Elements of a Resilient Community Ecosystem: Learnings from Interviews in Fort Wayne, Indiana
Through many conversations with community stakeholders between September and December 2021, we observed how community-serving organizations in Fort Wayne, IN, were working to overcome the pandemic’s challenges through coordinated efforts. This blog post highlights key themes and lessons learned based on the experiences of local leaders as they worked toward increasing the resiliency of vulnerable communities in the pandemic’s wake.
Among many other impacts, the Covid-19 pandemic and the sharp contraction in economic activity exposed and amplified vast disparities, often along racial and ethnic lines. Racial and social unrest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 further spotlighted these longstanding differences. Within this amplified landscape of inequalities, we wanted to better understand how community stakeholders in a mid-sized city in the Chicago Fed’s region have responded to these unprecedented challenges.
We interviewed leaders of Fort Wayne’s non-profit ecosystem, which includes social service, philanthropic, and local government organizations committed to supporting the city’s most vulnerable residents. These residents face multiple barriers to economic opportunity and suffer from a chronic lack of access to resources to overcome those barriers. By surfacing the conditions and challenges of underserved communities, we sought to identify practices that help build community resilience, that is, the ability to withstand shocks or instability.
In addition to interviewing leaders, we also interviewed individuals working in adjacent industries, such as education, small business, and banking. In total, we spoke with 38 individuals, representing 30 organizations. We asked all interviewees the same questions about how resources and responses shifted from the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 through the fall of 2021, a time when the vaccination rate had leveled off. We then identified key themes from the interviews, presented our preliminary findings at a national community investment conference, and returned to the community to solicit additional input.
Here, we summarize the key themes that emerged from interviews conducted with leaders representing underserved communities, nonprofit social service organizations, philanthropies, and the larger local context.
An increased complexity of needs in underserved communities
“If you are a single mom with no car, two kids, you're trying to walk your kids to daycare, which is overpriced. You're trying to pay rent on a place, a 600 square-foot house that requires you to work two jobs, so now you need two daycares. So, all of that goes into our ecosystem. And the way to be able to combat that is more than just throwing cash at it, it's throwing opportunity at it and it's throwing real chance at it, access.”
According to interviewees, the complexity of needs faced by members of underserved communities increased under the pandemic, as acute needs for food, transportation, childcare, healthcare, and employment (among others) coincided. Interviewees observed a great deal of heterogeneity across vulnerable populations that they had to consider in response planning. How different populations in the same city experienced need, accessed resources, and evolved to a place of greater stability varied greatly. When possible, engaging community residents in the design and implementation of resource deployment shortened the distance to meeting their needs. However, the urgency of the pandemic confounded the creation of flexible responses, as resource distributions were often defined by the intent or capacity of the donor rather than the need of the recipient. Interviewees did stress that both the pandemic and the period following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 directed attention and investment to communities that had previously been neglected. Embedded in the urgency and unrest was an opportunity to improve the condition of the whole community, according to one interviewee.
A hard pivot in service delivery for nonprofit organizations
“And so one of the things we did as an organization is we pivoted within about two weeks to going almost all virtual, just because we knew if we didn't keep serving families, why would we exist? That's what we do.”
“You've got to keep your core strong. I've said this when staff are like, ‘I don't know what's going to happen.’ We've got to keep our core strong: Who are we and what are we about? What are those core services and keeping those strong.”
Nonprofit social service organizations were faced with four distinct challenges during the pandemic. First, they had to continue meeting the case management needs of existing clients, with whom they had been working to address pre-existing barriers to resiliency. Second, they had to find ways to help those clients manage their emerging needs, which had to take precedence over their prior, longer-term goals. Third, these organizations were challenged by a wave of new clients, many of whom had never previously sought social service support and were unfamiliar with the process of accessing resources. These individuals were not seeking long-term case management support but were focused on near-term needs. And fourth, compounding these pressures was the challenge to continue to ensure the health, mental well-being, and safety of front-line staff. Interviewees reflected that staying aligned with their core missions and competencies was essential to maintaining resilience as an organization.
Shifting dynamics and relationships in philanthropy
“We just had to put everything aside and say, ‘Don't worry about reporting, don't worry about any of this, let's just get through this first initial period.’”
“So, I think the piece that has been the challenge is really just acknowledging where we are as organizations, and are we really as diverse as we could be?”
Interviewees noted that the philanthropic community met the pandemic’s challenges by responding quickly, relaxing usage restrictions and reporting requirements, as well as by examining traditional power dynamics and championing the collaborative use of data. Foundation boards directed staff to increase spending levels to do “whatever was needed” for the community. The relaxed restrictions led to new thinking around identifying and responding to community needs.
The social and political unrest following the murder of George Floyd also motivated the re-examination of internal and external power structures often embedded in philanthropic giving. Funders, alongside community partners, began a period of reflection, exploring issues around leadership, representation, power, and voice, and the extent to which grantmaking had reinforced systemic barriers and entrenched disparities. This reflection led to engaging community voices and provided the opportunity for philanthropies to be more entrepreneurial in their grantmaking by supporting smaller grassroots organizations. Interviewees reported that community-articulated needs, which focused on improving the lives of community residents, supplemented with data and active communication, as well as collaboration among service providers, were essential to effective giving by philanthropies.
Evolving local infrastructures and local response
“And one of the challenges for communities is to make sure you're ready from the beginning before something happens. Because then you have everyone and you're being inclusive so when you call them not just for purposes of numbers for a grant or because we need for you to be at a press conference but because you're really trying to figure something out. So then, when it becomes complex, you have everybody at the table to make it less complicated. And then we can have some solutions.”
According to interviewees, the local municipality-wide response in Fort Wayne was facilitated by leveraging prior disaster planning, tracking needs and responses across the community, and using existing relationships among service providers to understand organizational capabilities and identify service gaps. However, outside of the public health domain, not much prior planning had been done to respond to a community-wide emergency. The pandemic revealed the need for organizations to plan for cross-sector response and resource mobilization.
Existing tools and services were used to disseminate information to the community in new ways. A 211-hotline operated by the United Way enabled tracking of local needs, as well as the responses to those needs. The local economic development agency, known for its convening and communication capability, emerged as a trusted source of information for the small business community seeking resources, as well as guidance regarding return-to-work protocols based on information from the region’s healthcare system. Existing relationships and coalitions endured through the pandemic, allowing organizations to pivot to meet new challenges. A clear understanding of roles and capabilities highlighted service gaps and led to conversations on identifying and recruiting organizations that needed to be at the table. A shared understanding emerged that relationships are best established prior to any crisis, although many new ones were forged out of necessity.
Lastly, although the community possessed many assets that facilitated a swift response, interviewees observed that the politicization of pandemic health protocols resulted in enforcement delays, and the implementation of public health guidance was delegated to the local community level.
Based on the themes outlined above, our interviewees shared the following lessons learned:
- Communication across audiences: The ability to communicate accurate, timely, and culturally attuned information was frequently cited as a critical need early on and throughout the pandemic. The pandemic exposed the need to improve communications within and across organizations and communities. It was noted that the foundations for effective communication flow must be established during the “quiet times” before a crisis. The need to improve communication channels was most acute in neighborhoods with the highest levels of poverty and significant populations of non-native English speakers. Culturally aware communications must be driven by trusted sources of information.
- Flexibility and innovation: The pandemic offered opportunities to think differently about the intersection of people, places, and technology in ways that went beyond the realization that many jobs could be done remotely. The use of technology improved organizational efficiency, communications, and outreach during the pandemic, and several organizations stated they would continue these practices post pandemic. For example, these include using virtual meeting platforms and social media to connect with new clients.
- Creating inclusive collaborations: During times of stress, people will default to who and what they know. Although some new collaborations emerged, it was challenging to build new relationships especially in the early days of the pandemic. As such, “table setting” during “quiet times” was cited as imperative to a crisis response. Interviewees noted that during the time of crisis, coverage gaps in collaboration became evident. For example, public health collaborations lacked representation from the housing sector, limiting the health sector’s perspectives about implementing public health protocols across various housing environments. As such, it is imperative that different sectors are included in collaborations working toward articulated solutions.
- Building response and recovery capacity: Planning for a pandemic had been the domain of public health, and that planning proved extremely helpful. However, outside of the public health sector, few entities were prepared for a global pandemic and the severe economic impact on the community that accompanied it. Case management plans and assistance programs were designed to address individual needs among a segment of the population and not to meet the acute needs of the general population. In the absence of plans to meet the scope of the crisis, organizations relied on their knowledge of ecosystem partners’ capabilities to respond. However, several interviewees noted that having a current strategic plan in place acted as a “North star” for organizations, an affirmation of purpose and competence, and the articulation of a place to return to post crisis.
- Investing in resiliency: Building community resiliency requires a long-term, holistic commitment to a community and its residents. This requires a shift in thinking about return on investment, moving from output focused intentions to outcomes—for example, shifting from meals served to addressing the root causes of food insecurity. The term essential worker became part of the vernacular, but interviewees pointed out that this label did not extend to many social service providers. Investing adequately in the professionals committed to building the capacity for resilience is essential.
A key element of this work was to return to the community and engage in further conversations around our findings. We returned to Fort Wayne in October 2022. We asked those we interviewed whether our findings made sense, what surprised them, what did we miss, and where are you today? They stressed that, 1) there are ongoing challenges to maintaining the solvency of non-profit organizations; 2) people and organizations given a lot of decision-making authority over managing resources in response to the pandemic are wondering how that autonomy will be sustained; and 3) they are concerned about future funding streams, especially with elevated needs expected to endure for some time. These are all factors that continue to impact the resilience of vulnerable community members.
Listening to and learning from stakeholders living in low- and moderate-income communities as to how they experience and respond to economic and social changes helps the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago understand economic conditions across our District. We will continue to learn from our conversations with community leaders about how their organizations are evolving to meet the challenges of tomorrow and will continue to share those findings in keeping with our mission to foster economic opportunity, advance a strong and inclusive economy, and promote an efficient financial system.