CINCINNATI — Since it launched in 2014, MORTAR has helped 270 aspiring entrepreneurs build companies as a way to improve their lives.
Now the Over-the-Rhine nonprofit is working to help its graduates keep their businesses – and their dreams -- alive.
“We are an organization trying to figure out what to do right now,” said Allen Woods, MORTAR co-founder and executive director. “But even bigger than that is that we have 270 graduates trying to survive.”
That’s where MORTAR needs help that a technology company called Cincinnati Cares is positioned to deliver.
Cincinnati Cares was designed to help connect potential volunteers with the region’s nonprofits, and the online platform has been doing that successfully for the past three years. But now that the COVID-19 crisis has residents across the Tri-State staying at home, Cincinnati Cares is working to help organizations like MORTAR figure out how all those people can help from home.
“We needed to work with them to figure out, OK, how can they engage volunteers in a safe way,” said Cincinnati Cares CEO Doug Bolton. “I’m proud to say that in Cincinnati on our site, there are more ways for volunteers to help in a safe, remote way than any website across the country on a geographic basis.”
For MORTAR, those opportunities include offering consulting to the program’s graduates on how to convert a restaurant to carryout only, how to operate a food truck neighborhood by neighborhood or how to become a successful online retailer, Woods said.
“On Thursdays, we do an Instagram live talk show called MORTAR Midday where we are always looking for business experts to help us navigate this new experience that we’re all going through,” he said. “Now’s a really important time.”
Of course, virtual volunteering has come nowhere close to replacing the traditional volunteer hours and effort that Greater Cincinnati nonprofits rely upon, Bolton said.
‘The grass doesn’t stop growing’
“It’s admittedly small right now. There’s more than 35 organizations that have created ways to help” from home, he said.
But that’s a lot more than other cities have.
“On New Orleans’ site last night, there’s like seven,” Bolton said. “In Dallas, there’s 12.”
Other nonprofits have created virtual volunteering opportunities that are nationwide, he said, but here in Greater Cincinnati most people want to volunteer for an organization that’s close to home.
“There’s clearly way more demand. There’s way more people that want to help right now than there are those kind of opportunities,” Bolton said. “We’re trying to make the connection.”
Other ways to volunteer from home include writing thank-you notes, he said, or making phone calls.
Child Focus, Inc., an Eastgate-based nonprofit focused on early childhood and behavioral health, put out a call on Cincinnati Cares for help using a drone. The organization was looking for a drone operator to assess some space for an inclusive playground at the former Glen Este High School, which Child Focus purchased to use for a day treatment program, said CEO Pamela Lindeman.
“We did have almost an immediate response, which was amazing,” Lindeman said.
Cayce Sweeney of Aerial Impressions said in an email that he hopes to do the work Friday as long as the weather cooperates.
Lindeman said there are other ways volunteers could help Child Focus if they can work outdoors and maintain social distance.
“The grass doesn’t stop growing. The trees continue to branch out,” she said. “So there’s always the opportunity to support our organization through facility work outdoors.”
Cincinnati Cares is working to support its 750 local nonprofit partners in other ways, too, Bolton said.
The Cincinnati Cares homepage now has a dashboard that shows the impact of COVID-19 on the region’s nonprofits, showing both financial losses and volunteer hours lost, totaling more than $45 million.
The dashboard also shows the region’s response to the crisis. As of Wednesday afternoon, that totaled more than $1 million in contributions and 424 virtual volunteer hours.
‘A pair of hands and an open heart’
The website also now showcases COVID-19 impact stories and has a portal where people can donate directly to nonprofits.
“We never wanted to be a donating business. We wanted to be focused 100% on volunteerism,” Bolton said. “But we know that some people, they just don’t feel safe volunteering, and they aren’t comfortable doing it online. So the way they can help is to make a donation to those 750 nonprofits.”
Cincinnati Cares doesn’t take any fees, he said, and simply acts as a pass-through to make it easier for people to donate.
Still, Bolton said he hopes the COVID-19 crisis will inspire people to think about the skills they have that could help nonprofits across the region that are struggling.
“Human resources is a big thing right now,” he said. “A lot of people who have human resource experience, they’re doing the work in their company, helping their company get through the furloughs and the layoffs and all those things. But they want to help. So they can apply those skills to help nonprofits through the crisis because nonprofits are facing the exact same thing.”
Tanya Kleindienst is an executive coach and active volunteer who has been doing exactly that.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, her volunteer work focused on Social Venture Partners Cincinnati, a group that invests time, skills and money in local nonprofit organizations. She was focused on helping the Cincinnati Parks grow its volunteer program, consulting with MORTAR and working with Women Helping Women on the organization’s WorkStrong program, which helps employers strengthen policies and protections related to gender-based violence.
Now she can still do some of that work remotely.
But she also is working to help those organizations tell their stories on the Cincinnati Cares platform and figure out how they can continue to help the community during such an uncertain time, she said.
She’s also part of an international group called Coaching for Charity, which has been offering free coaching sessions to health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
“People need an outlet to share their emotions and the stress as they’re caring for others,” said Kleindienst, whose company is called Ready to Reach. “I’ve been thankful that I’m able to use my capabilities to create that kind of value and give back from home.”
Kleindienst said she’s confident that others who want to volunteer from home can find a rewarding way to help, too, if they reach out to Cincinnati Cares to look for the opportunity.
“It doesn’t matter what your skill set is,” she said. “If you just have a pair of hands and an open heart, there is something you can do. There’s a way that you can volunteer and meet a need.”
More information about Cincinnati Cares is available online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.