While COVID-19 did not impact much of the U.S. until mid-March, other parts of the world felt the individual and social consequences of the new virus in the months prior. Maggi Spartz, President of the Unity Foundation of La Porte County, knew it was headed for the U.S. and began preparing before its arrival.
“My son has been kind of a digital nomad and he was in South America at the time. He called and said, ‘Mom, this is going to be bad, so stock up.’ We did personally and now I wish I had done that for our non-profit,” Spartz said.
Undoubtedly, COVID-19 took a toll on all businesses and organizations when it hit the States. Unity Foundation, as a non-profit, found the pandemic was particularly challenging for their line of work.
“Our income is dependent on our assets, so when the market goes down, so does our income. The market fluctuates so it just depends on what’s going on at the time. In previous recessions, we’ve lost as much as 25% of our income. Anyone who has endowed funds has this issue,” Spartz said.
Despite this reality, Spartz is proud of how the Unity Foundation has handled the crisis and become better for it. As an essential business, they had to find a way to work efficiently and safely while social distancing.
“We spent a while getting remote access for all the staff because we didn’t have that before. That took a little bit of our IT guy’s time,” Spartz said. “It was sketchy because sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but we got all that worked out. Now anybody can safely log in to the files at their desktop and get their work done.”
According to the one who handles IT responsibilities at Unity Foundation, they were ahead of the curve in figuring out how to access their work resources remotely and he wished his other clients would have been as proactive.
The non-profit incorporated safety features at its office in the Star Center, such as plexiglass to create a safe workspace for those who needed it.
“We limited the office’s use to essential people who needed to be in the office. Some people figured out that they couldn’t work effectively at home between kids, pets, or not having space. We all agreed we didn’t know what would happen so we stayed away from the office, so that those couple of people could safely come in,” Spartz said.
Making the office safe during the quarantine is one of the many changes implemented since the start of the virus. The issues presented in the last few months have compelled the Unity Foundation to find new ways to operate and take advantage of the technology at their fingertips.
“We’re having to innovate which does excite me. Do you know how long it would take us to do this normally? I would never have dreamed we could pivot and be as collaborative as we have become in this past four months,” Spartz said. “Not having to spend hours in my car each week schlepping from one meeting to the next, but being able to go to those meetings has been weird on the one hand, but freeing on the other. I’ve been able to have meetings with groups I’ve never been able to get to before. It’s a low-cost investment sitting at a computer and going to a meeting that I wouldn’t have gone to before.”
The connections that have been established or have grown as a result of COVID are have revolutionized the workplace. Unity Foundation has been able to communicate with people and organizations that they had not before.
Unity Foundation has always sought to connect with public servants, and the pandemic has strengthened that connection through increased technology use. County Council President, Randy Novak, has convened weekly meetings over Zoom to discuss COVID-19 and all the complications it caused in the community.
The pandemic has also renewed the non-profit’s focus on racial equity. While the organization has always had racial inclusivity as part of its value statement, Unity Foundation is looking for better ways to address the issue.
“We want to include and hear specifically from our black, Latino, LGBT, homeless, and youth communities. We held special in-person meetings for those groups. They were generally surprised to be asked,” Spartz said. “We had over a hundred African-Americans at our focus group for that. We heard different things from those groups than we did from the general population. I don’t need to explain to anybody why we need a racial equity lens on this.”
Unity Foundation also paid special attention to how homeless shelters were coping with the crisis climate. Providing for the homeless became trickier than ever, because the shelters did not want to take in someone newly homeless before testing them for COVID-19. Spartz was happy to report how Unity Foundation’s increased support during this time has helped the homeless shelters.
“Our shelter providers felt so supported. They were alone, but then they got to have a meeting with us every week and share what was going on; their concerns and their fears. We helped them get through a very scary, difficult time. I’m so grateful that we were there to do that even though we had to work seven days a week for a while,” Spartz said.
Although the job climate was negatively affected in many cases, Unity Foundation actually staffed up to cope with increased demand. The organization has also pulled restrictions off grants to allow people to use the money as needed, provided an increased number of scholarships, and applied money from its disaster fund to aid homeless shelters.
“We’ve tried to be the best community champions that we can be,” Spartz said.