Atlanta nonprofits stretch to meet missions amid COVID, supply shortages

Quinton Way (left, front) & Sallay Sherriss (right, front,) and other workers spoon out meals at Open Hand Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
caption arrowCaption
Quinton Way (left, front) & Sallay Sherriss (right, front,) and other workers spoon out meals at Open Hand Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

As COVID-19 was grinding the world to a halt, Susan Anderson realized that her volunteer organization needed to make some changes — and it needed to make them fast.

Open Hand Atlanta relied on dozens of volunteers who were used to darting in and out of the organization’s Armour Drive headquarters and rummaging through coolers to assemble and organize the meals they deliver to chronically ill Georgians.

It was organized chaos. But, in a world that had suddenly shifted to social distancing, Open Hand needed more organization and less chaos.

“March 2020, in a matter of 48 hours, we changed our whole business model,” said Anderson, the charity’s chief operating officer.

“They were things we were talking about doing for a long time,” she added. Still, it was “kind of hard to do overnight until you had to.”

Open Hand is hardly alone. As the pandemic drags through a second year, many of metro Atlanta’s largest nonprofits are continuing to adapt to meet their missions — sometimes on the fly — as supply chain problems, new variants and labor shortages continue to roil day-to-day life.

Open Hand simplified its menu options. It installed a massive, 2,600 square-foot freezer so meals could be prepared in advance and delivered once instead of two to three times a week. And it streamlined its package assembly process, instituting drive-through pickup for its volunteers, who drop off the 30,000-odd meals a week to the organization’s 4,800 largely low-income customers.

Many organizations have adjusted their operations to minimize COVID transmission and take into account fewer workers, volunteers and supplies. Some have expanded their footprint to meet overwhelming demand created by the virus, while others have scaled back due to a decline in donations. A few have even found more efficient ways of doing business that they plan to continue post-pandemic.

The changes Open Hand made, for example, have cut down on distribution costs by 60%, Anderson said.

caption arrowCaption
Frederica Broadney (left) greets volunteer driver Rob Muething as he hands her a box of meals from Open Hand Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Frederica Broadney (left) greets volunteer driver Rob Muething as he hands her a box of meals from Open Hand Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
caption arrowCaption
Frederica Broadney (left) greets volunteer driver Rob Muething as he hands her a box of meals from Open Hand Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

When the COVID lockdowns began, many nonprofits worried that donations would dry up.

But giving, in fact, has surged.

Americans opened their wallets to help those who had lost their livelihoods during the pandemic. They also spent to aid in the recovery from western wildfires and other natural disasters and to promote racial equity.

Charitable donations to U.S. charities hit a record $471 billion in 2020, according to an annual report published by the Giving USA Foundation, a nearly 4% increase over the previous year after inflation.

Many area nonprofits, including the Shepherd Center and CARE, shattered previous fundraising highs.

In early 2020, CARE embarked on a $75 million fundraising campaign to celebrate the organization’s 75th anniversary. But leaders opted to shift their focus to raising money for the COVID-19 response globally. It would become the largest emergency response effort in the organization’s history, said Mary Anne Ericson, CARE’s director of fundraising. The nonprofit has collected about $125 million.

“We saw a lot of new donors to our organization,” Ericson said, citing India’s battle with the delta variant as a particularly galvanizing moment. “I think it’s the urgency for people to want to do something about the crises they’re seeing in the world.”

As the vaccine brought some aspects of life closer to normal in 2021, some groups worried that donors would cut back. But the giving persisted.

caption arrowCaption
Volunteer Fitness Buddy Doyle Mote works with patient Donna Luttrell during her morning workout at the Shepherd Center Monday, December 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Volunteer Fitness Buddy Doyle Mote works with patient Donna Luttrell during her morning workout at the Shepherd Center Monday, December 13, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
caption arrowCaption
Volunteer Fitness Buddy Doyle Mote works with patient Donna Luttrell during her morning workout at the Shepherd Center Monday, December 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Youth Villages — an organization that treats young people with behavioral, emotional and mental problems, including at a residential campus in Douglasville — said it has surpassed its Georgia fundraising goal by 40%.

The Alpharetta-based National Christian Foundation — which liquidates donors’ stock, real estate and other assets and gives the proceeds to chosen charities — said it’s brought in more than $1.3 billion in charitable contributions since the beginning of the year. That’s a record for the organization, which funds many evangelical, conservative and civic causes.

Spokesman Steve Chapman attributed the outpouring largely to a strong stock market, surging real estate prices and high business valuations.

The road has been rockier for others. Charities that rely on in-person fundraising events and offices to pool donations have struggled.

The American Cancer Society, known for its annual Relay for Life walk, saw its donations shrivel 21% once the pandemic hit. In summer 2020, the Atlanta-based organization laid off 1,000 employees nationally. Crystal Brown, the society’s vice president for Georgia, said the group has “seen more positive trends in revenue and engagement” this year, especially as some in-person events resumed.

The United Way of Greater Atlanta, meanwhile, saw workplace campaign revenue decline 20% in its last fiscal year and a roughly 70% decrease in volunteers.

Despite that, the organization found other ways to help meet community needs in the wake of the coronavirus. It partnered with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to establish the COVID-19 Response & Recovery Fund, which between spring 2020 and this summer raised and distributed more than $28 million to nonprofits on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Others had to shift the way they carry out their missions to account for fewer people.

The Shepherd Center relies on a stable of volunteers to feed many of its paralyzed patients, deliver mail and set up equipment for physical therapy sessions. But with strict visitor limits in place to stanch the spread of the virus, staff members — from nurses to the marketing team — filled in for roughly a year.

caption arrowCaption
Volunteer Zach Wilson helps patient Dean Southworth with his breakfast at the Shepherd Center Monday morning, December 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Volunteer Zach Wilson helps patient Dean Southworth with his breakfast at the Shepherd Center Monday morning, December 13, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
caption arrowCaption
Volunteer Zach Wilson helps patient Dean Southworth with his breakfast at the Shepherd Center Monday morning, December 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Still, some supporters found ways to help. Restaurants donated food for staff. Businesses gave personal protective equipment.

“We really saw people step in and say ‘Where’s the gap?’ ” said Sarah L. Batts, executive director of the Shepherd Center Foundation.

For the supply chain issues faced by some organizations, however, there are few workarounds.

The soaring costs of construction materials have created challenges for Habitat for Humanity, which was already dealing with fewer volunteers and skyrocketing real estate prices.

“When lumber goes up by 300%, that for us is a $20,000 increase on the price tag of a house just on that one front,” said B. Ryan Willoughby, executive director of the charity’s Georgia branch.

Open Hand has contended with supply chain issues of its own.

Shortages of ingredients its nutritionists rely on to build their healthy recipes, from low sodium chicken breast to yeast, have sent staff members scrambling to area grocery stores for substitutes.

But one shortage, in particular, has grabbed the organization’s attention.

Staff members have almost run out of the disposable containers they package food in. The resin that the trays are coated in is in short supply.

caption arrowCaption
A worker controls the machine that seals meals at Open Hand Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

A worker controls the machine that seals meals at Open Hand Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
caption arrowCaption
A worker controls the machine that seals meals at Open Hand Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

It’s hard for the kitchen to switch to another brand. The machines that seal and label the meals are only built for that specific tray. The organization was recently preparing to adjust — yet again — when they received a delivery.

“By the skin of our teeth they’ve come in,” Anderson said.

About the Author

Editors' Picks