While foundations fund the frontlines of coronavir...

While foundations fund the frontlines of coronavirus response, Detroit arts and culture nonprofits are left hanging

They’re trying to adapt for a world of virtual programming -- but still stand to lose millions in grants and donations.

Two months ago — when students were still learning hip-hop at his Southwest Detroit studio — Benito Vasquez was getting ready to raise $30,000 for Motor City Street Dance Academy.

If he raised $15,000, the crowdfunding platform ioby would match that amount, and he could provide a year of dance classes for 25 kids, plus snacks, field trips and wages for instructors. He just had to click “submit” to launch the online fundraiser. But then COVID-19 hit. 

Vasquez estimated his 3-year-old grassroots organization (which has fiscal sponsorship through nonprofit Allied Media Projects) will lose an additional $450,000 in anticipated grant funding. Though he’s pivoted to live dance and yoga classes on YouTube, he said funders told him “there’s no way to do what you do virtually.”

He could still launch the crowdfunding campaign, but he worries those donors would be hit harder than the big funders who have tightened purse strings. 

“I just don’t feel like asking for money right now when people aren’t working,” said Vasquez, a Southwest Detroit resident who goes by Mav (an acronym for “Making a Voice”). 

Benito Vasquez, who goes by Mav, runs a new program that offers dance to Southwest Detroit kids. His organization stands to lose more than $400,000 in funding even as they work to offer their programs virtually.
Benito Vasquez, or Mav, founded the Motor City Street Dance Academy a few years ago. His organization was taking off — and then COVID-19 hit.

“I know if I launch it, people in my community… are going to donate to it. I don’t want to take from people who barely have [anything],” he said. 

As the coronavirus epidemic has spread tragedy in Detroit, philanthropic organizations have stepped up to respond to critical needs, from supporting food distribution efforts to donating laptops to students for virtual learning. But for hundreds of other nonprofits in Metro Detroit, funding sources have disappeared overnight, leaving the fates of crucial community programs and entire organizations uncertain. 

Survival in question

Of nearly 20 local nonprofits surveyed by Detour Detroit last month, the majority reported feeling “somewhat worried” or “extremely worried” about surviving. The concerns came from leaders of nonprofits focused on everything from education to the environment, and were just as significant at legacy organizations serving Detroiters for generations as they were at newer ones. Some had to cancel fundraisers expected to bring in six figures; others lost anticipated grants from funders that suspended giving. 

(Editor’s note: the author runs local nonprofit Coaching Detroit Forward.)

The challenges are similar to the ones facing small businesses, from restaurants to theaters, that have been forced to temporarily close since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order on March 16. Nearly every nonprofit surveyed said they were most worried about paying staff in the next 60 days. 

“Many [nonprofits] have had to make tough decisions around laying off or furloughing staff,” said Omari Rush, executive director of CultureSource, which offers resources for 160 nonprofit members in Southeast Michigan. ”Many are looking at bills they have to pay, whether it’s leases or mortgages, and thinking, how are they going to do that?” 

Arts and culture nonprofits are at a particular disadvantage, even when the doors can open again. “The core and essential activity for us is bringing people together, convening, allowing people to have hands-on experiences, close experiences,” Rush said, “and those are specifically the kinds of activities that are not allowed right now and that people are saying are probably the last kinds of activities to come back online as we start to come out of the pandemic.”

Figuring out social distancing indoors for performances or instructional classes is “going to be very challenging,” he added. “The initial runs of it will probably be very awkward, and for some organizations, it just won’t be financially feasible…Now is a time to think about where people can save money: how they can collaborate with others, share resources, space and personnel.”

Pivoting to online programming

Many nonprofits are exploring virtual options to meet the needs of their communities. For Detroit Horse Power, that’s meant suspending all after-school meetings and experiences with horses. Instead, they introduced a virtual model where Detroit students learn about horses and practice social emotional traits like self-control, said David Silver, executive director of the youth education nonprofit and a former elementary school teacher.

In the fall, Silver secured a Detroit location to build an urban horseback riding facility and scale the nonprofit’s capacity over the next three years. Now, there are a few more unknowns that could stop them from “putting down roots,” he said.

In March, Silver had to cancel an annual trail ride fundraiser expected to raise $10,000. He also has a number of grant applications pending.

Detroit student leading horse at after-school program.
Destiny leading a horse in Detroit Horse Power’s after-school program

“Foundations are serving the front lines of emergency response,” he said, explaining many have shifted philanthropic priorities and are now offering emergency grants. “We’re so glad that they are, but it could leave fewer resources to serve the priorities we had anticipated.” 

Looking for relief when funders are looking elsewhere

Funders who have had to respond rapidly to address urgent COVID-19 needs have varied in the way they handle other grant recipients. Several surveyed nonprofit leaders said they wished grantors would be more flexible about letting them use money for operations and staffing to stay afloat in the short-term. Others praised foundations’ crisis response.

The Skillman Foundation, a Detroit foundation that gives sizable grants for educational programs, decided to wait on announcing 2020 summer camp and after-school grants. 

“The world is not the same as it was just a few months ago,” Punita Thurman, Skillman Foundation vice president of program and strategy, wrote in a statement. “Nonprofits and funders must address the current realities brought on by COVID-19 in order to serve the community now and into the future.”

Skillman is now allowing existing grantees to convert a portion of their funding to general operating support to help them respond to urgent needs of the community and their staff.

Others, like The Fisher Foundation, are giving grant partners freedom to revamp in-person summer programs into virtual experiences and adjust budgets to cover basics like rent and employee costs. 

The Kresge Foundation said that they were prioritizing “health and survival” in their $1.55 million in grants awarded last month, though $200,000 went to CultureSource to support other arts organizations. 

To help meet emergency needs, CultureSource partnered with other funders to offer 50 grants at $10,000 each for local arts and culture nonprofits.

The Relief and Resiliency Grant can be used to buy equipment for digital programs or just cover expenses while leaders need time to think and plan for the next few months.

“We want to make sure people have the runway to bounce back,” Rush said.

He added that across the board locally and beyond, there aren’t enough grant dollars to match organizations’ needs.

“A lot of those pools of money are completely overwhelmed by the need that is being expressed or requested,” he said.

Nonprofits have also faced roadblocks when applying for government stimulus funds like the Personal Paycheck Program to help cover payroll, rent and utilities. Applicants needed a lending history, among other requirements.

“The system was very much structured for for-profit entities,” Rush said. “It also relied on the applicants having certain kinds of relationships with their banks that nonprofits traditionally have not had. We don’t traditionally go to banks for loans.”

Silver managed to successfully apply for a loan for Detroit Horse Power after spending hours on persistent phone calls, emails and research to navigate paperwork that doesn’t fit the structure of nonprofits.

For one, his banking contacts didn’t know what to do with the section that asked to list owners with more than 20% ownership. “That completely didn’t apply to us with a small board of directors that doesn’t have a percentage ownership,” Silver says. He ended up writing in himself with 0% ownership.

“It definitely was confusing to go through a process run by the Small Business Administration,” he said.

Adapting to an uncertain future

Ang Adamiak is the executive director of Arts & Scraps, a 31-year-old nonprofit on Detroit’s east side that offers hands-on, creative experiences using recycled materials. Adamiak estimates her nonprofit will be OK if “normal revenue sources” return by August. “If not… we will have hard choices to make.”

The list of loan and grant sources she’s waiting to hear from looks like alphabet soup — DEGC, QLCF, CFSEM, MCACA, PPP — but in the meantime, she’s funneling her energy into helping the community while raising money in new ways.

Arts & Scraps staff has made about 2,400 kits full of familiar items (crayons, coloring pages, beads), as well as unfamiliar items like “stickies” from automotive manufacturers, that let parents plan educational projects for first- through sixth-graders. 

Nonprofit Arts & Scraps is sending their in-person programming home to kids by assembling and distributing creative kits of their recycled materials

The nonprofit Brilliant Detroit is distributing them free to Detroit families, and the goal is to fund 5,000 kits through GoFundMe. The crowdsourced campaign will also help Arts & Scraps pay staffers.

Adamiak also sells fabric cheaply to about 25 local artisans who are sewing face masks for organizations, family and friends. 

Like Motor City Street Dance Academy’s online dance classes, some nonprofits are giving away their materials and content for free. Rush worries this may start a slippery slope, as nonprofits miss opportunities to monetize online offerings.

But while there’s much to figure out as nonprofits continue to postpone, restructure or cancel programs — and worry about how to pay the bills — Rush is optimistic. 

“Innovation and invention is a characteristic and label that has characterized this region for generations. When you look at a variety of artistic movements, industrial movements, justice movements — people here have been very creative, know how to organize and figure it out,” he said. 

Mav echoed Rush, saying he wouldn’t let the coronavirus prevent him from reaching kids through Motor City Street Dance Academy to provide movement and connection when they need it most.

“Even in the roughest times, we won’t stop pushing,” he said. “That ‘can’t stop, won’t stop’ mentality? It’s in our mission.”

Click here for a curated list of 40+ Black-owned businesses in Detroit that you can support right now.

Funding opportunities for arts & cultures nonprofits:

City of Detroit’s Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship Artist Crisis Relief Fund: Provides cash grants to help artists who have lost earnings, need reimbursement for travel and require funds for medical and other living expenses. Website

The Arts Alliance’s Creative Washtenaw Aid: Provides emergency funds for artists, creatives and creative businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area. Website

United Way of Southeast Michigan COVID-19 Response Fund: Provides emergency funding for local nonprofits. Website

Artist Relief Fund: Provides $5,000 grants to artists facing dire financial emergencies due to COVID-19. Website

Other help: The Detroit Nonprofit and Small Business Remote Legal Clinic, launched this week by Miller Canfield and Michigan Community Resources, will offer free consultations with pro bono attorneys. Website

Stephanie Steinberg is a freelance journalist and founder and CEO of The Detroit Writing Room in downtown Detroit, as well as executive director of the nonprofit Coaching Detroit Forward.