she and her remaining staff stayed clear-eyed about FISH’s mission. They continued to help residents with rental and other financial assistance and distributed food to families. In 2022, 12,553 people were served, up from 12,190 in 2021 and about 12,000 in 2020 a big jump from the 7,057 helped in 2018.

“We knew what we had to do,” said Scott, who shares her narrow office with a sleepy dog named Sami.

Scott manages a $6.6 million budget, seven paid staffers and 30 community partnerships while bringing in corporate donors and steering clients to legal and housing help. Feeding families is a top priority for Scott and her staff, and in 2021, FISH distributed 1.5 million pounds of food to hungry people in Broomfield.

She brushes off the notion that she could earn a heftier paycheck if she used her skills for a big business. “I was never a corporate person,” Scott said. “I like to think I do more good by keeping 100 people from starving to death at the end of the day.”

State and local nonprofit officials say they don’t know exactly how many staff members and volunteers they lost during the worst of the COVID pandemic. Marc Cowell, executive director of Outreach United Resource Center in Longmont, said although few of his peers left during COVID, there is little doubt COVID bludgeoned the nonprofit.

“I can state that COVID-19 did take a very heavy toll on myself and most of my colleagues,” he said.

To fight burnout during and after the worst of the pandemic, the OUR Center stressed a work-life balance to allow staffers plenty of time to get away and be with friends and family, Cowell said.

“That goes a long way in helping retain not only executives but managers, and front-line personnel,” said Cowell, who heads OUR Center’s efforts to help people in the St. Vrain Valley get basic services like food and to help pay the rent.

Cowell typically logs more than 50 hours a week as executive director, but takes time in the spring to indulge in one of his passions: coaching baseball at Holy Family High School in Broomfield. Coaching helps restore his energy for his full-time job. “It’s nice to be able to take multiple days off at different times throughout the year to recharge my batteries.”

He said the state’s nonprofit staffers took COVID’s best shot and stubbornly bounced back to deliver goods and services to friends and neighbors hit hard by the virus.

“At the end of the day it is about our mission and helping the community that keeps us coming back,” Cowell said.

Jobless for a year, Broomfield resident Dave Wallace pushes a shopping cart through the narrow aisles of FISH’s 12,500-square-foot marketplace for staples like bread, butter, fresh fruit and vegetables. Almost all the items are donated by local grocery stores and businesses. Wallace is looking for work in the restaurant industry, but until he gets a steady paycheck he depends on weekly visits to FISH to keep his own kitchen stocked.

“I am glad FISH is here, thank God. What they do is incredible,” Wallace said in January. “They help people like me out but they don’t make me feel bad about it. I don’t know what this community would do without them.”

Now aid groups are preparing the loss of pandemic-related support

The long and uncertain days and nights fueled by fears of the pandemic are mostly over for Scott and other nonprofit leaders. But now the state’s 20,000 nonprofits face an even taller task of bridging the gap left by vanishing pandemic-era federal and state funds for shelter and food, said Paul Lhevine, president and CEO of the Colorado Nonprofit Association.

Colorado’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which distributed more than $300 million to 36,000 households, is ending this year, nonprofit directors say. Emergency allotments of Colorado Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are also ending this month.

“The work in the nonprofit sector is critical now more than ever,” Lhevine said. “There are gaps that remain to be filled.”

Broomfield FISH was started 60 years ago in a church basement by six women who wanted to provide food and clothing to the city’s poor, Scott said.

Women volunteers have always been the prime drivers behind many nonprofits, but the tendency to pay them less is a main reason why nonprofit executives aren’t compensated as well as their for-profit business counterparts, Lhevine said. The overall trend toward paying men more in executive slots is also mirrored in the nonprofit world, he said.

For every dollar that a male executive director makes, a female executive director makes 82 cents, according to the Colorado Nonprofit Association’s 2021 salary survey. On average, female executives collect a yearly $111,152 salary while male executives pull in $132,227, according to the survey.

Scott makes about $100,000, only a fraction of what someone is paid for comparable work in a corporation, she said.

Lhevine said compensation for nonprofit leaders was a trend set decades ago.

“Most nonprofits were created at a place and time on the backs of volunteers and driven by women,” Lhevine said. “This is a major issue and we have to do a better job of finding a way to pay professionals a fair wage.”

The estimated total pay for an executive director for a business in Denver is $240,568, according to the employment website Glassdoor. The median pay for a CEO in Denver is $404,153.

The association’s survey states that many nonprofits offer employees bonuses and flex time schedules and are generous with time off to compensate for long work hours. Some provided bonuses to employees to acknowledge their work during COVID-19, the survey reported. Most were 3% or less of the employee’s salary.

Nonprofits greatly benefit from a workforce that will not back down from a challenge, including entering the post-COVID era, Lhevine said.

“Nonprofits are mission-driven,” he said. “The people who work there are not going to back down, even now. Nonprofits are filled with people who have a passion for their work and they have a need to address the needs of their community.”

The Colorado Family Resource Center Association — which includes nonprofits like FISH — only lost about 20% of its member executive directors, said Scott, who has been with FISH for nearly eight years and is not surprised at the lack of turnover among nonprofit leaders. This is low turnover considering the responsibilities of running a nonprofit during a major pandemic, she said.

But Scott is not surprised that so many local directors stuck around.

“We love the mission, and now it’s a new one,” she said. “We will have to scramble to get donations and other help for our organizations now that these other programs are waning.”

Alice Sueltenfuss said her job as executive director of Hope for Longmont, which provides shelter and other aid for people who are homeless, is devoted to the constant chase for funding.

“In the nonprofit world, it’s all about grants, corporate sponsors and the amounts given by donors,” Sueltenfuss said via email. “Fundraising helps, of course, but recurring donors help nonprofits the most.”

Terrapin, a marijuana dispensary in Longmont, is one of Hope’s most reliable donors, giving $10,000 a year to the nonprofit. Terrapin spokesman Peter Marcus said via email that Hope is one of several nonprofits that fall into the company’s various corporate responsibility goals.

“Homelessness is one factor that can result from a cycle created through disproportionate cannabis prohibition and incarceration,” Marcus said. “Hope fits nicely with our mission to end the war on drugs and make whole those who were harmed.”

Sueltenfuss retired after 32 years of being a school administrator and was drawn into the nonprofit world knowing she would not come close to making as much as before.

“Working to help homeless individuals become self-sufficient has given me rewards that are not easily compared,” she said. “Yes, I don’t make the yearly income I did even 10 years ago, but I chose this profession with a nonprofit for reasons other than financial. You don’t become an administrator of a nonprofit for the money; it’s the cause.”

The same notion motivated Mike Lutz, who left his job as a civil engineer with the city of Louisville in 2008 to work at Broomfield FISH. Lutz said he wanted to make some changes in his life and made the leap into the nonprofit world after seeing some men unloading a truck at the FISH headquarters.

“I asked them if they needed some help and I jumped right in,” Lutz said. “It just seemed the ideal place and time for me.”

He started as a volunteer and eventually became the organization’s food operations manager. Lutz hustles around FISH’s marketplace to make sure shelves are stocked with food donated by community and corporate groups.

Lutz also coordinates daily with grocery stores in Broomfield and Westminster to collect donations, including fresh fruits and vegetables. The job is especially important to him since he grew up in Broomfield and sees how FISH helps his longtime friends and neighbors.

“I don’t know of another job where I can wake up and can’t wait to get to work,” Lutz said. “I know the money is not great. But here I feel like I am making a difference.”

A school project by Sharin Oliver’s son led her to volunteer for FISH in 2009. She liked the neighborly atmosphere at FISH and stayed on to become operations manager.

Oliver had been a management consultant out of college and then a stay-at-home mom. FISH became her calling.

“FISH makes Broomfield a smaller place, and I like that,” Oliver said. “My son once told me ‘Mom, you want to feed the world.’”

“Yeah,” she said, “I guess I do.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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