COVID-19, one year later

Milwaukee’s answer to an unprecedented crisis has been an unwavering commitment to collaboration. Now, one year after the Greater Milwaukee Foundation first convened community partners to marshal resources and expedite relief to those in need, the sustained pandemic response they developed continues to support the region’s recovery while making strides toward changing community systems so they serve people more effectively and equitably. 

“Nothing can make up for the tremendous hurt and loss our community has endured throughout the pandemic. We can, however, recognize that Milwaukee confronts adversity with generosity,” said Ellen Gilligan, Foundation president and CEO. “As COVID-19 exposed our deepest disparities and jeopardized our health and way of life, our community abandoned the status quo and found new ways to solve problems together – and I expect that experience will benefit our region in the years ahead.”

Philanthropic agility

From the start, the Foundation realized COVID-19 was a challenge that required new approaches. To meet the soaring need, the Foundation immediately launched the MKE Responds Fund to rapidly accept and deploy resources into the community.

Since March 2020, the Foundation has raised over $5.7 million for MKE Responds efforts, which have attracted gifts and commitments of all sizes, including significant national funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Facebook and others. The fund has provided more than $4.4 million in grants for COVID relief and recovery so far, supporting over 190 nonprofits.

“Like all communities, Milwaukee has been through a lot this year. The loss, trauma, isolation and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all but has had a disproportionate impact on the Black community in Milwaukee,” said MKE Responds Fund donor Tammy Belton-Davis. “In tough times, I often turn to beacons of hope like the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to lead the way. That is why I’ve donated to the Foundation’s MKE Responds Fund. This fund is specifically designed to help those on the front lines of the pandemic do the greatest good for Milwaukee. I encourage others to consider making a donation as well.”

The MKE Responds Fund is part of an even broader funding mobilization that includes aligned support from Foundation donors, co-investment and discretionary grantmaking. Altogether, the Foundation’s total commitment to COVID-19 relief exceeds $11.3 million, with a significant share of funds supporting human services, health, education and community development.

Civic coordination

While philanthropic relief was a good start, the scope of the pandemic’s impact on the region’s public health and economy meant solutions needed to be more integrated and innovative than ever. Community leaders recognized that many of the issues caused or exacerbated by COVID-19 were interconnected, and a coordinated approach would allow priorities to be community-informed, resources to be directed most effectively, and information to be shared more readily for the benefit of all.

Brought together by the Foundation, a broad coalition of public and private stakeholders agreed to take on this work and soon became known as the MKE Civic Response Team. Efforts that often took place in isolation before, became far more collaborative under this model, and groups formed to take action around the key priorities of physical health, mental health, early childhood education, K-12 schools, food, housing/shelter and economic recovery. 

“Something Milwaukee should feel exceptionally proud of is the way civic leaders, private corporations, the public sector and the community all rolled up their sleeves and largely put aside their turf or territory and rallied to the community’s needs and the community’s priority opportunities for progress,” said Ian Bautista, senior director of civic engagement for the Foundation. “In normal times, Milwaukee functions in a very siloed way. I won’t pretend that tendency is completely gone, but we proved (to ourselves) that we can function above that dynamic when we need to.”

With the Foundation continuing to provide backbone leadership and support – and key partners assuming critical, lead roles with each priority group – the MKE Civic Response Team has further aligned relief efforts while turning deeper focus to changing unjust or underperforming systems that serve the community. 

Meaningful results

Coordination within and among the various teams has produced significant results for the community. Through advocacy and collective expertise, many of the teams informed the distribution of millions of dollars in federal CARES Act funding that flowed into state, county and city government. They also helped organize non-monetary resources so items like personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies could reach a range of recipients across sectors where they were needed most at any given time, including child care centers, emergency shelters, clinics, food pantries, community organizers and volunteers.

Racial equity is consistently at the forefront of the team’s strategies as the negative effects of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected Black and Brown Milwaukeeans. And in their respective areas of work, the priority teams’ reach has been extensive.

For instance:

  • The Early Childhood Education team deployed $1.2 million in stabilization grants to 443 family- and center-based programs serving predominantly Black and Brown families, and the team has continued to advocate with one voice for policy change, including for state investment in the sector.
  • The Food Team deployed over $1 million in private funding to increase food access and fostered innovation leading to meal delivery programs, restaurant partnerships and improved data sharing.
  • The Housing/Shelter Team advanced eviction prevention and rental assistance resources, helped expand homelessness outreach coverage across the city and established an isolation center at Clare Hall for homeless people in Milwaukee County that has housed more than 200 guests who were COVID-positive or whose health made them especially vulnerable.
  • The Economic Recovery Team’s Workforce & Employment Committee informed the launch of the Community Resource Navigator program that has trained, employed and placed navigators at sites across Milwaukee doing essential work to address community needs.

These examples represent only a fraction of the outcomes achieved by the MKE Civic Response Team and the countless people, organizations and institutions participating in the work. And to advance true systems change, collaborators will need to continue their intentionality, adaptability and coordination. 

“There still remains a great opportunity for the civic, corporate and public sectors to coordinate more closely for everyone’s benefit, but especially for those communities – collectively comprising Milwaukee’s majority – who have historically been excluded from social progress, economic benefit and political power,” said Bautista, who co-leads the Civic Response Team’s Coordinating Team. “The future of progress and a thriving quality of life for all in Milwaukee is inextricably connected to the progress and quality of life of Milwaukee’s Black and Latino/a communities.”

Opportunities to engage in the work

The work needed to support the community’s long-term recovery from COVID-19 is evolving and remains critically important. Those who want to help have multiple opportunities for involvement.

  • Contribute to the MKE Responds Fund
  • Learn more about the MKE Civic Response Team by reading the case study published by the Collective Impact Forum
  • Connect with the MKE Civic Response Team around your areas of interest or expertise