Aubrey Merriman, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of North San Mateo County (BGCNSMC), remembers the initial feeling of the world moving beneath his feet as he closed his organization on March 13, 2020. The global COVID-19 outbreak was escalating, and Bay Area officials issued shelter-in-place orders within days. All non-essential businesses—including the Boys & Girls Club — had to temporarily shut down.
“Boys & Girls Clubs has been around for close to 70 years. Given all the changes that has happened in the world—from the Industrial Revolution, recessions, the digital age to wars— this has been a pretty resilient and adaptive organization,” Merriman said.
But COVID-19 has tested the organization in a way that no other global event or catastrophe ever has. The effects have been staggering: 5,700 kids who had been benefiting from the club’s activities could no longer access their critical youth development and academic success programs. With events and programs canceled, BGCNSMC faced a half-million dollar revenue shortfall. The organization pared down its operations and had to temporarily lay off 18 staff members.
“It was an abrupt shock to our club’s economy,” Merriman said. “I wondered: are we going to be able to keep our doors open? Can we stay liquid and solvent enough to survive this, or will 70 years be the final chapter of our organization’s history?”
A lifesaving moment during the crisis
BGCNSMC needed to secure funding that would help the organization survive long enough to plan for next steps.
“How can we get general operating, survival funding that doesn't have a lot of the red tape that typical philanthropy attaches with grant work? We didn’t have the luxury of waiting four months for a selection committee to go over everything,” said Merriman, referring to traditional grant application and funding processes, which oftentimes are tedious.
In March, Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) had just launched its Regional Nonprofit Emergency Fund, which provides expedited general support grants to nonprofit organizations to help them weather the COVID-19 crisis. Recognizing that many of its nonprofit partners needed flexible financial resources—and quickly— to meet the rising challenges posed by COVID-19, SVCF simplified the fund’s application process and reporting requirements to minimize the administrative burden on nonprofits. BGCNSMC applied for the Regional Nonprofit Emergency Fund. SVCF quickly approved the club’s application and sent the funds by electronic transfer.
Merriman called that receiving grant funding a “lifesaver” and “catalytic.”
“I knew we could do more than just hunker down and hope for survival,” he said. He and his team recognized that “kids and families are going to need more from us, and we are going to have to think differently about how we meet those needs,” he said, including adopting operational models that would have been unimaginable a few months earlier.
Shifting to serving frontline workers
Merriman and his team started by surveying parents to assess their needs and determine how the organization could play a role in helping families.
Creating a program that was affordable, equitable and accessible to all was a requirement, he said. For example, BGCNSMC considered developing virtual programming in the absence of in-person education. However, they quickly realized that COVID-19 only exacerbated a pre-existing “digital divide,” the gap between households that have access to internet and technology and those that do not. Virtual programming, then, would be of no value to the latter group.
Instead, BGCNSMC began thinking differently: How could they offer direct services to frontline workers? Their answer was to provide emergency childcare for essential workers.
The BGCNSMC team worked quickly to transform one of their five clubhouses (located in Pacifica and South San Francisco) into an emergency childcare center – no simple feat. To operate as a childcare service provider, BGCNSMC had to undergo an extensive licensure process that involved redesigning its spaces to meet the state’s criteria. A litany of new procedures were required, including face masks for all staff members and curbside temperature checks for every staff member and child each morning. Cleaning regimens and physical distancing rules are in place and being adhered to as well.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of North San Mateo County is currently open for 10-hour days, providing an affordable, 6-week-long module of activities, academic assistance, social/emotional support, wellness checks, and customized care to children of 40 essential workers. These services not only help working parents, but also help provide kids with much-needed stability and support during these stressful times.
Hope for the future
Merriman credits SVCF’s grant funding with helping to validate the Boys & Girls Clubs’ value and work during this crisis. BGCSMC leveraged SVCF’s grant and faith to approach other donors to secure additional funding. The organization is on stable footing for now and is continuing to brainstorm and prepare for the next phases of the pandemic and recovery.
“SVCF’s support fuels my optimism that we will come out on the other side of this stronger and wiser,” Merriman said. “It definitely won’t be easy.”
He looks forward to the evolution of his organization – and also to the day that he and other staff can connect with students the way Boys & Girls Clubs have for decades.
“One of the things that I took great joy from was giving kids a hug or a high-five when they arrived at the Club, to let them know that you recognize them and value them and that they’re appreciated,” he said. “I just want to be able to do that.”
To learn more about Boys & Girls Clubs of North San Mateo County, visit https://theclubs.org/.
To learn more about SVCF’s other nonprofit grantees, visit https://www.siliconvalleycf.org/nonprofit-grantees