Working Together Makes All the Difference

Young family smiling together in front of their new homeWoman smiling and cuddling a baby

For two O‘ahu nonprofits, ramping up their operation to distribute millions of dollars of emergency housing relief took teamwork.

On the surface, it sounds like the best problem in the world: The City and County of Honolulu is offering to contract with your nonprofit to distribute hundreds of millions of federal emergency relief funds to Hawai‘i families who need help staying in their homes.

But for local organizations that have never taken on a project anywhere close to this kind of scale, it’s not quite so simple.

“Everybody wants to join a party. Nobody wants to start one,” says Robert Van Tassell, CEO and president of Catholic Charities Hawai‘i (CCH). In order to handle the huge ramp-up in capacity that would be required, almost overnight, his organization would have to hire additional staff, set up new software systems, find a larger office location and pre-pay rents and salaries. All while fulfilling its normal range of services to the public. And in the middle of a pandemic. It was a formidable challenge.

When COVID-19 hit Hawai‘i’s shores in early 2020, Island nonprofits like CCH and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) very quickly had their hands full, working to meet the huge array of needs sparked by the pandemic. In particular demand was emergency rental assistance for families whose income had disappeared as the local economy nosedived.

The Hawai‘i Community Foundation helped facilitate some of these early relief efforts, awarding Hawai‘i Resilience Fund grant money to CCH and CNHA to get the wheels turning. Then, as Federal CARES Act funding started becoming available, the City and County of Honolulu put out a call for nonprofit organizations to distribute this funding.

Because their emergency relief efforts were so similar, CCH and CNHA decided in early 2021 to join forces to bid for the CARES Act contract. “We came together for this one,” says Kūhiō Lewis, CEO of CNHA. “We hadn’t worked together much prior to this, but this program was extremely complex, and approaching it together allowed us to be innovative, to learn from each other, to feed off each other’s strengths.”

Michelle Ka‘uhane, HCF’s Senior VP and chief impact officer, helped broker the contract talks. “Not only did HCF advocate for us with the City and County, they also put up resources to help build our capacity,” Lewis says.

After extensive negotiations and planning sessions, CCH and CNHA landed the CARES Act contract, and quickly scaled up operations to be able to extend emergency housing relief to as many Hawai‘i residents as possible. To date, the two nonprofits have distributed more than $153 million in relief funds. Not only that, but the U.S. Treasury reported that the City and County of Honolulu was first in the nation in the amount of rental and utility assistance funds disbursed to a city’s residents, a real testament to the City and County’s timely work and willingness to work collaboratively with nonprofit partners.

Ka‘uhane says, “The thing that sticks out to me is how effective partnerships between nonprofits can be. In a time of need, in the face of adversity, they held it together, and they delivered for the communities they exist to serve. For HCF to be a part of something like that, it really speaks to the core of what we do.”