Dozens of nonprofits based in Williamson County received approval for more than $5 million in funding to help ameliorate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but bureaucratic obstacles are making it hard to follow through on planned projects.
Earlier this year, the state of Tennessee promised to dole out $150 million of federal coronavirus relief funds to nonprofits across the state through the Tennessee Community CARES Program.
In September, the state approved grants — ranging from $25,000 to $2 million — for more than 650 organizations. Those projects ranged from providing basic needs like food and protective equipment to organizing activities for children who couldn’t return to the classroom this year.
Rather than providing the money as direct grants, the program is reimbursing nonprofits for expenses related to the proposed programs. In addition, the state is requiring organizations to implement the programs by Nov. 15. The state announced the recipients of the funding in early September.
Those restrictions have created some difficulties, but nonprofit leaders say the funds have been incredibly helpful at a time when many organizations are seeing demand for their services skyrocket and fundraising go down.
At The Refuge Center, a nonprofit mental health provider in Franklin, the number of counseling sessions in September was 20% higher than last year. The group’s waitlist — currently more than 80 people — is increasing daily, especially for children and teenagers.
"Our capacity is being pushed to its limits," Executive Director Amy Alexander said.
The organization is using part of its $450,000 grant to to open five new offices in its current building and hire six more counselors, but Alexander said the group urgently needs more funding and more space.
The Refuge Center already owns a large property near the Ag Expo Center where Alexander hopes to build a new location, but the group still needs to raise $2.2 million before starting construction.
"The demand ... and what we're forecasting would say that we need that space immediately. While many organizations have considered pausing capital projects during COVID, we don't have that luxury," she said. "Even without the pandemic, our community is growing so fast. We know demand for our services is going to grow."
Hope 20, a new project providing financial relief to unemployed workers in the music industry, was approved for $1.5 million in funding, far more than any other organization in the county and among the biggest grants in the state.
The project, started by entrepreneur Chad Petterson, provides rent and utility payments to musicians, and others in the entertainment industry, to keep them afloat temporarily, but the project also aims to find them new, sustainable sources of income.
That could include using their social media followings to sell merchandise or playing virtual concerts. The group also plans to offer training to help musicians create a stable, music-focused business.
"What we want to do is provide a rest for these musicians, a rest from constantly thinking about their bills. When you're in that situation it consume your mind day and night," Petterson said. "We can at least relieve that for a few months, let them step back, rest ... and then restart, and maybe even restart in a way that hadn't thought about before."
In addition, Hope20 is looking to partner with the Franklin food bank One Generation Away and the Franklin counseling center Porter’s Call to provide groceries and mental health care. Both of those nonprofits, also received their own funding through the CARES program.
The program has already received more than 400 applications for support, and Petterson is expecting to receive more.
However, Byron Spradlin, president of Artists in Christian Testimony, the nonprofit parent of the Hope20 project, said even with the promise of funding from the state it has been difficult to pay for the $1.5 million program. Meeting the state’s deadline of Nov. 15 has also been a major challenge.
“We don't have $1 million sitting in a checking account, so we have to see how fast they turn (the reimbursements) around,” Spradlin said.
Other organizations say the paperwork for documenting reimbursable costs is impeding progress on their projects.
The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board planned to use its funds for food relief and support for people without housing. So far, the group has only spent about $50,000 of the its $550,000 grant because it’s not clear how quickly the state will provide reimbursements.
Like many other organizations, Tennessee Baptist Mission Board Communications Director Christ Turner said it’s hard for the group to spend half a million dollars right now. Donations at churches are down and the group is planning for major budget cuts this year.
“If reimbursement is way behind we can't spend that money as quickly as we'd like ... We're overextended on our current budget,” Turner said. “I definitely know (the disaster relief director) has a plan to apply the $500,000, but that plan is going to extend for a longer than he was originally planning for.”
Despite those challenges, the Spring Hill food pantry The Well is using its funding to provide packages of 10 meals and 10 snacks for students at Maury County schools.
There will be a drive-thru Galilee Food Distribution with The Well Outreach on Wednesday, October 14 from 10 am to 12 pm. This will be located at the bus ramps of Columbia Central High School, which is on the north side of the school. pic.twitter.com/5iLkxon3vp— MauryCoPublicSchools (@MauryCoSchools) October 8, 2020
Executive Director Shelly Sassen said many Maury County students rely on schools to provide meals, but lose access when classes move online. Often, schools still offer daily meals, but it can be hard for students to find transportation every day.
The Well’s bigger boxes, called the Galilee Food Pack, named for the story of Jesus multiplying bread and fish, provide a more reliable source of food.
Sassen said her organization's $250,000 grant represents about half of The Well’s normal operating budget. That means the project wouldn’t happen without the state’s help, but it’s also difficult to spend that much money upfront.
Right now, the food pantry is buying one to two weeks of food at a time. Sassen is planning to operate the program through the end of the year, but needs to make all the purchases by Nov. 15. That means she’ll have to find a way to store six weeks worth of food by the deadline. Still, she’s confident she can make it work.
”I think we'll just have to be a little more rigorous in our planning," she said. "We'll have to purchase in bulk. That will be quite a bit of food ... But we're optimistic. For us to make a difference, we'll do what it takes to make it happen.”
That’s the spirit many nonprofit leaders are adopting. Even if the bureaucratic process for extracting the funds if cumbersome, they feel like there is an urgent need to carry out their projects and they’re finding a way to make it happen.