More than 20 businesses and nonprofit organizations have received nearly $55,800 in grants to help them overcome economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic through the Resilience Fund.
The Resilience Fund, formed by a consortium of regional funders to aid struggling business owners and entrepreneurs in Appalachian Ohio counties and the Mid-Ohio Valley counties of West Virginia, awarded 22 grants.
"I was proud of how quickly we came together to form the fund," said Hylie Voss, managing director of Sugarbush Valley Impact Investments, one of the six funders.
Fund donors included the Athens County Foundation, Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, Rural Action, Sugarbush Valley Impact Investments, the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio and the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation, as well as individual donors.
Funder representatives arrived at the idea during their regular meeting of the Impact Innovation Group, a two-state consortium of funders and professional advisors to social enterprises seeking services and potential impact investing.
"We were already talking pre-pandemic about how to support our local social enterprises—the triple-bottom-line enterprise ecosystem," said Faith Knutsen, Voinovich School director of social innovation and entrepreneurship. "When the pandemic hit, we collaboratively created the grant fund."
That discussion was catalyzed when the Appalachian Regional Commission, which funds the Voinovich School supported Social Enterprise Ecosystem, notified its grantees that they could repurpose project funds—which usually are restricted to the exact activities specified in the original grant application—for pandemic support.
The group quickly established the Resilience Fund with a total fund amount of $58,050, of which 42% came from ARC funds and the remainder included donations from other group participants and individuals.
A representative from each institution sat on the grant committee to assess applications and decide award winners, which wasn't always easy. The fund received 120 application, each with an individual story that opened a window into the regional economy and its communities.
"I really felt the depth of the need," said Marian Clowes, associate director for community leadership with the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation. "I also realized how many small businesses we have in our area and how vital they are to our region. Many businesses are really struggling right now. Reading their stories illuminated for me how hard it has been for small businesses to survive during this challenging time."
But need itself was not enough. Winning applicants showed how they had adapted their operations in response to the pandemic, clearly outlined their plans for the funds requested, and demonstrated evidence of long-term sustainability.
Awardees can use the grants to cover business inventory, rent, and utilities, pay staff, or for other costs that threaten sustainable operations. All applicants received information about loans, capital investments and other grant sources from the six funders or other regional providers.
Heather Thompson, owner and director of Stages Early Learning Center in Athens, used her $3,000 grant to pay her teachers' salaries. Although childcare facilities were allowed to reopen on May 31, they were not allowed to admit as many children as they had pre-pandemic.
"But I still needed to pay the staff that I needed for day-to-day operations," Thompson said. "These funds helped bridge the gap between reduced tuition [income] and being able to pay the teachers."
Thompson knew that taking in fewer children would leave a hole in her budget, but she was undeterred. "We decided to reopen on June 1 in order to be there for our families and employees," she said. She applied for the Resilience Fund, uncertain if she would be approved.
"We are a for-profit company, so my only hesitation was that I might not get it because of that status," Thompson said. When she was notified that she was among the awardees, "it brought tears to my eyes," she added. "I was so touched and so very grateful and thankful."
Stages is one of two childcare businesses to win grants. Other grantees work in the arts, retail, tourism, dining, and a variety of social nonprofit organizations. They are split roughly evenly between for-profit and nonprofit. Of the 22 awardees, eight are located in Athens County and five in Wood County, West Virginia. The remainder are scattered across the region in Gallia, Hocking, Lawrence, Meigs, Morgan, and Muskingum counties.
Although the Resilience Fund is expended, the Impact Innovation Group is currently fundraising for a zero-interest loan pool, which it hopes to make available within the next few months. All the group members said that the fund's first incarnation left them hopeful for future collaborative funding opportunities.
"The initiative was extremely successful in that it was the first of its kind on this scale and timeline," said Dan Vorisek, entrepreneurial communities coach with Rural Action. "In addition to small grant funding, it helped to better connect entrepreneurs with the community members and resources that have always been available. It also was successful in supplementing existing state and federal assistance programs to really boost a few businesses to safety. The networking partnerships are now stronger, which will only be an asset when the next call to action comes for the rural micro-business community."