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Over the past year, Benefits Data Trust (BDT) saw an increased need for their services as economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced more people than ever before to seek assistance from the country’s social safety net.
The Philadelphia-based organization focuses its mission on outreach to the most vulnerable populations and, over the past 15 years, has secured about $7.5 billion worth of assistance for families in need, which includes food, housing, health care, and more. But now, BDT serves families who weren’t eligible for benefits before the pandemic, including many in the middle class who are unfamiliar with the application process.
According to Nijah Newton Famous, who serves as BDT’s senior Pennsylvania engagement manager, the pandemic also spotlighted many of the country’s racial and economic ills. She told Generocity that COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated long ignored equity concerns but that the moment gave her team an opportunity for understanding. Even if people don’t need benefits, she said, they still want a robust social safety net.
“[The pandemic] brought a lot of volume and different people to the forefront but it also exposed the system,” said Newton-Famous. She noted that Benefits Data Trust now had an opportunity to make that system stronger through technology and policy work. “It gives us an opportunity to really enhance it and improve it even more.”
But a strong mission and dedicated team can only take an organization so far during a global crisis. Philadelphia’s nonprofit sector needs funding and strong partnerships to bridge the COVID gap.
Earlier this month, the Pew Charitable Trusts accepted that call, announcing a significant grant investment in several of the city’s more prominent organizations. In total, Pew awarded $5.41 million to five area nonprofits through a couple of different grant vehicles, including their Venture Grant program and their first-ever Growth Grant. According to a statement, the money awarded will go toward pandemic recovery, helping each organization better serve its constituents as they tackle the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.
The grants represent a substantial commitment to the city and its people at a time when nonprofits are struggling. To that end, Benefits Data Trust will receive $4 million over the next five years as part of the Pew Health and Human Services Fund’s first-ever Growth Grant. According to a statement, the money awarded will go toward helping BDT double the number of benefit enrollments over the next five years.
In addition, the Pew Fund awarded two Venture Grants, with $250,000 over the next two years going to The Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia and $160,000 over that same period going to Puentes de Salud. Visit Philadelphia and The Philadelphia Zoo each received $500,000 over the next two years as well as part of Pew’s civic initiatives grants.
“Venture grants are intended to support promising approaches or promising interventions to address a new or emerging challenge or a gap in service delivery,” said Kristin Romens, project director of the Pew Fund for Health and Human Services.
As she explained to Generocity, both the Venture and Growth Grants are part of a new strategy that Pew rolled out last year. “Then the Growth Grants are designed to provide … significant investment in high performing organizations. So these are organizations that have a track record.” The Pew Fund takes a hands-on approach with their grant programs, offering awardees varying types of support while checking up on progress every step of the way. The application process itself is intense, too, with the Pew Fund looking to what Romens called thoughtful and intentional leaders in the area to help identify issues and organizations doing important work. External experts are used and, when it comes to Growth Grants, everyone from the leadership team of an organization to board members can expect to be interviewed.
But this year, not only did COVID change how everyone at Pew did their work, it became the focal point of the grant process itself. Romens told Generocity that the Pew Fund began to look at issues that were exacerbated or laid bare by the pandemic, which led them in several different directions.
For example, last year, Women Against Abuse received $250,000 from Pew as evidence showed that domestic violence was on the rise due to social isolation and an increase in economic hardship. Romens highlighted both The Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia and Puentes de Salud for their COVID efforts this year.
On the other hand, Romens identified Benefits Data Trust as an organization that’s not only surviving the pandemic but adapting and growing in new ways to address the needs caused by it.
“On Growth Grants, it’s an interesting time, in light of the economic downturn to be thinking about growth,” said Romens. “On the one hand you have a sector that for many organizations, they’re having to retrench in order to survive. On the other hand, they’re seeing more demand for services than at any time in the past, 15 or 20 years.”
“I think it’s made the Growth Grants even more important.” she continued.
But the pandemic continues to be the focus of everyone’s work this year. At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia, where the $250,000 venture grant will help facilitate full-day academic support and enrichment to underserved public school students during the current virtual learning period and after, COVID’s effects on education are top of mind.
According to Libby Lescalleet, an executive vice president in charge of program partnerships and development at the organization, many students with one or both parents working through the pandemic still news the basics, including internet access and a desk and chair. Also, she told Generocity, there’s an assumption that because kids are so tech-savvy, they can easily navigate the virtual learning world. In reality, many need an adult to guide them through their day.
With the Venture Grant from the Pew Fund, the Boys & Girls Clubs will continue to help students on-site with activities and learning pods, some of whom are with the organization from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. After school, Lescalleet explained, the students participate in traditional Boys & Girls Clubs activities that promote literacy, STEM and prevent learning loss across the ages. There are also workforce development programs and social-emotional development to help children through the pandemic.
“I think it’s amazing to see that an organization such as Pew is also recognizing the work that the Boys & Girls Clubs continues to do,” said Lescalleet.
At Puentes de Salud, COVID continues to be a primary concern, too, especially for a Latinx community hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic in more ways than one. According to Leah Reisman, who serves as the organization’s health & wellness associate director, a needs assessment survey performed early on in the pandemic found almost universal job loss among Puentes de Salud’s constituents, most of whom are part of Philadelphia; s Latinx immigrant community.
As Reisman explained to Generocity, a significant number of people worked in the restaurant industry, which took a heavy hit at the beginning of the crisis and is only now slowly starting to come back.
Puentes de Salud considers its mission to be twofold — they partner with Philadelphia’s Latinx immigrant community in hopes of building long-term prosperity by addressing education, health, and social service needs while also shaping future generations of advocates who think of social determinants of health. With the Venture Grant from the Pew Fund, which awards them $160,000 over the next two years, Puentes de Salud will make health care more accessible through better use of telehealth, electronic records, and patient-focused communications.
Reisman noted that Puentes de Salud offers both COVID testing and vaccinations to the Latinx community as part of their health portfolio this year. They will also use the Pew Grant to support and improve their wellness programs. “The support of funders like Pew matters for a variety of reasons,” Reisman told Generocity. “For a community-based organization like Puentes having resources — and especially resources that give us flexibility in their use — just helps keep our organization strong.”
Pew’s announcement is serendipitous for the nonprofit sector, as organizations seek to regroup and reformat in a time of increased need and fewer resources. And they’re not the only group making investments in the wake of the pandemic.
As Generocity learned just this week, GreenLight Fund, the national venture philanthropy organization dedicated to community need and social innovation, with operations here in Philadelphia, received a $4 million commitment from Bain Capital’s partners. That money will allow GreenLight to “deepen the organization’s impact across its current network of 10 cities and scale to expand its reach across the country.”
For now, Romens is excited about what these grants mean not just for the organizations awarded but for the Philadelphia area as a whole. She told Generocity that it’s a real step forward to bringing the city out of the pandemic.
“You’ve probably seen and heard the number $450 million which is the estimate that BDT makes of the amount of benefits in a single year left on the table by folks in Philadelphia,” said Romens, explaining in one example why Pew chose Benefits Data Trust for a Growth Grant.
“You can imagine what a long way that kind of money will go toward not just enabling those families to put food on the table, keep the heat and electricity on in their homes,” she said, “but also just toward regional recovery.”
Originally published in Generocity on April 26, 2021.