Rapid Response: Our Community Foundation Partners Meet the COVID-19 Challenge

May 6, 2020 |

West Central Initiative staff meet virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The small towns and rural regions of the United States have often been regarded as places of vulnerability with a wide variety of challenging socioeconomic issues. While this image is based in the real conditions of many aspects of rural life, so too are the accounts of resiliency, collaboration, and generosity fostering energy and hope in these same communities. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where cities and towns alike are struggling through the challenges brought on by the virus, rural communities and families are remaining tenacious by pitching in to help their homes.

This rejuvenated sense of common purpose has ignited a firestorm of new activity and donations for the community foundations and non-profit organizations dedicated to sustaining and enriching these regions. The Rural Schools Collaborative believes that rural philanthropy is a key part of how rural communities are sustained, and partners with those organizations as yet another way to link people, place, and education locally. Three RSC Regional Hub partners, Missouri’s Community Foundation of the Ozarks, Minnesota’s West Central Initiative, and Illinois’ Galesburg Community Foundation are sources of vision and opportunity for the distinct communities they serve.

At a time when seemingly nowhere is spared the hazards of life under COVID, these three foundations report that philanthropic activity, candid attitudes of perseverance, and a sense of small-town pride have resulted in all-time high levels of charity and volunteering. Likewise, these foundations have established new recovery and relief programs at lightning speed to meet the surge of demand in their areas—redefining relationships in these communities and revealing how local philanthropy maintains the foundation of rural hometowns.

Generosity and Collaboration

Having served the Ozark region of Missouri for nearly 50 years, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks is no stranger to disaster relief. In the aftermath of the 2011 tornado that razed sections of Joplin, Missouri, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks was central to securing and issuing funds to families in need and helping along the relief process.

However, Zach Clapper, the director of philanthropic services at the foundation, notes how COVID-19 presents a whole new set of parameters the organization must address. Most importantly, the “damage is not as readily seen as with a natural disaster” and that “the operational needs are more widespread, especially because it’s affecting geographically diverse places.” Clapper adds that “we can’t focus on just one area.”

Zach Clapper of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks

The Community Foundation of the Ozarks launched their “COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund” with an initial commitment of $1 million to support their regional partners and affiliates. This funding will provide aid to the many non-profits of the Missouri Ozarks, as well as supporting first responders and their respective communities. Already, to date, the foundation has awarded over $600,000 worth of grants to organizations of every shape and size.

Among these efforts is a new series of grants totaling $50,000 as part of the foundation’s Rural Schools Partnership. According to Clapper, these new grants will be a matching grant between schools and another funding partner to ensure that students and families are able to access food resources, equipment, and services they require. The application will remain open until Friday, May 29th and the requirements, Clapper states, are “broad and open” to ensure schools can get funding for the programs they need for their area.

Yet, one element which has stood out to Clapper through this whole process has been the community response to the trials at hand:

“We’ve seen a very generous spirit during this time. Our COVID fund continues to receive donations from the community and also other funders have responded positively.”

Along with the initial commitment made back in March, the foundation has also generated nearly $400,000 in additional donations from the region.

“The immediate generosity and collaboration of it [is] nice to see,” said Clapper. “In a period when everyone’s having a difficult time with the economy; people are still giving. We don’t have a lot of money here in the Ozarks, but everyone is really generous with what they have.”

The staff of Community Foundation of the Ozarks hard at work virtually.

Hope and Transformation

This “hyper-local generosity” has been equally noticed by West Central Initiative director of programs, Wendy Merrick. While Merrick affirms that “the mission, vision, and values that define WCI and make us who we are remain unchanged,” the surge in demand for COVID-related support during these times is as strong in the Fergus Falls, Minnesota region as elsewhere.

Wendy Merrick of West Central Initiative

While the foundation has been a source of stability and guidance by remaining true to what it has stood for over the decades, its core programs have adapted to the requirements at hand. Along with restructuring the foundation’s lending programs to make them more flexible and expanding their Early Childhood Initiative Program, WCI has adapted its technical assistance services to suit the new normal under COVID. Merrick explained, “WCI has suspended [its] ‘standard’ grant programs and has directed the associated dollars to our Resiliency Fund.”

The “Resiliency Fund Grant Program” was announced on March 24th with an initial grant of $25,000 to respond to and follow up with the “long-term recovery” of COVID-19 in the region. The purpose of the program is to provide for the many basic needs and resources of the communities of west-central Minnesota.

Merrick also details how the WCI has signed on with over 700 funders to be part of the Council on Foundations’ pledge to offer grantees “the flexibility they need to respond swiftly and confidently.” Moreover, the “West Central Initiative provided more than 275 Emergency Child Care Grants totaling $300,000” for caring for the children of emergency and essential workers.

The children at Bethesda All Stars Child Care Center in the West Central area are showing support for their parents during the pandemic.

As for local schools, Merrick notes how the guidelines for the Resiliency Fund “specifically mention ‘supporting remote work initiatives for students, families, and businesses’ as a priority.”

Amidst all this good, however, Merrick is clear to make known that serious issues are hindering local non-profits. “Inadequate broadband service,” a “lack of funds to purchase necessary software and hardware” for working from home, and the cancellation of “major fundraising events” has meant that these organizations are suffering and stressed to their limits.

Nonetheless, local communities and donors have stepped up in creative and “remarkable” ways, leading Merrick to “think there is a great deal of hope that philanthropy will emerge from the pandemic transformed.” She adds, “There is hope among those previously under-appreciated industries that their value has [been] recognized and a system will be developed.”


The enduring resolution of our rural communities to address the problems at hand is what Karlie Elliot Bowman, director of communications at the Galesburg Community Foundation, counts as one major observation from the situation at hand. Channeling what president and CEO of the foundation, Josh Gibb, terms the “rural response,” Bowman remarks how from the outset of the pandemic the dynamic between the foundation and community changed.

Karlie Elliot Bowman of the Galesburg Community Foundation

“Before COVID-19 our region did not have any disaster relief fund. Now we have a rapid response fund. It’s responding to COVID-19 now, but after this the fund will be there to respond to needs forever.”

For Bowman, this is yet another example of how “rural communities can come together to get through times like this,” and she believes that “community foundations are essential to that.”

After an initial collaborative commitment of $145,000, the foundation’s “Rapid Response Fund” has been able to raise more than $265,000 from local private funds, individual donations, and a large grant from the Illinois COVID Response Fund, a statewide organization set up to support local non-profits and community foundations providing response and reliefs efforts.

GCF’s Rapid Response Fund has already awarded $143,000 to numerous non-profits to provide everything from food and person protective equipment to essential child care and community wellness services.

What Bowman emphasizes most, however, is that this is not a singular effort. Rather, the Galesburg Community Foundation is one of many regional non-profits “collaborating in new and exciting ways that helps them be stronger and more efficient.”

“A great example of collaboration and efficiency in our [community]” for Bowman is how the Galesburg Community Foundation is helping local schools. During the summers, Bowman explains, the United Way of Knox County operates a meal delivery service for students. Hoping to join in the effort to ensure students and families remain healthy, Bowman remarks how “when all of this came about and they started up again we helping them with a grant.” A major reason for this being that “they had the proper tools and the processes in place.”

Bowman believes this shared philanthropic initiative “further shows that rural communities are incredibly resilient and that we’re continually here for one another.” She added, “People in rural communities know their neighbors and know what their needs are. They’re incredibly willing to step up and ‘get their boots muddy’ to get the work done.”

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