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Published in Nonprofits
Grand Rapids-based Kids’ Food Basket delivered 33,000 meals to children in the first week after the state ordered all K-12 schools to close. Grand Rapids-based Kids’ Food Basket delivered 33,000 meals to children in the first week after the state ordered all K-12 schools to close. COURTESY PHOTO

Utility foundations use deep nonprofit network to distribute millions in COVID relief funds

BY Sunday, January 17, 2021 12:24pm

The corporate foundations of the state’s two major energy utilities have distributed nearly $26.5 million in direct relief funds to meet basic needs such as food, shelter and personal protective equipment since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

In early January, the Consumers Energy Foundation announced another round of grants totaling more than $480,000 to help Michigan nonprofits deliver critical services in communities across Michigan. Several West Michigan organizations received funding, including Start Garden ($30,000), Degage Ministries ($10,000) and Urban Roots ($5,000).

The Consumers Energy Foundation is the charitable arm of Jackson-based Consumers Energy and has provided $5.4 million to support COVID-19 relief efforts since March.

The Detroit-based DTE Energy Foundation also responded with more than $21 million in COVID-related funding. The foundation typically awards $18 million in grants on an annual basis, but the foundation’s board approved an initial $3 million for COVID relief and added another $20 million by April, said DTE Foundation President Lynette Dowler.

“On the heels of COVID, the first course of business was to make sure our kids and seniors had food sustainability,” Dowler said, noting the $3 million went to helping food banks such as Kids’ Food Basket and Howell-based Gleaners Community Food Bank distribute food.

Deep nonprofit network

The foundation’s leadership worked with a network of nonprofit partners to supply food, shelter and other PPE necessities. Some initial statewide priorities included donating more than 2 million KN95 masks for first responders and essential service providers, supporting more than 500,000 families with basic needs, and funding more than 3 million meals.

“We have a pretty powerful supply chain,” Dowler said. “We were on the front end of purchasing masks and donating PPE to hospitals and health care workers and expanded that to police and fire departments.”

The DTE Foundation raised $1.3 million for Michigan Association of United Ways and Michigan Community Action and supported 1,000 nonprofits statewide. The foundation also awarded $1 million in grants to the state’s 45 domestic violence shelters funded by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

Dowler said the foundation has a base of about 400 nonprofits it works with statewide and predominantly reached out to those existing partners to offer COVID relief grants.

“We made some flexible grants to keep the nonprofit up and running in a successful way,” she said. “We had an invitation-only process, and we created a streamlined application process that was centered on giving them flexibility.”

Shifting priorities

Similarly, the Consumers Foundation’s board met early on and realigned its funding priorities to support people working on the front lines to directly meet basic needs such as food and shelter, said Carolyn Bloodworth, secretary-treasurer of the Consumers Energy Foundation.

“The pandemic changed how we managed our philanthropy,” Bloodworth said. “We needed to be urgent, we needed to be thoughtful about what we were doing, but we also wanted to be very responsive.”

The Consumers Foundation loosened some grant guidelines and began accepting applications on an open basis, meeting quarterly to review and approve applications. Besides responding to basic needs, the Foundation also responded to operational needs of nonprofits taxed with budget deficits and other challenges. 

“There are many nonprofits that were struggling to keep their doors open and serve the clientele that they serve,” Bloodworth said. “They did not have the time or capacity to be sending grant applications out to multiple entities.”

The latest Consumers Energy Foundation grants support direct response efforts for food and shelter, as well as funding for entrepreneurs hit hardest by the pandemic. The Food Bank Council of Michigan received $200,000 to address food insecurity, including mobile food distributions across the state.

The grants also extend to smaller, locally focused nonprofits such as Urban Roots, a Grand Rapids nonprofit that operates a community farm, market, garden education classes and more in the Madison Square neighborhood.

Urban Roots was a first-time applicant, and the $5,000 Consumers grant will renew its Your Share box program offered in the fall. The program provides fresh, locally grown produce boxes to at least 100 families in the Madison Square neighborhood. The boxes will be distributed in February and March to support people who have been financially harmed by COVID-19.

“Right now, it is just a critical time for our neighbors in the Madison neighborhood,” said Urban Roots Executive Director Jessica Harrison. “We have been searching for any businesses and organizations to help our organization during this time. We are really honored that Consumers Energy trusted us to help the residents in the 49507 zip code.”

The Consumers Foundation increased its total philanthropy in 2020, contributing more than $9 million to charitable causes. The trend of direct assistance for food, housing and small business support will likely continue into 2021, Bloodworth said.

“The impacts on the nonprofit sector are going to be felt for quite some time to come,” she said.

The DTE Foundation has reserved the remaining $2 million of $23 million earmarked for COVID relief to utilize in this year’s first quarter. The foundation also plans to hold the line on traditional grants and save 20 percent of the $18 million it usually awards in case the need continues, Dowler said.

“Partnership means you’re committed to somebody in good times and bad times,” Dowler said. “Last year, for our nonprofit partners, was the worst of times in many cases. We felt as a foundation the worst thing we could do was step away or step down. The best thing we could do is be there for them and show up in a big way.”

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