Healers & Builders 2021: Community Foundation and CEO Terra Winter help guide nonprofits

Michael McDevitt
Las Cruces Sun-News
Terra Winter is CEO and president of the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico. Pictured Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories on Healers and Builders, citizens who will heal, safeguard and push forward the greater Las Cruces area in 2021.

LAS CRUCES – Business leaders have for months warned rampant coronavirus restrictions will permanently shutter many local shops and restaurants. While less discussed, nonprofit organizations are also in danger of closing, local leader Terra Winter said.

Winter, the CEO and president of the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico, a nonprofit that serves seven southern counties in the state, said operational funding for her nonprofit has declined even as more people feel the need to give during the pandemic.

The foundation consists of more than 280 funds held in a single pool which are used to provide scholarships, grants and operating funds for nonprofits. As nonprofits and donors input money, the funds are invested and money can increase. Donors can also directly give money to nonprofits in the pool.

It’s advantageous for nonprofits to park their funds there so the money can grow. Each organization can choose how it uses its fund each year. Winter said CFSNM has 42 nonprofit endowment funds.

“The whole goal is really to have a nest egg for the future outside of a savings account, outside of operational dollars,” Winter said.

CFSNM connects donors to those funds based on what causes interest them. Donors can use their money to provide scholarships and grants or cement their legacies by pledging donations to certain nonprofits in perpetuity.

“Service for me is really about volunteerism and being there for your community," Winter, a native Las Crucen, said.

And when COVID-19 broke out across New Mexico, there the Community Foundation was.

CFSNM and other nonprofits have been able to provide immediate assistance over the last 10 months during times in which lawmakers in Congress were still arguing over how much to provide through economic aid packages.

“Not-for-profits have always been there to help fill that gap in service,” Winter said.

CFSNM manages four COVID-19 relief funds, the Together Las Cruces Fund, Thank You Las Cruces Restaurant Fund, Nonprofit Emergency Fund and the Governor Richardson, Olmos, Trejo, Lopez COVID Response Fund for Southern New Mexico Colonias.

Winter said those funds are not held in the pool because the money is used so rapidly. Money was raised for pandemic relief through donors and some city funding and distributed by volunteers.

When the Together Las Cruces Fund was formed, Winter said, the fund garnered more than $150,000 in a week. The organization received hundreds of applications for $100, $250 and $500 grants.

“We were turning grants around within a weekly basis,” Winter said.

Since March, those four funds have amassed more than $700,000, according to Winter. The Together Las Cruces Fund has provided "hardship grants" to more than 1,800 families and the local restaurant fund has provided 2,200 free meals to needy individuals.

The nonprofit relief fund has helped keep about 38 southern New Mexico nonprofits afloat. 

That's crucial, because Winter said CFSNM is just one piece of a wider collaborative effort undertaken by local nonprofits during the pandemic to keep people fed, keep kids cared for and keep families sheltered.

Terra Winter, left, is pictured with her team at the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico in Las Cruces on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

Working together during the pandemic

Winter described the local nonprofit community as one with strong ties and interorganizational collaboration.

The coordination during COVID-19 between her organization and other local nonprofits isn't entirely new. Winter said the nonprofit community’s response to the asylum seeker dropoffs in Las Cruces in 2019 served as a test run for the coming pandemic.

"The minute COVID hit, March and April, we all got back on the phone and said 'Ok, how do we help each other?'" Winter said, adding that even more, smaller organizations are part of the conversation this time.

Winter said she and other local executive directors of nonprofits have monthly coffee and lunch meetings to check in with each other, a practice that's continued throughout the pandemic over Zoom.

But nonprofits have been hurt, Winter said, largely because they've had to cancel in-person fundraising events they rely on and decreased face-to-face donor interactions. Pair that with a spike in clientele, she said.

In her experience, nonprofits have lately had more money on hand to use for direct assistance than for operations and employee pay. She said her organization and some others locally have diverted operational funding to meet clientele demand if certain funding was flexible.

Heading into the new year, Winter saw funding as nonprofit's biggest challenge.

A global survey of nonprofits released by Charities Aid Foundation of America over the summer showed that one-third of nonprofits could close within a year because of funding shortages.

"We've got 700 not-for-profits between here and El Paso," Winter said. "There may be groups that close, there may be pieces that won't be here in 12 to 18 months."

Fortunately CFSNM isn't financially in trouble. But the organization has cut back operations significantly, Winter said.

Frontline organizations, like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, are at the forefront of people's minds, Winter said, but others who do less visible work can fall between the cracks.

"Donors do give, but they're giving because of food insecurity (or) they're giving because of the homeless," Winter said. "What about those organizations that don't do that? What about the Dyslexia Institute, what about Children's Reading Alliance, where we don't see them as needed right now, but they're super important for our entire community."

CFSNM's nonprofit fund has spent about $137,000 across the 38 nonprofits they've helped, but it's unlikely to be enough. More funding will likely be distributed in 2021 if enough money is raised.

Come 2021, Winter said regular grant applications for nonprofits, open from March through April, will include questions about financial sustainability to get the organizations thinking about how they'll keep themselves open as the economy recovers.

Winter said the potential closures could lead some organizations to merge if their services overlap with another, but that could be an opportunity to keep services available in a more financially feasible way.

'What we think philanthropy is'

Having spent much of her life in southern New Mexico and more than two decades in the nonprofit world, Winter said her takeaway is that the area is "such a giving community."

"There’s so much difference in what we think philanthropy is," Winter said. "We think philanthropy is the well-to-do higher income individuals that give money to make the largest impact ... I would say the most touching pieces I’ve seen in philanthropy is those that give $5 and $10."

Winter mentioned her heart was touched when a donor from the southern Mesilla Valley gave three one-dollar bills to CFSNM’s colonias relief fund. She said the organization wrote a thank you note to the donor, since it was a “big gift” for that person.

“We do come from a community that doesn’t have high wealth,” Winter said. “I’m always amazed by people opening up their hearts and opening up their wallets and giving a dollar, if that’s all they can give.”

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Michael McDevitt is a city and county government reporter for the Sun-News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, mmcdevitt@lcsun-news.com or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.