By Scott Meacham
Oklahomans are generous people. We help our neighbors and our communities daily and especially when survival and recovery are at stake—after a horrific act of domestic terrorism, after hundreds of town-leveling tornadoes, and now through a pandemic that is affecting our health and economy.
Non-profits are stepping up in amazing ways. To gain a ground-level perspective of how this pandemic is affecting Oklahoma non-profits now and in the future, I went to Kim Henry, executive director of Sarkeys Foundation. Kim is our state’s former first lady. Our families have been close since Brad and I met in law school.
Since its founding in the sixties by serial entrepreneur and oilman S. J. Sarkeys, Sarkeys Foundation has awarded more than $150 million in grants to a diverse group of non-profit organizations with the broad vision of improving the quality of life in Oklahoma.
In response to the pandemic, Sarkeys has issued more than $300,000 in emergency grant dollars for COVID-19 relief across the state. “We give to charities that provide direct service to individuals who are underrepresented or at risk—areas of mental health, health care, food, education, homelessness, and criminal justice. COVID-19 affects all of those,” Kim said. “We focus where we can on rural areas with less philanthropic opportunity.
Kim Henry sees three substantial challenges and changes for non-profits in Oklahoma post-pandemic.
“We are all going to have to become more innovative in how we deliver services,” she said. “The most successful non-profits develop a true relationship with their clients. That’s hard to do virtually, especially those that provide counseling. Internet access is critical. This will require an extreme investment in technology to reach populations and deliver services while keeping people safe.”
Fund-raising will need to be reworked as long as organizations cannot hold large gatherings. “For many organizations, major fund raisers bring in the operating budget for the next year,” she said. “Non-profits are struggling to figure out how to replace that. Zoom might be acceptable to get us through the pandemic, but not indefinitely.”
The greatest change, Kim says, may be that charities are going to have to re-calculate who qualifies for their programs and turn more of their focus to the basic services of housing, hunger, and mental health. “We are seeing an eviction crisis that is going to be front and center within the next month,” she said.
The philanthropic world is gearing up.
“The world is different with COVID,” she said. “Non-profit boards can make temporary adjustments through this crisis to widen the scope of who they can serve. Most people have to live from pay check to pay check, yet middle class income prevents them from seeking this aid. You go a couple of weeks or months without pay, and it is catastrophic. People are on the brink of losing their homes. Their savings are depleted and they can’t feed their family. What do we have to do to help keep them in their homes, and fed, and working through this crisis.”
As Kim says, post-COVID will be a different world — a world where we need to recognize the depth and duration of people’s pain. “The non-profits who come out of this well are the ones that are innovative and recreate themselves, learning how to fund raise and reach people differently to provide the services they need,” she said.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.