Nonprofit community-based organizations provide stability and hope to those who are most vulnerable. Often staffed or overseen by local residents, community-based organizations – or CBOs – are deeply committed to improving community conditions and outcomes. But they are often stretched thin by the extent of community needs that range from health care and affordable housing to food and education. 

The COVID-19 pandemic posed a unique challenge for CBOs. Recognizing the extra effort that would be needed, Enterprise supported these organizations to respond to expanded community needs, creating the national Emergency Action for Resident and Partner Stability program in May 2020. 

Over its 40-year history, Enterprise has supported CBOs to further common goals of providing programing, services, and housing stability. Overall, the 2020 initiative – known as EARPS – proved a successful model for the rapid deployment of emergency assistance to support community stability.

CBOs Become First Responders 

In spring 2020, CBOs suddenly faced the need to protect their residents and staff from a virus that was ravaging communities, overburdening hospitals, and shuttering businesses. The COVID-19 pandemic had devastating and well-documented effects on communities across the U.S., with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and low- and moderate-income communities bearing the greatest burden. Residents of these communities lost jobs and vital income, faced the threat of eviction and food insecurity, and suffered disproportionately from the adverse health consequences of the pandemic. 

CBOs stepped up to respond to the needs they saw in their communities – they sourced and distributed food and daily necessities, distilled multi-level government communications to tenants, and worked with tenants who lost their jobs to negotiate a rent repayment plan and help tenants access government rental assistance resources.  A Denver partner commented that “this is an opportunity for us to reimagine how we provide resident services and also utilize more of a team approach across disciplines. If residents are going to trust us, it will be because we were here during this time of uncertainty.”

EARPS Provides Critical Resources

Corporations, foundations, and individuals generously donated more than $7.7 million to the EARPS program, including Ballmer Group, Capital One, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, City National Bank, Colorado Health Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, The Kendeda Fund, and Wells Fargo. Enterprise also contributed $4.1 million in HUD Section 4 Capacity Building funds to the program. 

EARPS deployed grants to 82 affordable housing and services providers to support their operational stability during the pandemic, enabling them to better adapt to emerging challenges and respond to community needs. Each EARPS grantee received between $50,000 and $150,000 in flexible grant funds to meet a wide range of organizational needs. Enterprise accompanied these grants with trainings and peer-to-peer learning and technical assistance to help organizations’ response and recovery efforts and further build operational sustainability. Enterprise recognized that if CBOs ceased operations or were unable to meet community needs, the effects of the pandemic would likely be felt more profoundly in low-income communities and communities of color. 

Turbulence Requires Frequent Feedback

With the needs of communities changing almost daily, and the resulting strain this placed on the organizations serving them, Enterprise launched an evaluation of the program to ensure that the grant dollars met the most urgent needs and that trainings and technical assistance support addressed partner challenges. In addition, understanding and documenting these needs would allow Enterprise to advocate for additional resources to strengthen the ability of CBOs to weather future challenges. 

Enterprise surveyed EARPS grantees quarterly throughout the grant period, gathering insights into changing community and organizational conditions, tracking how funds were used, and exploring the impact of the program. The insights gained through the evaluation and the implementation of the EARPS program provide valuable guideposts for ongoing support to these partners and for similar emergency relief programs. 

Organizational Stability is Key Outcome

Amidst the unexpected costs, loss of income, and spike in community needs that organizations faced at the start of the pandemic, the EARPS impact surveys revealed that the program’s grants and technical assistance bolstered organizations’ operational stability, enabling them to respond to community needs. Some key evaluation findings include:

  • 97 percent of surveyed grantees reported that EARPS assistance helped minimize their financial instability, allowing them to maintain their organizational capacity.
  • Two-thirds of organizations reported maintaining or increasing their staff during their grant period, allowing them to meet increased resident and community needs. 
  • Nearly all grantees reported expanding existing community services or introducing new ones during the grant period, enabling them to respond quickly to emergent needs.
  • More than two-thirds of grantees used a portion of their funding on IT expenses, enabling them to adapt to remote work and service delivery.

When organizations operate stably, they can do more to support communities in critical times. For example, as the eviction moratorium was set to expire and our newsfeeds were flooded with stories about people facing eviction and struggling to get rental assistance, two Denver grantees stepped forward with the support for residents and community partners and committed to not evict tenants who live in their respective portfolios, regardless of whether Congress passed a moratorium or the Governor of Colorado extended an executive order to protect tenants. 

Flexible Funding Braided with Technical Assistance Creates Adaptability

The evaluation revealed the value of flexible grant funding, especially in responding to crisis situations. The onset of the pandemic came with many unexpected costs. Organizations had to adapt to remote work, meet new community needs, implement enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols, and make payroll, all while losing income. Project-based funding, which supports many of the CBOs’ programs and services, often has restrictions on how organizations can allocate money, making it difficult to adapt quickly and effectively to emerging and unexpected needs. 

The flexibility of EARPS grants allowed CBOs to make their own decisions about how best to use the funds based on their unique circumstances. This flexibility also allowed organizations to pivot, adjust, and adapt as those circumstances changed. By doing so, the EARPS initiative provided some sense of stability, as well as the latitude necessary to react in real time.  For example, a Detroit grantee was able to reprogram funds to provide internet access to high school students. An Oakland, Calif. grantee used their grant to launch a program to support commercial tenants hard-hit by the pandemic with activities focused on strategic and financial planning and recapitalization.

The accompanying trainings and technical assistance allowed organizations to maximize the impact of their EARPS grants by identifying organizational weaknesses, strengthening operations to meet current circumstances and building important skills like virtual and in-person fundraising during the pandemic. 

CBOs Addressed Community Needs but Continued Support is Needed 

As residents lost jobs and wages during the pandemic, the instances of housing instability and food insecurity grew substantially. People fell behind in rent payments and feared evictions, and lines for food stretched for miles. All but two of the 82 grantees reported expanding or introducing new services with their EARPS grant in response to these challenges. Organizations most commonly introduced or expanded food assistance, eviction prevention, and cash assistance programs. 

The flexible nature of the EARPS grants allowed organizations to respond to diverse community needs as they arose – a true benefit in a rapidly changing environment. For example, after successfully ensuring that operations and existing programs could continue uninterrupted, a New York City grantee turned its focus on one of the most pressing issues within their community: food insecurity. In partnership with local food providers, the grantee serves hundreds of families weekly through their food pantry and nutrition programming. To meet the growing need for food security in the community, the grantee is repurposing a site they own to permanently house an expanded food pantry to serve the community going forward.

Pandemic Lessons Offer a Path Forward

Despite the program’s success in promoting grantee stability, organizations continued to report significant disruptions due to the pandemic at the conclusion of the grant period. Some of these ongoing disruptions include delays in completing planned affordable housing developments, reductions in rental revenue, and long-term financial uncertainty for both grantees and the communities they serve.  

While the immediate crisis of the pandemic has passed, the risk to the long-term stability of many CBOs remains uncertain. These organizations played a critical role in mitigating the effects of COVID-19 on low-income communities and communities of color across the country, particularly at the onset of the pandemic while governments were developing response plans. Corporations, foundations, and individuals also played a vital role in stepping up to provide recovery resources. The work and impact that CBOs were able to achieve would not have been possible without the support of the funder community.

Enterprise is grateful to the many funders who made grant dollars available, while recognizing the program was a short-term solution to a long-term problem. We will continue to strengthen our network of community-based supports to ensure that all people, regardless of income level, have the opportunity to thrive—in good times and in bad.