How eight local nonprofits are taking on their biggest challenges
From the pandemic to hurricanes to trouble raising awareness, lack of staffing, and the ups and downs of fundraising, common challenges persist in the world of nonprofits.
Yet, through any hardships the past few years have presented — and there have been many — area nonprofits remain firmly inspired and motivated by their respective missions. The following is a look at the efforts some are taking to turn their weaknesses into strengths.
Standing out from the crowd
City Year New Orleans
Across the state of Louisiana, there are 2,500 certified teacher vacancies. In New Orleans this school year, approximately 30% of the city’s teachers didn’t return to their jobs. City Year New Orleans is helping to address this teacher shortage — the national service program takes young adults from diverse backgrounds and puts them inside classrooms across the U.S., including at six underserved elementary schools across New Orleans. Each year, between 20% and 30% of City Year New Orleans alums become teachers immediately after graduating from the program, filling the teacher shortage at a more critical time than ever.
“They help supplement teachers in the classroom,” said board member Donna Whalen. “With 25 to 30 kids in the classroom, it’s hard to give everybody the attention they need. Teachers love having City Year in their schools — they love the support from a young person like that. [To students], they’re more of a peer than an authority figure. They can relate to them.”
City Year New Orleans relies in part on large grants to help keep its momentum going, but Whalen said that when it comes to private fundraising in a market like New Orleans, the market is so truncated that many nonprofits pull from the same pool of donors.
“The market is so small and there are so many worthwhile nonprofits in town that everyone is looking for the same donors and the same money,” she said. “It is a very small pot that gets divided lots of ways. In New Orleans, you depend more on local people and investors rather than corporations.”
To tackle this, City Year New Orleans largely keeps fundraising efforts very personal, having cocktails at a home and inviting neighbors to hear from corps members themselves. Corps members keep a daily journal of life impacting the youth of the city in their schools. At these fundraisers, corps members read excerpts from their journals and share the experiences they’ve had impacting lives in such a profound way.
“There’s hardly a dry eye in the house,” Whalen said. “People realize what impact they’re making; it makes you want to give. When we get in front of people one-on-one or in small groups — that’s what works for City Year. The stories are so compelling from individual corps members.”
Their year of service in New Orleans is hopefully the first of many, Whalen said.
“It’s a perfect pipeline for teachers to get committed to the system,” she said. “They love the kids — all of the kids.”
Reaching underserved communities
National Kidney Foundation of Louisiana
Torie Kranze, CEO of the National Kidney Foundation of Louisiana, sums up working in the nonprofit sector this way: After 27 years in the industry, she’s never been bored because the organization stays relevant — immersed in its work preventing kidney disease across Louisiana while simultaneously improving the health and well-being of those who have it.
From their home office in New Orleans, four staff members face a hardy challenge statewide: Louisiana ranks No. 1 per capita for kidney patients in the U.S.
Armed with that knowledge, the organization’s work has shifted toward prevention, early detection and preemptive transplantation. Kidney disease is heavily influenced by an individual’s diet and lifestyle and the presence of high blood pressure or diabetes. Among their services, the foundation offers free kidney health screenings — which normally cost about $400 — in various locations across Louisiana. After the screening, individuals can speak with a healthcare professional about their results.
“We go into rural areas with no access to healthcare like many of us would have — healthcare deserts,” she said. “That time with a medical professional is really important.”
The National Kidney Foundation of Louisiana also promotes organ donations — including living donations — and, in doing so, addresses fears people may have about donating a kidney.
Over the summer, the foundation hosts a summer camp for children with kidney disease who, for the first time in their young lives, are given the opportunity to meet others just like them and to feel seen.
The organization is also taking its awareness campaign into food banks, aiming to meet people where they are. The foundation is training volunteers and workers at food banks across Louisiana to be comfortable talking about chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, since many Louisianans may not have regular access to a healthcare professional.
“The staff and volunteers want to feel empowered to help clients make better choices, educate them, and have an impact on the health of individuals of Louisiana,” Kranze said.
We are here! Raising awareness
Community Sailing New Orleans
Think sailing is just for the rich, elite upper crust? Think again, said Jacob Raymond, executive director of Community Sailing New Orleans.
“We are demolishing the concept that sailing is only for the elite few,” he said. “We’re demolishing the perspective that [sailing is] an elitist, affluent sport.”
To do so, the organization offers a multitude of programs that are either affordable or free of charge, seeking to make sailing on Lake Pontchartrain accessible, approachable, and affordable to everyone — all ages, backgrounds, and abilities — in the Greater New Orleans area.
“We want to eliminate physical, economic, and social barriers to the waterfront that exist,” Raymond said.
In addition to providing youth of New Orleans an after-school opportunity free of charge, Community Sailing New Orleans also introduces young people to a career they may not have thought about through its Crew to Captain maritime career development course — one in New Orleans’ local maritime industry. Over three years, students learn to sail and work towards instructor certification while also opening their eyes to a potential career post-high school career.
“One of five jobs in Louisiana is in the maritime industry,” Raymond said. “We show kids different career pathways in the maritime industry that are approachable. There’s a lot of cool opportunities that I don’t think kids know about.”
Armed with a fleet of 55 boats, Community Sailing New Orleans offers programs not just for youth but for adults, as well; its adaptive sailing programs cater to people of all abilities. Seven of its boats are custom-built for differently abled individuals, and its docks are customized towards inclusivity. The organization also offers programming geared towards veterans, free of charge, and thrives on partnerships, Raymond said.
“We love collaboration,” he said. “There are a lot of cool ways to connect with organizations that share our vision and our values.”
Though COVID-19 wreaked havoc on many, if not all, New Orleans nonprofits, Community Sailing New Orleans in particular is impacted by hurricanes when they reach New Orleans. Despite the one-two punch of the pandemic and Hurricane Ida, the organization continues to thrive, and it hopes to increase awareness throughout the city, said development director Margi Sunkel.
“We want to get word out that we’re here on Lake Pontchartrain in the West End neighborhood,” she said. “A lot of people who even grew up here have never been out here. We’re always working to get the word out that we’re here and that there’s a program for you.”
It’s all in the hope that the organization will become as much a part of the city as Lake Pontchartrain, available and accessible to all New Orleanians.
“When you look around Lake Pontchartrain, it’s a beautiful city resource that belongs to everyone,” Raymond said. “To everyone. Not just the affluent few.”
Reevaluating the messaging
Special Olympics Louisiana
Nationwide, the Special Olympics was founded 55 years ago, in 1968; Louisiana’s branch of the Special Olympics came onboard three years later, in 1971. Despite its longstanding and successful history, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the organization to take a pause and reevaluate, said president and CEO John Guzzardo, reassessing how to best serve the state.
“While we hated [COVID], it allowed us to take a step back and look at what we were doing and didn’t need to continue doing — what we needed to improve on,” he said. “We refined a lot of different parts of the program. We are really trying to get out in the community more than we were before. Being a 50-year-old organization, it’s really easy to sit back and rest on our laurels.”
To refine itself, Special Olympics Louisiana — which provides year-round sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities—is now getting out as much as it can in the community, specifically doing more networking in the business community than it was doing just a few years ago, Guzzardo said.
“We are telling our story and letting athletes tell their story,” he said. “It’s a huge shift we’re working through right now, organization-wide. We’re rebuilding and rebranding our marketing to put our athletes first, out front of everyone else. They have the best stories, and there’s been a huge shift in that regard.”
Shockwaves from the pandemic continue to reverberate: Special Olympics’ athlete numbers have dipped from pre-COVID highs of 12,000 to 3,000 in 2021. Volunteer numbers have also gone down, specifically when it comes to coaches. As athlete numbers continue to climb back up, recruiting volunteers is the organization’s biggest challenge right now, Guzzardo said. The organization is also committed to reaching the corporate community, telling businesses about the work it does and why it matters.
“There’s so much opportunity,” Guzzardo said. “[Special Olympics Louisiana] is one of the few [organizations] where you can come out and see the impact your dollars or volunteerism has.”
And, to that impact, it’s so much more than sports, he said.
“That’s the best-kept secret about our organization,” Guzzardo said. “Special Olympics is every day of the year. A lot of people think it’s just a once a year event. In Louisiana, we actually conduct about 120 to 130 sports competitions a year, and that’s just sports, in addition to an array of health programs, fitness programs, working with schools across the state with inclusion programs, athlete leadership trainings. Sports, while at the core of what we do, is just one piece of the puzzle. That makes the organization really cool, when you can get in and learn different facets of what we offer to athletes.”
Small staff vs. big issues
Jefferson Community Foundation
Jefferson Community Foundation serves one of Louisiana’s largest parishes, working as the hub of the wheel that is Jefferson Parish to connect dollars to the greatest need. With core focus areas including senior initiatives, transit, race and equity, education, neighborhood support and revitalization, and health and wellness, the organization relies heavily on partnerships to help make as much positive change in the parish as possible.
“We realize we can’t do everything, so we try to work with different organizations and groups,” said Christine Briede, executive director of the Jefferson Community Foundation. “We work best when we partner up.”
The organization was founded after Hurricane Katrina in order to facilitate funds for Jefferson Parish, and was fully volunteer led until March 2020, when Briede was hired. (She is still the organization’s only full-time staff member.)
“I agreed to take the position and set my start date right as everything was shutting down,” she said. “It was kind of crazy, but it allowed us to really dig into the COVID-19 pandemic and help with vaccines. Working through that, we built on what the foundation should look like in the community, and narrowed our focus areas where we would support projects in Jefferson Parish.”
Various programming dots the foundation’s annual calendar, including a leadership program for high school juniors and seniors and monthly race and equity discussions. The problems the organization tackles are large and vast — when compared with homelessness and mental health initiatives, just to name two issues the foundation tackles, building an aquatic center for the parish, a heavy lift in and of itself, seems minuscule in comparison. (Briede said that there is only one public pool in Jefferson Parish, while other municipalities its size have anywhere from 18 to 20.) Because of the scope of work the organization does — and because Briede, as the foundation’s lone staff member, can’t possibly do it all alone — volunteers remain critical and crucial.
“The challenges of a parish community are great, and you want to do as much as you can to help, but you are really limited as to how much you can do,” she said. “All volunteers make a difference.”
Connecting with the target audience
Northshore Food Bank
Founded in 1984, Northshore Food Bank will celebrate its 40-year anniversary this coming year — a celebration that kicks off in May.
“We want to recognize all of our stakeholders who have helped us get here,” said CEO Yvette Roussel. “Where we’ve come from, we’ve developed and grown to get to where we are today and what we’re able to do. We have a very limited staff, but 100 regularly scheduled volunteers come and help us throughout the week. We would not be able to sustain what we do on a daily basis without volunteers.”
The organization provides nutrition support and assistance for a number of different programs, ranging from children to seniors to those with special dietetic needs and more.
“We provide a number of different food assistance programs, all to meet and support the needs of a food-insecure area,” Roussel said.
As with many nonprofits, awareness remains a key issue the Northshore Food Bank is tackling. In St. Tammany Parish, the food insecurity is 11.6%, Roussel said — but the Northshore Food Bank last year served 16% of that.
“Where are those other individuals?” she said. “We know they are struggling. Why are they not coming to us? We need to figure out how to provide access to our mission and provide [further] access to the food insecure. What do we need to do to find them and make them aware of who we are and what we’re offering? We want to provide access and a way to get to it.”
To help do this, said development director Ginger Kunkel, the organization hopes to end the stigma and be a comfortable and welcoming environment. Kunkel also said the organization is sending out mailers to low-income households and is tackling problems with transportation to the food bank.
“We are trying to look at rural areas and food deserts that might be 10 to 20 miles to the closest supermarket or accessibility to nutritious food,” Roussel said. “We are trying to identify those areas and do research. If it takes us bringing our truck filled with boxes of food to them to make them aware of us and give us access, we want to look at doing those things.”
Donation decrease amidst rising need
Second Harvest Food Bank
The numbers are staggering: One in seven people in South Louisiana are food insecure, and one in five children are food insecure.
Second Harvest Food Bank is looking to change that. By providing food access, advocacy, education, and disaster response, the organization supports over 700 community partners and programs across 23 parishes through its food distribution programs, community kitchen meal services, and nutrition education. The organization annually secures millions of pounds of food that otherwise would have been discarded, making sure food makes it to the one in seven South Louisianans that are hungry.
“We have a multitude of things that we’re doing,” said Brittany Taylor, director of marketing and public relations. “We provide food in the form of food pantry donations and meals. A lot of the food [is made] here in our own kitchen — a lot of meals are prepared here and distributed to all of the parishes, every day.”
One initiative the organization is a part of is Nourish Louisiana, which helps create a long-term, resilient food supply chain that brings together local growers, food banks and communities that need healthy food. Through this initiatives, over $4.8 million of locally grown food will be purchased over the next two years from local, regional, and underserved producers — namely Black and Brown.
“Food donations are way down due to supply chain logistics happening across the nation for many of our large food donors,” Taylor said. “We are coming up with creative ways for how we source food, including our latest initiative, Nourish Louisiana.”
HELPing donors see the big picture
Made in New Orleans Foundation
New Orleans is known around the world for its hospitality, and rightfully so. The work of the Made in New Orleans Foundation supports the hospitality industry, and specifically the Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) who work within it, making sure the city’s hospitality industry meets the world in growing, supporting, and financing the success of BIPOC people in the culinary field. The organization’s support is two-pronged, said Executive Director Lauren Darnell: investing in these individuals as well as offering equity coaching to the hospitality industry at large and advocating for and addressing equitable policies and practices.
“Lots of individuals are facing barriers to advancement in the industry,” she said. “Here in New Orleans, there is a very old and very rich history of culinary traditions, music, culture and food. We’re really known around the world for our hospitality. My work is centered on bringing the invisible to the visible. When you look at the ownership of restaurants and businesses in the marketing of New Orleans, it’s unequal. If you Google ‘New Orleans chefs,’ you’ll see a lot of white faces — and that’s unfair.”
The organization seeks to do deeper work about diversifying the industry, as well as tackling wage equity. Through fundraising in the city, Darnell said she has encountered many loyal individual donors but has found it more difficult to secure larger funding. The work, like many other nonprofits, is long; tangible, visible results won’t happen overnight, or possibly even in a year.
“We are investing in people’s lives and livelihoods,” Darnell said. “Our results are when workers themselves and professionals themselves feel seen, heard and acknowledged. Those are intangible results that are hard to demonstrate.”
Wins for the organization include more BIPOC leadership in kitchens, as well as supporting BIPOC-owned restaurants.
“We make sure people are aware and are going to support [BIPOC]-owned businesses, as well as help provide support for resources for white-owned businesses with BIPOC staff inside the business,” Darnell said. “We also tackle it by being a resource for individuals calling out and drawing attention to challenges within the industry. We are the go-between in order to make sure people are seen, heard, and acknowledged for their work.”