Don't Overthink It
by Susan Olivo, Executive Director, Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation
Admittedly, as grantmakers, we like to fund projects where we can anticipate long-range payoffs, systemic change, and solving problems at the root rather than placing bandages. And detailed analysis and research have their place in evaluating grant requests both large and small. But sometimes, a quick and nimble response to a small but urgent need is the better route.
During the recent government shut down – the longest in U.S. history -- we followed the stories of the hardships placed on both furloughed government workers, and those who worked for weeks without paychecks. Financial hardships varied in impact – from lack of grocery money to missed mortgage payments. But of course, federal workers were not the only ones affected. People who depend on federal workers for their livelihoods were directly affected as well, with serious financial repercussions.
Across the nation, the blind managers in the Business Enterprise Program (BEP) faced serious challenges during and after the shutdown. Those concession stand managers and employees who are dependent on the income generated from these businesses located within federal government buildings were hit hard, as there was no mechanism enabling them to recover lost business revenue.
Created via the Randolph-Sheppard Act of 1936, the BEP provides opportunities for blind individuals to succeed as independent business people. The Act paved the way for government statutes that provide a priority for blind vendors to operate facilities such as delis, cafeterias or newsstands in federal and state buildings. BEP programs are generally administered through the individual states’ Vocational Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, providing a training curriculum that teaches the necessary business skills to successfully run the business.
By the time the shutdown ended, BEP vendors had not only lost a significant portion of their yearly income, but were also forced to destroy expired inventory, and didn’t have the cash on hand to re-stock with C.O.D. deliveries. On the personal side, they faced missed rent and utility bill payments, and other hardships.
Here in New York, thanks to the existing and collaborative relationships within the blindness field, we were able to quickly and effectively meet a need, and help ensure the continued employment, and resulting independence, of blind business managers and employees. The quick thinking and cooperation between state government, service agencies and funders “trumped” the potential long-term harm to a vulnerable population.
In a wonderful example of moving past the "reflex no," and just letting it drop there, upon learning of the plight of these vendors, the NYS Commission for the Blind reached out to us to ask whether we could provide funds to enable the vendors to re-stock, thereby helping to ensure the continuation of their livelihoods. Quick action and decision making “around the board table” enabled us to respond affirmatively and expediently. We reached out to the Catholic Guild for the Blind, stating that we would provide the funding immediately if they could provide the administrative oversight of the funds, and they agreed.
We didn’t overthink this one. There was a critical need to be met in a short window of time. A small amount of funding, a willing agency partner and a government agency that cared, solved the problem. Businesses were maintained, jobs were saved and crisis averted.