Flinn Foundation extends grantmaking response to COVID-19 in Arizona

May 19, 2020

By Matt Ellsworth

With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening and profoundly changing Arizonans’ lives, the Phoenix-based Flinn Foundation has made a series of emergency grants to protect frontline health-care workers, accelerate development of therapeutics, support outbreak modeling and tracking, and help sustain vulnerable nonprofit organizations across the state.

The more than $450,000 in grants have been issued to a dynamic fashion incubator manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), to each of Arizona’s public universities for research and testing initiatives, and to an emergency support fund for nonprofits across the state. These awards follow an emergency $100,000 grant in March to the Translational Genomics Research Institute to fund an expansion of COVID-19 testing.

Additionally, over the next several months, the foundation anticipates frontloading roughly two years’ worth of its support for arts and culture organizations to help pillars of that sector survive and retool their business models in a radically changed economy and presentation environment.

“Over the 55-year history of the Flinn Foundation, no moment of need compares to this,” said Flinn Foundation President and CEO Tammy McLeod. “For a foundation that concentrates on health care and the biosciences, the COVID-19 crisis compels an immediate response.

“With a mission focusing on the quality of life in Arizona to benefit future generations, we also have to consider what will strengthen Arizona in the long-term,” McLeod added.

Arizona Apparel Foundation

A $150,000 award to the Arizona Apparel Foundation is supporting an essential project of the Fashion and Business Resource Innovation Center (FABRIC), located in downtown Tempe, to manufacture PPE for health-care workers. With funding from the Flinn Foundation, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, and the Pakis Family Foundation, FABRIC has invested in a state-of-the-art computerized cutting machine and dozens of new sewing machines.

This equipment and numerous new hires at FABRIC are enabling the incubator to manufacture highly sought-after reusable medical gowns, among other equipment. Unlike typical gowns that must be discarded after use, the FABRIC gowns being sewn and directed to frontline Arizona health-care providers can be washed and safely reused dozens of times.

After the immediate COVID-19 crisis diminishes, FABRIC’s new capital investment will enable rapid clothing-manufacturing projects of many kinds, helping to cement the center’s emerging leadership in the entrepreneurship niche of the national fashion industry .

Northern Arizona University

Two grants to Northern Arizona University, together totaling $175,000, are supporting projects at a pair of world-class research centers that are now directing their attention to the COVID-19 response: the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute and the Center for Health Equity Research.

The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) is internationally recognized for its expertise in the genomic mechanisms of disease—and for the capacity to safely study pathogens ranging from anthrax and plague to West Nile virus and Valley fever. Under the leadership of its executive director, Paul Keim, PMI has launched the COVID-19 Testing Service Center (CTSC), which will use PMI’s Biosafety Level 3 facilities to test and evaluate effectiveness of proposed drugs and drug combinations for treating patients with COVID-19.

Several private companies and academic teams trying to develop therapeutics—but lacking the stringently regulated laboratory infrastructure for testing with COVID-19 samples—have already consulted with PMI to move their candidate compounds into initial screening for efficacy at NAU. Leading the CTSC will be recently recruited faculty member C. Todd French, a specialist in pathogen-virulence mechanisms. Flinn Foundation funding will accelerate the CTSC’s ramp-up to begin this work.

Meanwhile, NAU’s cross-disciplinary Center for Health Equity Research (CHER), which involves scientists in fields like public health, epidemiology, and biostatistics, is taking another vital angle in the response to COVID-19: disease-intervention modeling. CHER’s director, Julie Baldwin, is leading a project to model the spread of COVID-19 in rural settings like northern Arizona and the Colorado Plateau, which have much different characteristics than the urban centers of outbreak informing most existing models.

Flinn Foundation funding will support model prototyping in the Flagstaff area that incorporates data on current behaviors and interventions and assesses the impact of a variety of potential future interventions and changes in the public’s behavior. Later in the year, the model will be expanded to look at a broader swath of northern Arizona, providing essential guidance for elected and public-health officials to plan interventions specific to their region’s needs.

University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix

A grant to the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix (COM-P) is supporting a new COVID-19 Innovation Team at the medical school, under the direction of Peter Nakaji, a COM-P faculty member and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery for Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.

Dr. Nakaji’s team, involving frontline clinicians, medical and engineering students, and local companies, is taking on emerging rapid-design projects to improve the efficacy and safety of treatment tools for COVID-19 patients, from making PPE more comfortable for extended use, to retrofitting intubation equipment to minimize cross-infection of clinicians.

Arizona State University

A Flinn Foundation grant to Arizona State University is supporting a COVID-19 environmental surveillance project led by Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. In previous research, Dr. Halden has used wastewater epidemiology to track the environmental prevalence of industrial toxins, pharmaceuticals, and pesticides, and even to pinpoint community locations with high concentrations of opioid dependence.

Halden’s new study, already underway in Tempe and planned for other metropolitan Phoenix cities, aims to follow the same approach for COVID-19, to enable local officials to identify disease hot spots that can then be confirmed with individual outreach and testing. Wastewater sampling offers a relatively inexpensive and rapid method to spot and potentially short-circuit spread of the disease throughout a community.

Arizona COVID-19 Community Response Fund

One of the broadest collaborations among funders to respond to the pandemic is the Arizona COVID-19 Community Response Fund, established by the Arizona Community Foundation (ACF) to aid nonprofit organizations throughout the state that have been endangered by the disease’s wide-ranging impacts. Some 25 organizations, in addition to individual donors, have contributed to the fund.

Like other donations to the fund, the Flinn Foundation’s contribution of $100,000 is being applied to meet immediate needs of the Arizona nonprofit community. For many nonprofits, COVID-19 has struck in multiple ways at once: shuttering public-facing operations, hammering contributed-revenue streams, and driving up constituents’ emergency needs. Consequently, requests for support from across the community have substantially exceeded donations from funders to date.

Arts-and-Culture Grantmaking

For several years, the Flinn Foundation has worked with close to 20 of Arizona’s largest arts-and-culture organizations to help them build expertise and strengthen best practices around capitalization to ensure attention to both financial and creative health. In some respects, COVID-19 may threaten these organizations even more than small arts groups, which are often staffed primarily by volunteers and typically do not have the high overhead costs that can weigh on large museums and performing arts groups.

To assist its grantee cohort, the Flinn Foundation is providing a program of consultations with TDC, a nationally recognized Boston-based expert in financial planning for nonprofit organizations, including in the arts. Recognizing the likelihood that major disruption in the arts landscape may continue well into 2021, TDC is helping the organizations map out scenarios for what they might offer audiences in the new reality and how to remake their financial structures accordingly.

For existing arts grants, foundation staff are working with each grantee to determine whether continuing an approved project would be the best use of funds, or whether in the current crisis funds would be better used in other ways. As it looks ahead, the foundation anticipates directing the vast majority of the grant funding it has earmarked for the arts in 2020 and 2021 to help its grantee pool respond to the pressures of the pandemic.