WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund

From collaboration blossoms change

When the pandemic arrived on our doorsteps in mid-March 2020, dozens of funders in Western New York quickly joined forces to respond to the rapidly changing needs in our community. In 2021, we continued to face serious challenges, loss and uncertainty together. Led by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, The John R. Oishei Foundation, the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, and the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, a convening call was held on March 13, 2020, to assess the willingness to stage a coordinated and regional philanthropic response.

The answer was a resounding “yes,” and the WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund was created. The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, Peter & Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation and the Western New York Foundation joined in leading the effort that rapidly grew to include more than 60 funding partners.

You can see a full list of all who contributed at WNYResponds.org. The Fund’s response included two approaches to grantmaking through a racial equity lens:

Immediate Response Grants

The Fund’s first priority was to ensure that dollars were distributed as efficiently and effectively as possible to organizations serving on the front lines responding to the crisis.

In 2020 and 2021, four rounds of funding totaling more than $11.3 million addressed immediate needs in our community in the areas of food, housing, healthcare, childcare, mental health, transportation and other emergency services. Funding went to organizations serving residents throughout the eight counties of Western New York and were granted strategically to fill gaps in emergency needs until public funding became available.

Moving Forward Together

As the crisis unfolded, the funders collaborative raised an important question: How do we use this moment and unprecedented collaboration to innovate and strengthen our region’s ability to face the future?

The answer was to create the Moving Forward Together initiative to address critical systems in need. It proactively convened efforts and also issued a call to nonprofit leaders to propose collaborative solutions. To date, the Fund has granted $2.42 million to support 18 Moving Forward Together initiatives encompassing more than 680 partners across Western New York. This work is facilitated by the Community Foundation and expected to continue in 2022 and beyond.

Examples of Moving Forward Together Challenges and Solutions

Food System Systemic Challenge: We all should have the opportunity, and access, to put healthy and affordable food on the table while supporting our local producers.

The team leading Food Future WNY visits Gakwi:yo:h Farms and enjoys traditional mush made by Michael Snyder as he shares how the Seneca Nation of Indians is working to preserve its rich agricultural legacy.

Community Solution: Food Future WNY is an initiative of the Fund that is led by the Western New York Foundation. This solution includes a community-focused, regionally coordinated planning effort facilitated by a national team of four food system experts working side by side with a diverse group of 19 key stakeholders, including urban and rural farmers and distribution partners like FeedMore WNY and FoodLink. The planning effort is expected to take approximately 18 months and finish in June 2022. You can learn more at FoodFutureWNY.org.

Digital Access Systemic Challenge: Given how the pandemic has changed our world, everyone should be able to easily and affordably press a button to connect with the digital world for school, work and life, including telemedicine.

Community Solutions
1. The WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund proactively convened a community-wide coalition to bring together all the stakeholders advocating for digital equity and inclusion throughout Western New York. The WNY Digital Equity Coalition, led by the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, includes more than 50 community partners working to inventory existing resources and advocate for our region’s fair share of funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed in late 2021. Learn more at wnydigitalequity.org.

2. In Orleans County, a group of stakeholders developed an idea to address residents’ lack of understanding about how to use critical digital tools. A Moving Forward Together grant made to the Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative has allowed the group, led by the Orleans United Way, to evaluate and prioritize 14 solutions designed to improve digital literacy among residents in this rural community. Solutions include hiring technology coaches and creating basic internet education programs that are easy to access through local nonprofit groups, libraries and community organizations.

The Community Foundation thanks all of its foundation partners and individual donors for their extraordinary response. To read more about the impact of the fund, please click to read the report below.