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When COVID-19 Put Oregon’s Families in Deep Need, This Venture Nonprofit Changed Overnight to Help

Within days of COVID-19’s official arrival in Oregon in late winter, the Contingent sensed an urgent need for help among its foster families.

By Marty Patail December 2, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Portland Monthly

COVID-19 Response winner at our 2020 Light a Fire Awards: The Contingent

How do you cope with a global pandemic? You learn. You adapt. You pivot.

This has always been the mantra of the Contingent—a 12-year-old “venture nonprofit” devoted to investing in the state’s many nonprofit start-ups. Founded in 2008 as the Portland Leadership Foundation—at that time, a narrowly focused scholarship funder—the group had just rebranded as the Contingent in January. The new name reflected the broader, many-armed mission it had acquired over the years, from connecting future leaders to a network of paid internships to helping to administer the state’s foster care program through one of its programs, Every Child.

“A ‘contingent’ is a group of people trained for action,” explains executive director Ben Sand. “But it’s also the plan when the previous plan doesn’t work. Part of what we are really good at is stepping into vexing situations and seeking to provide a new twist on the response.”

Within days of COVID-19’s official arrival in Oregon in late winter, the Contingent sensed an urgent need for help among its foster families, coupled with deep uncertainty in the nonprofit community about whether anyone would be able to continue operating in a lockdown. The organization, Sand says, was uniquely positioned to respond right away: among its 50-some staffers, only one had a permanent desk. Going remote? Going online? Old hat.

“The DHS was saying, ‘We have these families that have emergency needs—they need groceries and diapers. Can you guys help?’” says Sand. “We knew we had to figure things out on the fly. We reorged overnight. We were trying to go as hard as we could.”

As the statewide shutdown loomed, the Contingent pulled a small handful of staffers into an intense, five-hour work session to brainstorm a brand-new response system. That became My Neighbor, a decentralized, emergency effort that would allow the group to respond to DHS’s requests. By July, My Neighbor had helped thousands of Oregon families with COVID-related needs. This fall, the Contingent also helped administer $62 million in CARES Act funds specifically to Black individuals, businesses, and organizations affected by the pandemic. The program received more than 10,000 applications in just eight days—a testament to the deep need in Oregon’s hard-hit Black community.

“What we need right now is a decentralized mobilization effort—where people can serve their neighbors. If a neighbor has a need, someone needs to be able to learn of that need and meet it,” says Sand. “What we found was this unbelievable generosity from Oregonians, people stepping up in the thousands.”

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