In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elise Cutini led her Silicon Valley-based nonprofit to rapidly raise and distribute funds to address the mounting needs of the foster youth they serve.

By Martin do Nascimento

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The COVID-19 pandemic upended the already precarious study, work, and living arrangements experienced by current and former foster youth across the United States. In response, the nonprofit educational services provider Pivotal established an Emergency Assistance Fund to support the 500 current and former foster youth it serves in Silicon Valley. In this conversation, we discuss the creation of the fund and its current and future operation with Elise Cutini, CEO of Pivotal.

[The following has been edited for brevity and clarity].

Social Care Stories: Pivotal has been around for over three decades already. For those not familiar with the organization, would you tell us about your work before the pandemic?

Elise Cutini: We actually started by building the children’s shelter here in San Jose.

We were working a lot trying to get social services and the County Office of Education and all of us nonprofits coordinating better to serve foster youth and build a robust  program around providing college scholarships and mentoring. 

After we got that up and running, we said, “Oh, gosh, we’re not getting enough applications. Now let’s go down and see how we can get more kids in the pipeline to get into college.” So that’s when we made an intentional shift to provide not just scholarships and mentoring, and to go all-in providing educational and career coaching starting high school and all the way through college completion.

At that point, the conversations we started having with our board of directors and what we were hearing from our youth pointed to the fact that our youth can have a degree and still not be thriving professionally. So we began to really unpack that and ask, “What opportunities do non-foster youth have that foster youth don’t?” 

What we found is that non-foster youth have access to parents and networks that allow them to get their first job, whether it’s an internship, college, or whatever. 

Without that leg-up, foster youth are really ill-equipped. So, about four years ago, we made a decision to begin engaging in employment training and job placement for our youth as well.

SCS: It sounds like Pivotal makes an effort to regularly assess how your work is addressing the needs of the youth you serve and to direct your programs in response to those assessments. 

EC: That’s exactly right. And a lot of that comes from my past life as a management consultant. 

I taught total quality management. I taught continuous improvement. The cool thing about bringing that to the nonprofit sector is that you’re not asking the customer what you can do better. You’re asking the youth, your constituents. 

I’m a huge proponent of thinking that we have to be able to demonstrate that we’re adding value or we don’t deserve to be in the lives of our youth. It’s not enough that it makes us feel better. The relationship and the trust are the vehicle, but they’re not the purpose. 

That’s why, every year we do a formal review and then use the data we receive to adjust as we go.

SCS: Where did the Emergency Assistance Fund come from?

EC: With everything shutting down [due to shelter-in-place orders], that meant many of our young people lost their sources of income overnight. If they were in university housing, it meant they didn’t have a place to go. 

I have weekly meetings with my whole leadership team, and I remember that right after the shelter-in-place order we were all asking, “What are we gonna do?” The Emergency Assistance Fund was our answer.

After the moment of conceptualization, the fundraising campaign to create the fund was launched within one week, and we had money in the first kids’ hands seven days after that. It was so amazing to see that my team we have a very creative, passionate team just got it.

All of the coaches knew the plan, so they contacted every one of their youth to ask, “What are your needs?” Meanwhile, we were debating the best way to get the money to our young people as quickly as possible. We were like, “Should we use Venmo? Should we PayPal? What’s the quickest way?”

You know when things are just meant to be? This was one of them. Raising the money was easy. The distribution to the kids was easy.

Our Emergency Assistance Fund team meets twice a week to review the needs we receive and then we give the money out to as soon as possible. 

SCS: What kind of needs are you seeing as the most prevalent?

EC: The number one priority that our young people need help with is rent. The number two priority is food. And then the third one is technology.

As we were interviewing all of our young people, it became clear that not everybody had the connectivity they needed for school. We surveyed all of our young people, and approximately 60 percent did not have a reliable laptop. On top of that, a really high proportion didn’t have any reliable internet connectivity.

So, in addition to cutting checks, we’ve given out some in-kind things like computers.

One of our kids, she wants to get her PhD. She had been in college, but when the campus closed she didn’t have a home to go to, so she was living in her car.

When we found out, we found a family who said they could take her temporarily. She moved in, and then she was diagnosed with COVID-19. So then she decided that she couldn’t keep living there, and she went back into her car. When we found out about that, we used the Emergency Assistance Fund to pay for a hotel room where she could get better. We got her all the basics she needed to be comfortable in a hotel room until she felt better and got back on her feet. 

So, there are those types of situations as well. We have to pay attention to our young people, and the fund lets us be there and not get stuck in the bureaucracy.

SCS: How are you able to assess the needs of the young people you serve? 

EC: There are a couple of ways that we have been trying to stay up-to-date with the needs of our young people. We have the coaches reach out individually that’s a really key component to things. Since they’ve worked together for years, our coaches and the supervisors of our coaches know every single one of those kids. 

We also push surveys out via mass text and email.

When we sent one survey out about connectivity and laptops and phones, we got back 332 responses about a 90 percent response rate.

We get the responses either through the coaches personally or through the text and email responses. We compile all that information and, like I said, a team of us meet twice a week to go through, assess the needs, and basically cut the checks.

SCS: Why did you decide to give cash instead of in-kind donations? 

EC: I think for us, the root of our philosophy is that, at the end of the day, human beings are very different and their needs are very different. Our messaging is that we support our youth to determine their path. And so everything we do is very youth-led. 

We’re not saying, “We have money for rent.” Instead, it’s like, “What do you need? Tell us what you need” and then that’s how we direct our work. 

Over the years, we’ve found that’s the best way to do it. Otherwise, our young people have to try to fit into a structure that doesn’t necessarily make sense for them. 

I mean, let’s face it, it’s nice to say, “Oh, we’ll give you something in-kind.” But if you can’t pay your rent and there’s no income, what’s that going to help? 

SCS: How much have you been able to raise for the Emergency Assistance Fund?

EC: The total since mid-March is about $325,000 and more than 100 kids have been receiving support. 

Some of our fundraising has come from foundations that already give to us. Right away, when the pandemic started, a number of them stepped up and said, “We want to know how we can help.” 

We also had an article written about us in California Health Report a couple of weeks ago. As a result of that, people who had never been in contact with us reached out we’re talking $20,000 donors.

Like everyone else, when we started fundraising, we thought the pandemic was only going to be for a month, maybe two months. Now, we’re really looking at how we can plan for the future. We’re trying to be really careful with the funding and make sure that if this goes on for the rest of the year that we can continue to support our young people. 

All in all, it’s just been a really positive and heartwarming experience when I see how our community has responded. Back in 2008, everybody put the brakes on and shut the doors. People were freaked out. Somehow, this time is just different. People who have money yet are just wanting to be more generous.

I just don’t know how long that’s going to last. But for the time being, I’m not going to worry about that. I’m just going to be grateful for what we’re seeing and what we’re experiencing. 

SCS: As you’re looking ahead at things to come, is there enough money in the fund for the rest of the year?

EC: You know, I wish I had a crystal ball to know. I really do. But since I don’t, I try to be on the conservative side of things. 

Right now, our assumption is that we haven’t even begun to see the full impact of the pandemic economically. I’m assuming it’s going to get worse. 

Based on that premise, I see this as a very long-term struggle, and I’m anticipating that there’s only going to be more need.

So, that’s our thinking right now. I am hopeful that somehow in the next six months they’ll find a vaccination or figure out how to cure the virus so people aren’t dying from it. But who knows what the collateral damage is going to be as a result of all of this I just don’t know.

Right now, we have money to continue to serve the needs of our young people. And we’ll continue to fundraise for them. And we’ll do it for as long as we can.