A Community-First Nonprofit Responds to COVID: “We’re a speed boat, not a steam ship”
A Conversation with Tree House Books
Tree House Books has a vision: that every child in Philadelphia has access to books, and an opportunity to pursue their dreams. Its book distribution, after-school, and summer programs are a mainstay of neighborhood education and connection. NFF team members Kristine Alvarez and Michelle Obert spoke with Tree House Books Executive Director Michael Brix about what the past year has brought for his team and their community.
Michelle: It is noteworthy how quickly Tree House Books was able to respond to community needs as the COVID crisis hit. What made this responsiveness possible?
Michael: I’ll always remember brainstorming with staff on Friday the 13th of March, 2020. We’d had to tell kids not to show up for our after-school programs. We had to decide if we were going to close up until we knew more. Our staff said no. They were willing to stay engaged and respond to emerging needs. They were ready to take on the unknown and the trauma and stress of it all. Telling people we would continue serving our community really rallied our supporters and donors.
As a small organization, we’re not a giant steam ship that takes a long time to turn. We’re a speed boat. We were able to leverage our relationships and connections quickly, and modify programs over a weekend. We knew our kids still needed services, and without school and after-school programs, they needed food.
Kristine: Your team was able to pivot and respond to the need for food in the early months of lockdown. I remember watching THB step up and lean into the crisis and looking at the size of organization’s budget and balance sheet, and saying, “How is this possible?” Before this crisis, you had shared the challenges of operating on a lean budget and little reserves. Yet, you made it happen. How did you do it?
Michael: A big part of it had to do with relationships and trust we had built over time. We developed a relationship with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Nutritional Development Services years ago to make sure the kids in our after-school and summer programs had what they needed. When COVID took hold and we thought about the most immediate needs in our community, we realized that with the amount of food insecurity in our neighborhood, food access was going to be a big issue. Because we already had a relationship with the Archdiocese, they were our first call, to say, “How much can you deliver?” We bought an extra refrigerator and ended up building up a really big operation. We gave away more than 14,000 meals over about six and a half months, and then eventually wound that down as need decreased.
At our apex, we were giving away food, masks, and other PPE, along with books, and workbooks. Urban Creators was coming by to give fresh produce and we had a catering company giving away meals. It was a really huge effort.
Michelle: Through our work together, we heard so much about the importance of these networks and community partnerships. What was your experience accessing resources and fundraising over this time?
Michael: In the first few weeks, we didn’t know where the money we needed would come from. But when we said we’d keep working, people said, we’re going to find a way to keep supporting you. We ended up seeing an 80 percent increase in individual donations and a 53 percent increase in foundation support in 2020.
We quickly applied for and secured a PPP loan, which was a big piece of keeping staff. We didn’t have to lay off anyone, and ended up being able to add employees.
A few smaller family foundations reached out and released restrictions from the grants they’d given us, let us use it for general operating costs, and asked us what we needed, which was great. We heard from one foundation that we don’t usually receive funding from; they recognized that even though we didn’t fit into their typical guidelines, that we were able to respond effectively in this situation, so we received our first grant from them.
These funders who understood and acted on the urgency of the moment meant a lot – and it said a lot about their understanding of the moment and their understanding of organizations in community, who often have a small staff and don’t have a fundraising team. Even though we applied, we didn’t receive funding from some of the other larger Philadelphia-wide COVID recovery efforts that were launched in the area. We don’t know why.
Michelle: Even though you were focused on feeding families and responding to changing needs, you were also able to innovate. The Equity pods you started have helped ensure that neighborhood families had a safe, wifi-accessible place to send their children to during remote school. You were also able to launch another significant new program, the Bookmobile.
Michael: Our food distribution effort was really about meeting the urgent needs of families. But our “Traveling Tree House” was a pipe dream that we were able to realize because of the support we’ve received over the past year.
When we engaged with sponsors we heard great responses. The Rotary of the Lower Main Line came alongside, raised funds in their network, and made a significant contribution, and our board was incredibly responsive and found a way to match it. We were able to move so quickly – it was just a couple of months from getting a vehicle to getting it out on the streets. We launched a few weeks ago and have had an enthusiastic response to our Traveling Tree House and a lot of support from other partners in the community, including Smith Playhouse, and Urban Creators. Our goal is to give away 10,000 books this year through the Traveling Tree House to help advance our mission of getting books into homes. And we are thoughtful about what books we give, because it is important to us to have characters who reflect the kids we are serving. So for us that means a lot of Black authors and Black characters. The Traveling Tree House can become a legacy program for us. It is exciting to be doing new things and thinking in new ways.
Kristine: It seems to also provide additional opportunity for your team to connect with community members. You’ve talked about Tree House Books as a “community first” organization; what does that mean to you?
Michael: Being “community first” means being responsive, and listening. And building trust, because people have to trust you in order to talk about what they need. Building trust has been an ongoing process over the past 15 years. The community needs to see that you’re showing up, showing up often, and that you’re acting as an agent for the neighborhood – hiring from the neighborhood, partnering with others with roots here, listening and changing when there are issues, and connecting families with other community resources like food and diapers if that’s what they need. It takes all of us working together. There are a lot of intangible benefits of working in this way – like a mentor that writes a recommendation for one of our after-school students and gets them into a different school and onto a different trajectory than they had when they started coming to our program. It is hard to measure those peripheral outcomes.
Michelle: What do you wish funders knew about the reality of a small community-based nonprofit?
Michael: Every day is a hustle. If you invest in us, we’re going to be working hard in the community, but we might not have a full-time development director or people in an office writing detailed reports. The thing that’s been most helpful is funders reaching out to us and asking, without imposing restrictions or requirements, “How can we help you do what you’re doing?”