Generous hearts

Posted on May 29, 2020 ::
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region President and CEO Curt Detjen has witnessed plenty of generosity in his 20 years with the Appleton-based nonprofit. But he’s never seen anything quite like the outpouring of giving since mid-March when the foundation, along with United Way Fox Cities, launched the COVID-19 Community Response Fund. As of the second week in May, the fund had raised more than $1 million and awarded more than $500,000 in grants. Detjen sat down with Insight to discuss the region’s giving nature.

How did the COVID-19 Community Response Fund come about?

Curt Detjen: As we watched the pandemic unfold on both coasts, it was clear its impact was going to be felt most by the people in the most fragile conditions and that the community needed a way to come together to provide support. Instead of each individual or family making their own decisions about how they could help, we decided to provide an opportunity where the community could come together to help.

The Community Foundation and United Way have been collaborators on so many projects over so many years. We look to them. They look to us for sharing ideas and information, so it was only logical we would come together and do this. And I would say that the Fox Valley region has come to expect that the United Way and Community Foundation are going to be well-coordinated and working in all of our best interests. Each of our respective boards committed $50,000 to start the fund on March 17.

And now you have passed the $1 million mark.

That $1 million reflects the contributions of more than 300 donors. That’s individuals, families, companies and service clubs. Interestingly, several of the checks that have come in have been accompanied by little notes. Some reflected that they felt they were doing fine and then received their stimulus check from the federal government. They didn’t ask for the money and didn’t feel they needed it. They said other people needed the money more and decided to pay it forward. We received several of those $1,200 checks, and it warms your heart to think that people are that genuine and giving. Our community has really rallied together during this time in cooperating and thinking about others in deep ways. We get to see the best of that.

There is a lot of need in the community. How do you decide who receives funding?

The initial focus for the grants is on providing support to the organizations that are on the front line, providing services and help to the people who are in the most need, people who can’t necessarily care for or provide for themselves. That includes food, housing and financial assistance — basic needs across the board. We expect that even after having raised over $1 million and granted out more than half a million so far, we will need to stay with the basic needs phase for a fair amount of time. The reality is that this is going to be a slow recovery, so to help our nonprofits keep their capacity and effectiveness, we will need to continue those basic supports and services. This extends beyond the nonprofits providing basic needs — all nonprofits are fragile at this time.

COVID-19 hasn’t just affected nonprofits’ finances but also how they deliver their services.

That’s right. In my inbox, I saw an email from Big Brothers Big Sisters celebrating its first virtual match. They had to look at other ways to connect mentors and children beyond the in-person experience. Honestly, it’s disruptive times like this that are the mother of invention and innovation. Nonprofits will develop new ways to achieve their missions, some of which would never have been discovered if we didn’t have this disruption.

The region has a strong history of philanthropy from both individuals and families — what do you think are the reasons for that?

This region has always been considered one of the most philanthropic in giving in the nation, and data backs that up. We’re very strong with financial contribution and volunteers. One of the reasons behind that is the fact that our community is large enough to have capacity and resources but small enough where people are still connected with one another. We see firsthand where the opportunities are to help and the impact of our participation. There’s a feeling of family and connectedness in the region. We see that playing out with the COVID-19 period in spades where people are stepping up and doing things for their colleagues and neighbors and people they don’t even know. It’s heartwarming to see that.

I think back to 2008 and we were deep in the recession. The Community Foundation offered a match day. We put in some money along with some of our donors to match any contributions made to nonprofit organizations. The response was overwhelming. More than $1.1 million was donated in a 12-hour period. That doesn’t happen everywhere. What’s happening now and what happened in 2008 with the match day are just two examples of this community rising to the need. Time after time, when there’s a defined need, the community has responded.

How long will the COVID-19 Community Response Fund remain active?

It will continue on indefinitely until we all agree that there’s no longer a use for it. We expect that will be sometime well into the future. So, part of our role is not only to be good stewards in receiving the funds and applying them to grants, but to also tell the stories and help our community understand where the needs are. We need to inspire more giving, and if it gets to a point where giving doesn’t keep up with the need, it’s our responsibility to make sure we communicate that well and alert the community that there’s another opportunity to make a difference, and the difference they can make.