There were a lot of questions to answer on the onset of COVID-19 precautions in Boone County.
How were school districts going to make sure students were getting food, not just breakfast and lunch, but dinner, too? How was the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri going to meet local needs as food donations decreased and the prices of food increased?
There were many more questions – too many for just one entity to answer alone. Which is why, for the first time, all of Boone County’s public and private philanthropic entities combined their financial might to form COMOHelps.
"Our big dream was to bring everyone together like this, but it wasn’t until this hit where it was like we have to do this now," Boone County Community Services Department Director Joanne Nelson said.
Nonprofits are able to submit funding requests via the COMOHelps online portal.
Every morning at 8:15 a.m., Nelson has a call with representatives from Veterans United Foundation, Community Foundation of Central Missouri, City of Columbia and Heart of Missouri United Way. Together they sift through the applications submitted.
The group has received a collective almost $2.2 million of requests. Together, they have been able to award $871,135 to Boone County organizations with $620,379 pending.
"First of all, what we want to do pretty early on is decide if this (request) really is pandemic-related or if there just there is a need and it happens to be at the same time as pandemic," Erik Morse, president of the Veterans United Foundation Board of Directors, said.
Some of those pandemic-related requests dealt with food insecurity.
Columbia Public Schools received support from the Community Foundation, Columbia Public Schools Foundation, Veterans United Foundation and Heart of Missouri Foundation to offer dinners in addition to breakfast and lunch to students in need.
The philanthropic partners are currently reviewing requests from other Boone County districts for funding summer food programs.
That’s the magic of the partnership as Nelson describes it. No entity alone would have been able to meet the schools’ request. But with each foundation taking on some of the cost, students are able to continue receiving support even during distance learning.
The other strength of the partnership has been its speed.
"Getting the application in … was fast and getting approved and getting the funding was equally fast," said Seth Wolfmeyer, communications and marketing manager for the Food Bank. "Which was very helpful because the funds were needed immediately to help us purchase food."
The Food Bank was allotted $100,000 to assist in their mobile pantry services. Nelson said the group is preparing to award it another $100,000 to continue that program.
"Right now, one of the largest problems we’re facing, as well as the increase in need, is the cost and difficulty of getting food," Wolfmeyer said. "If you go to the grocery store you may see some (places) empty on the shelves. We see the same thing at the food bank."
But what the Food Bank is good at, Wolfmeyer said, is leveraging partners. The organization is practiced in buying food in bulk, which means it was quickly able to mobilize its resources using the money it received from COMOHelps.
Although the initial shock of the pandemic has eased, Nelson doesn’t see the partnership going anywhere.
Even amid rising unemployment, the group is protected to some degree from severe losses in fundraising. It boasts a mix of private and public revenue streams. Nelson has allocations from tax dollars at her disposal. Veterans United Foundation is funded by its employees, while the Community Foundation and Heart of Missouri United way are funded primarily through more traditional private donations.
Nelson thinks the combination of the three will help the group meet needs associated with COVID-19 recovery. She could see the group maintaining operations for the next three years, which is good news for local organizations like the Food Bank.
"Looking forward it really depends on what the economy looks like for people and what unemployment looks like for people," Wolfmeyer said.
For now, that’s anybody’s guess. As for Nelson, though, she’s optimistic the group will continue to meet what needs arise.
"I’m hopeful," she said. "I think what we’ve done so far will make us a stronger community."