Input Fort Wayne: Fort Wayne Funders And Nonprofits Share Innovations In ‘essential’ Systems During Covid-19

Mar 31, 2021

For decades, if not longer in the U.S., there’s been a prevailing notion that the decision to support the essential needs of our fellow human beings is a “selfless act of charity.”

We stuff shoeboxes, pluck angels from trees, donate cans, and deliver heaps of clothing to nonprofits, all largely rooted in the assumption that we’re doing something generous—for someone else.

But as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic—a virus that started literally on the other side of the world and made its way into our homes in Northeast Indiana—maybe it’s time we reexamine how connected we truly are to our fellow human beings, in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our country, and around the world.

The pandemic has, in many ways, given us a visceral depiction of an often invisible reality that affects our community’s health, wellness, and economic vitality on a scale far grander than many of us realize.

We are all connected.

The actions—or inactions—of a few do affect the whole.

Sometimes, the effects are not immediate. Sometimes, the effects are not direct. But the underlying impact is usually there, lying dormant until something awakens it, like generations of suppressed pain and unaddressed wrongdoing fanned into a flame by a Minneapolis man’s murder.

If the life of even one person does impact the wellbeing of the whole, then are “selfless acts of charity” truly selfless acts? Or is the decision to help another ultimately the decision to help ourselves, too, in the long run?

Welcome to the first story in Input Fort Wayne’s Solutions Series, made possible by support from United Way of Allen County, the NiSource Foundation, Brightpoint, and a host of other innovators in Northeast Indiana who believe in the power of human connectedness.

This 10-part, 10-month series will be exploring how our regional community is addressing its residents’ essential needs that have come to light during the pandemic—from food to housing, childcare, mental health, and more. It will be zooming into the specific challenges facing certain segments of society, with the understanding that the challenges directly impacting SOME ultimately affect us ALL.

We are all more connected than we think, regardless of age, gender, religion, race, language, or political affiliation. And when any member of our community is being held back, we all suffer the consequences, in some form.

We hope you will join us for this exploration of the human condition in Northeast Indiana, starting with the challenges our nonprofit leaders are facing themselves during this turbulent time and the innovations they’re developing.

Revealing the nature and significance of service work

Retaining talent in the nonprofit sector and generating awareness about the economic importance of this sector is a concern shared by Steve Hoffman, President and CEO of Brightpoint.


It’s something Matthew Purkey, President & CEO of United Way of Allen County and former active duty U.S. Marine, has witnessed, too.

In the Marines, where everyone is equally given boots, the popular onus to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” truly depends on each individual’s personal grit and stamina to rise to the challenge. But when applied to social issues, like rising out of poverty, this same command makes the false assumption that everyone has boots to begin with, Purkey points out.

The way he sees it, nonprofits are not trying to “give out boots so everyone can be pulled up.”

“We are simply trying to provide an equitable arena in which everyone has the opportunity to get their own boots,” Purkey says.

In the process of leveling the playing field, so individuals can thrive by their own merit, nonprofits are essentially taking on the challenges that cities’ other sectors—the government, business community, school districts, and healthcare providers—either can’t or won’t address.

A 2018 study found that 373 human service organizations alone contribute more than $722 million to Allen County’s gross regional product (GRP).

Yet, nonprofits are frequently undervalued economically, Hoffman points out.

Finding better ways to meet essential needs

As the recently appointed President & CEO of United Way of Allen County, Matthew Purkey has an opinion that might surprise you.

“The best United Way is the one that doesn’t need to exist,” he says. “That would mean all community needs have been met.”

In other words, the most effective way for United Way of Allen County to support local ALICE populations (asset-limited, income-constrained employed) is not to be a self-contained community chest or “nonprofit ATM.” Instead, it’s about identifying the community’s most urgent needs, according to data, and coming alongside the region’s other funders and nonprofits to address these challenges collectively.

This mindset represents another way of changing how funders and nonprofits meet essential needs in cities—not necessarily by allocating more resources to challenges, but by making better use of the resources available.

As a seasoned United Way executive, Purkey took charge of Allen County’s United Way only weeks before the pandemic began. Since then, he’s been working to bring area funders together around this shift in philosophy.

At the onset of the pandemic, United Way quickly convened a meeting of about 40 foundations and community stakeholders across the county to form the Emergency Relief Fund (ERF). Purkey says this move, in many ways, was a historic one in Allen County’s philanthropic sector.

“There were several things I was told would never happen here, one of them being, all the area funders coming together according to one initiative,” Purkey says. “But what we’ve been able to do with the ERF is tear down philosophical funding silos and forgo competition for collaboration.”

While the ERF has taken a streamlined, unified approach to funding throughout the pandemic, driving approximately $3.6 million to support more than 534,700 people with urgent needs, it’s also seeking to change the way Northeast Indiana addresses challenges in the future.

Namely, it’s getting funders and nonprofits alike to agree on and address the deeper, systemic challenges in Allen County, which hold individuals and families back.

“We are convening a taskforce of 17 Allen County experts in economic development, education, healthcare, local government, and other areas, including our currently funded partners and nonfunded partners,” Purkey says. “Our goal is to create the most comprehensive community needs assessment in Allen County.”

To create this needs assessment, United Way is contracting Rachel Blakeman, Director of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Community Research Institute, to facilitate the taskforce from a community lens—not a United Way lens, Purkey notes.

“The assessment will be public data available to whoever wants it,” he says. “Until now, we’ve had overlapping community needs assessments, but that also means we’re operating on different measurements, and that has caused friction in the past. We want organizations, businesses, public and private, working together and speaking the same language.”

Purkey has seen this kind of collaboration happen in other cities where he’s led United Ways, from Athens, Georgia, to Dayton, Ohio. He says it tends to be a three to five-year process, but in Fort Wayne, COVID-19 has expediated the timeline. The pandemic is also getting the United Way of Allen County to look at its own diversity, equity, and inclusion measures, and fund a broader swath of grassroots organizations meeting needs in historically underfunded areas, like Southeast Fort Wayne.

Overall, Purkey says the ERF has helped United Way be more equitable and inclusive in its funding scope, as well as simplify its application process, which can also be a barrier to receiving funding.

“Before the pandemic, the process to be funded by United Way was exhausting,” Purkey says. “Now, we’ve gotten rid of many restrictions we previously put on our funding, and we’ve essentially said, ‘The money we invest is intended for this purpose; We trust you, as a leader in this community, to make it happen.”

In this way, United Way’s partnerships are evolving from transactional to relational.

Trust-based philanthropy is part of a growing trend among United Ways nationwide, getting out of the “ivory tower” and putting their “ears to the street” to better understand what nonprofit leaders and community members need, Purkey says.

It’s all a part of transitioning from being a “funder” to coming alongside nonprofits as a “community problem solver.”

“We’re looking at funding philosophy shifts where we will allow both data and lived experience to guide our decision-making,” Purkey says. “I feel this next year is going to be the most important in the history of the United Way of Allen County…. You can get all the experts in a room and develop the best policy or initiative, with the best intent, but if you’re not listening to who you’re impacting, then you’re missing the main ingredient.”

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