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Community foundations helped small businesses survive during pandemic

By   /   Friday, May 21st, 2021  /   No Comments

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The staff at the Ventura County Community Foundation includes CEO Vanessa Bechtel, fifth from right. The foundation helped distribute more than $20 million in grants to small businesses during the pandemic. (courtesy photo)

Small businesses have been struggling to survive for more than a year. Storefronts and hotels across the Tri-Counties were shuttered and vacant with normal operating hours left on windows like a sad joke. On top of managing day-to-day operations and responsibilities, many owners and employees were faced with an unthinkable task: asking for help.

For the region’s three major community foundations, the crisis created new opportunities to understand and serve the needs of a demographic they had rarely focused on.

“The pandemic really brought home how little of a safety net there is for people who are entrepreneurial and how we need to support them, because our future in the region depends on their success,” Vanessa Bechtel, the president and CEO of the Ventura County Community Foundation, told the Business Times.

May is National Small Business Month, and it holds more significance than ever before. Over the past 14 months, the Ventura Community Foundation, the Santa Barbara Foundation and The Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County forged a network of support for thousands of small business owners and their employees, involving nonprofits, corporations, and multiple levels of government.

Drawing upon lessons learned from previous disasters, including the Thomas Fire in 2017, the community foundations rallied, serving as a primary liaison for fundraising efforts to establish mulit-million-dollar COVID-19 business assistance grant programs and to connect business owners with new resources, from e-commerce consultations to mental health services. Cross-sector partnerships were born, donors came forward and expertise was openly shared across organizations, allowing the community to work in tandem and respond quickly to keep businesses afloat.

In Ventura County, more $20 million has been granted to small businesses since last May, thanks to a partnership involving the Ventura County Community Foundation, Women’s Economic Ventures, the county of Ventura, and the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County. And that is just one of many collaborative initiatives designed to ensure the economic resilience of business owners, working families and undocumented employees in Ventura County.

Bechtel said her 12-person team worked with 5,000 businesses this year, gaining new knowledge about their basic business needs. Many grant guidelines were written with relatively light restrictions to accommodate the uncertain circumstances of the economy. Her team translated materials into 16 languages, made mental health services a priority, and focused much of its outreach on women and minority-owned businesses.

“We were strongly connected, listening to their struggles and hardship,” said Bechtel. “It’s remarkable what they’ve endured.”

Another positive sign came from the community: donations. The Ventura Community Foundation saw a 51% increase year over year, and in the past five years, grantmaking soared by 380%. For the launch of the Ventura County Rapid Response Fund for COVID-19, Bechtel said 10,000 new donors contributed.

“We’ve seen a mobilization of community giving that has been unprecedented,” she said. “The result has been significantly more donations to help our community, and unfortunately with that, there’s been a dramatic need for these services. I’ve never seen anything quite like this last year in regards to this level of giving.”

When 2020 started, few would have imagined an economic landscape where successful small businesses needed those injections of capital and basic services to survive. But that has changed, and so has community philanthropy along the Central Coast.

In Santa Barbara, three funds totaling over $1.5 million were established to help small businesses and nonprofits during the pandemic. The hospitality industry was one of the main beneficiaries.

In February, the 90-year old organization helped to launch the Elaine F. Stepanek Foundation Restaurant Fund. So far, 71 restaurants received financial assistance.

“This is the first time we have provided grant funding specifically to for-profit businesses,” said Jessica Sanchez, director of donor relations for the Santa Barbara Foundation.

Sanchez said the foundation will continue to work with the county of Santa Barbara to administer the COVID-19 Emergency Businesses Assistance Program. As of this week, $800,000 remains available.

In San Luis Obispo, the community foundation joined up with the chamber of commerce and city government. The philanthropic push to target small businesses was mostly driven by donors, said Heidi McPherson, the president and CEO of The Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County.

“The level of engagement and interest we saw with the donor community for small businesses was very exciting and very important frankly,” said McPherson. “It’s not something that we typically do, but we had a number of donors that wanted to step into that space.”

Another key factor in the community foundation response to small business has been the foundations themselves working together. Since the pandemic began, the coastal community foundations in California — the three in the Tri-Counties, plus the one in Monterey County — have been meeting informally on a monthly basis. These conversations have fostered more strategic and collaborative dialogue as well as new projects to help the underserved, like undocumented families.

“I’ll be interested to see how we can all work together going forward with these regional collaborations,” McPherson said. “The need doesn’t stop at the [county] border, so we have to transcend them.”

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