Washington State Department of Commerce (Commerce): Unfamiliar Territory Leads to a Model for Successful Government/Nonprofit Partnership

In the beginning, working with nonprofits was unfamiliar territory for Cheryl Smith, Director of Community Engagement and Outreach with the Washington State Department of Commerce (Commerce). She says previous work with nonprofits would typically center around a specific policy goal, but with CARES Act funding, she was made aware of the importance and urgency around the many needs and gaps in nonprofit communities around the state. Many of the gaps Cheryl became aware of centered around nonprofits that provide essential services and during the pandemic. Many of them were experiencing financial hardship due to their inability to fundraise. After becoming aware of the urgent needs of nonprofits who are on the frontlines serving communities, Cheryl advocated on their behalf with the Commerce executive team. Together, they realized that there was a history of under-inclusion in funding nonprofits. They knew that going forward, they needed to include nonprofits in the conversation because it’s these organizations who are adept at understanding the needs of the communities they serve.

When it came to figuring out how to allocate CARES Act funding to nonprofit organizations, Cheryl says, “We just wanted to get money into the right hands with few strings attached.” With the short amount of time they had to get the money out, Cheryl says working with partners who are close to the community was a no-brainer. Commerce worked with organizations including Philanthropy Northwest, School’s Out Washington, Washington State Arts Commission, and veteran’s groups, because they were poised to hit the ground running. She says collaborative teamwork allowed them to streamline the grant application processes. They worked together to make applying for CARES Act funding as easy and effective as possible, to provide emergency relief funding to organizations in need. She says it was necessary to work under a different paradigm and do away with the mindset of, “this is how we’ve always done it.”

Cheryl and her team at Commerce learned a lot in partnering with nonprofits to distribute CARES Act funding and are now socializing the processes they used throughout the agency. Cheryl says they need to continually be thinking about who they are not reaching using their traditional methods. She says they always need to be working with partners and meet people where they are. She wants to see more government nonprofit partnership in the future. “I loved it, absolutely loved it,” she says of her experience working with nonprofits. She says it was hard and sometimes frenzied, but it was also exhilarating to be able to run a process that was responsible and streamlined and that should serve as a model for how to equitably distribute funding. It was an opportunity and a responsibility to help nonprofits and get them much-needed funding so they could continue to serve our communities in need. When asked if she had any thoughts on government/nonprofit partnerships when it comes to the allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funding, Cheryl responded, “Encore, encore!”

About Sondra Santos 13 Articles
Sondra Santos is the Communications Manager at Washington Nonprofits.