United Way and Community Foundation continue key work amid overlapping crises

United Way of the Wine Country and Community Foundation Sonoma County confronted a series of crises in 2020 that forced an overhaul of their charitable fundraising and giving.|

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As executive director of United Way of the Wine Country, Lisa Carreño was already bracing for a difficult year in 2020 when she lost her brother in the earliest days of the pandemic to a suspected case of COVID-19. Then, in August, Carreño contracted the virus.

Carreño, 58, of Forestville was thrust into an unsettling reality, forced to rely on her staff, her partner, medical professionals and others while she took time off work to convalesce and quarantine. She emerged from the experience with newfound insight.

“It’s not lost on me I have privileges that many thousands of Sonoma County families do not have,” she said.

United Way of the Wine Country, which serves five North Bay counties, is among the region’s largest and most trusted benefactors. It raises millions of dollars annually, largely through workplace giving, for investments in education, financial stability for families and health initiatives.

Another is Community Foundation Sonoma County, which manages assets of more than $178 million in more than 450 charitable funds. The agency distributes grants for charitable purposes and provides tax advantages not available through private foundations.

Groups confront challenges

Both organizations confronted a cascading series of crises in 2020 — notably a global pandemic and another series of destructive wildfires — that forced an overhaul of their charitable fundraising and giving. The agencies thrive on the personal touch, but as a result of COVID-19, they have had to shift quickly to working remotely and meeting with clients following strict pandemic guidelines.

Elizabeth Brown, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, said 2020 would have been a challenge even without a pandemic because of lingering economic pain related to continued disasters in the region. But the past year had much more in store, and so far 2021 is continuing the trend of massive societal and political upheaval.

“On this day that I’m speaking to you, it’s the day after the most deaths from COVID, followed by a historic day of a mob taking over the United States Capitol,” Brown said in mid-January. “What keeps me up at night is keeping our community staying hopeful and forward-looking despite all these huge, unimagined challenges.”

Brown and Carreño said the organizations they helm remain vital and financially strong despite — or perhaps as a result of — the myriad challenges in 2020. The Community Foundation, for instance, managed a record amount of charitable giving in 2020 in its 38 years of existence.

But the need still far outweighs resources. And for Carreño, moving forward this year will involve a personal struggle with grief and lingering health challenges related to her COVID-19 infection.

Her brother, Chris Carreño, who lived in the Atlanta metro area and worked as a school bus driver, turned 56 on Christmas Day in 2019. A few weeks later he entered the hospital with difficulty breathing. Four days later, he was dead.

At the time, there was no test for COVID-19. But the family suspects based on his symptoms that the virus was responsible for his death.

Losing her brother to a global pandemic led Lisa Carreño to reflect on her work and how integrated it is with concerns well beyond the North Bay. Once, as she listened to a radio program about the difficulties people had casting their vote in the November presidential election, it dawned on her how United Way could help in that area.

“Part of the way United Way supports democracy is investing in a lot of the organizations that are taking care of people who are living on the margins,” she said. “If families aren’t worried about making ends meet by working that third job, they could maybe stand in line and go vote.”

More giving, more need

The Community Foundation, established in 1983, managed a record $20.2 million in charitable grants in 2020. Roughly 30%, or $5.9 million, was earmarked for programs specifically for COVID-19 relief.

“The giving is more, but the need is exponentially more,” Brown said.

The largest recipients of aid included legacy organizations such as Redwood Empire Food Bank, the North Bay Organizing Project and Catholic Charities. Brown said the foundation also sought out new organizations to, in essence, spread the help.

They included Downtown Streets Petaluma, which helps the homeless reintegrate into society through employment opportunities, housing and volunteering on beautification projects.

Karen Strolia, the program’s North Bay manager, said the $15,000 received via the Community Foundation was critical to the Petaluma program’s launch in 2020.

Strolia said the money funds gift cards the “team members” can use for necessities. The cards offer people choices versus taking whatever is handed to them.

“It offers them additional humanness, if you will,” she said.

Aiming higher

United Way closed the fiscal year in June 2020 with revenues of about $6.4 million, on par with prior years. Nearly half of that amount came from workplace giving, which is notable given the agency had to convert to a virtual campaign of fundraising because of the pandemic.

“Our legacy organizations continued to undertake their annual campaigns, and we have several new companies coming on board,” Carreño said.

In addition to the agency’s traditional programs, such as tax preparation help, United Way of the Wine Country rolled out a grant program for nonprofit agencies serving the North Bay’s LGBTQ communities, a first for a United Way program west of Mississippi, according to Carreño.

The agency also launched a program that will employ outreach workers to connect underserved populations to parks and other open spaces. The goal is to foster better community health.

Overall, Carreño has set an ambitious goal of United Way raising more money this fiscal year and expanding programs.

“We’re aiming higher frankly because the community needs us,” she said.

Sonoma Gives

Read more stories about locals giving back to their communities here.

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