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Manatee County Vs. The Pandemic

Thanks to the Manatee Tiger Bay Club for inviting Manatee Community Foundation to join its panel discussion on November 18, 2021 about the impact of the pandemic in Manatee County.

COVID-19 has encouraged those who help our communities to better understand the systems and the interwoven circumstances that cause some people to be more vulnerable in health, economic and educational issues.

As we look at nonprofit organizations, givers to charitable causes, and the top issues for our region, we give thanks to the commitment of many who play roles in equitable recovery.

Nonprofit teams have been nimble, flexible and responsive in their delivery of services, and most have made significant investments in technology to level set their capabilities to serve remotely.

The Women’s Resource Center was up and ready for business on virtual platforms in 4 days after it had to shut down in person operations. Easterseals of SW Florida, serving people with disabilities, was providing virtual therapy almost immediately.

Some methods of program delivery for organizations suffered, especially if older donors or those with chronic health conditions were a large volunteer force. The asset of donated labor in normal times–increasing capacity to serve food to people in need, for example–had to be reconsidered by some organizations during the pandemic and in recovery.

In some cases, local organizations were able to garner wider, national audiences for programming and fundraising using virtual platforms. In others, local participation in programming increased in virtual platforms. For example, completion of foster parent training increased through digital offerings– a welcome result when Manatee County still has one of the highest child removal rates in the state of Florida.

Some nonprofit boards and staff discovered that many donors have a greater interest in knowing their giving truly makes a difference than in purchasing a ticket to a fundraising event. Some mission-based virtual events saw greater revenues from online versions than the in-person versions of pre-pandemic times.

From a donor and foundation perspective, COVID-19 emphasized the power of collaborative investments and contributing to general operating needs with trusted organizations. Working together and providing unrestricted funds allowed nonprofits to change the focus of private dollars quickly when public funding became available through CARES.

In addition, more foundations such as Manatee Community Foundation partnered with grassroots organizations that are trusted in their neighborhoods and by people of color. They are essential for equitable recovery and may serve in “niche” roles.

Some of the most pressing issues facing our community today are not new but have grown in their significance and impact to people living in Manatee County. These include housing, digital access and inclusion, and mental health. Supporting the arts as vehicles for economic vitality has also surfaced, as so much pandemic giving rightly focused on health and human service organizations. (We do not want to leave out the importance of animal welfare, environmental and civic engagement–all of which continue to be vital for a healthy community.)

The housing crisis is complex. Wages have not kept up with cost of rent and mortgage, and affordable housing is not an issue only for the most vulnerable people in Manatee County but for many families with two adults working multiple jobs.

Digital access and inclusion is necessary for each person in our community to succeed–in education, seeking employment, accessing health information and telehealth/counseling, civic participation. Without enough devices, broadband service, and training to use the digital tools of today, some will continue to fall further behind. Especially in education, we have a greater understanding of inequities that start early in life, when some children do not have equal access to digital tools.

The enormity of mental health challenges weigh heavy upon adults, teens and even children. With increased depression and anxiety–many cases exacerbated by social isolation during COVID-19, along with financial vulnerability–ensuring that greater availability of services (and shorter wait times) must be a priority.

Arts organizations and all of the individuals associated with the industry in our region suffered during the pandemic. In addition to the enormous economic benefit they offer our community, the expressions of humanity and education they provide to audiences are essential. Restoring performances, visual art exhibits, and other art forms to their former vitality has been a collaborative work of local organizations together.

As one example in Manatee County, Manatee Performing Arts Center collaborated with other organizations for parking lot performances and movies to bring people together, socially distanced in the parking lot, when it was not healthy indoors.

Once again, nonprofits emerge as subject matter experts for our community. Listening to the needs they have identified, supporting results and gains they make, understanding the lived experiences of people of color with whom they work, and sharing their success with others are roles all of us can have moving beyond COVID-19.