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Local groups keep grant money flowing to area nonprofits despite pandemic

Michael D. Smith

In a year of uncertainty for everyone, nonprofit organizations also felt the pinch of a pandemic. Numerous philanthropic groups across southern Oklahoma continued to help fill needs, but even these groups had to exercise caution as needs sometimes outpaced available resources.

For Mary Kate Wilson, who oversees three such groups in Carter County, one of the biggest challenges came early in the pandemic. 

 “When we shutdown and there was uncertainty regarding whether nonprofits would get PPP loans or if they had access to protective gear, the foundations could have come together and very quickly responded,” she said, referring to the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal effort to provide capital to businesses struggling under the weight of the pandemic.

“And then as needs arose later on down the road, then the funds would have been exhausted for the year,” she said.

As president of the groups, Wilson said her staff at the Community Foundation of Ardmore, Southern Oklahoma Memorial Foundation and Community Activities, Inc. consciously took a measured approach early in the pandemic to ensure they could still achieve their goals later down the road. 

“It was really keeping a handle on what the local needs are while trying to not act immediately, rather waiting to see what needs surfaced throughout the year,” she said. “I think there was a recognition that we were not going back to quote-unquote normal within just a few weeks or months.”

Her three groups are distinctly independent from one another but delicately intertwined to form a unique resource for area nonprofits, most often funding through grants and grant-writing assistance. Civic improvements, health and wellbeing, social services, and youth initiatives on a local and regional level are among the groups’ core missions. 

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The groups as a whole are responsible for distributing millions of dollars each year to dozens of area nonprofit organizations. Between July 2019 and through June 2020, Southern Oklahoma Memorial Foundation approved 37 grants totaling over $3.4 million, according to a recent report. 

While many grants through SOMF were for traditional projects like operation support and scholarships, at least one grant was awarded to Mercy Health Foundation Ardmore for COVID-19 testing equipment and supplies.

While pandemic response was approved, the core missions like education remained priorities. Between March 2019 and February 2020, leading up to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Community Foundation of Ardmore approved 21 grants worth over $500,000. Among the recipients of those grants last was New Dimension Literacy Council, which received just over $15,000 in operations support.

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Earlier this month, New Dimension executive director Mary Finley received notice that this year’s funding request for $16,658 had been approved. New Dimension, which provides literacy classes, GED preparation and English as a second language classes for free, has relied on the funding to keep Finley as a full-time director and expand services into Love County.

“The people who are our funders have also been impacted, so they understand that we have to do remote for a few months, or we have to adjust and have all of the protocols in place for wearing a mask and (keeping) 6 feet apart,” Finley said. 

“They have not reduced their funding. It’s just been so good to me that...they understand and they haven’t cut funding back,” she said.

For Wilson, who grew up in Sulphur and has been at the helm of the three philanthropic groups since 2017, the culture of giving back to the community is something unique to Oklahoma and Ardmore, in particular.

Even during a pandemic that has rattled global and local economies.

“A lot of that can be contributed to success of different families in the area who then wanted to give back to the area that helped them achieve their successes,” said Wilson.