HomeNewsCOVID Relief Funds and Hospitality’s Nonprofit Heroes

COVID Relief Funds and Hospitality’s Nonprofit Heroes

Everyone knows where they were when it all finally sank in - the virus on the news had become a terrifying reality, canceling events and closing schools. The slow but steady advance of COVID-19 in March 2020 devastated many industries, and hospitality was hit especially hard. In April 2020, 5.5 million people in bars and restaurants lost their jobs[1] (not counting undocumented workers and the many that were denied claims), and 8 months later, 4 million restaurant workers are still unemployed (that’s 23.2% of the workforce who had a job last February[2]). To top it off, 65% of hospitality workers were classified as lower-income and had little to no savings. Living paycheck to paycheck, they were depending on that next shift or that next big tip to pay the bills[3]. People needed help and needed it fast.

Fortunately, hospitality professionals know a little something about community and supporting each other, and in the last couple of years, several organizations started planting the seeds for big ideas and big change in the industry. Little did these folx know that starting a hospitality nonprofit would make them just the heroes hospitality needed during a global pandemic.

In early 2020, Another Round Another Rally’s (ARAR) Amanda Gunderson and Travis Nass were ramping up for their first bartender-facing event in San Diego. ARAR is a hospitality-focused nonprofit dedicated to education, scholarships, and emergency grants for those employed in hotels, restaurants, and bars. The ARAR team was putting the final touches on Deuces, a synchronized cocktail competition they were hosting in late March, but by the weekend of March 14th, cities were shutting down. Deuces was canceled. Instead of slowing down, ARAR leadership got to work, immediately put their heads together to create a fundraising campaign, and layout a strategy to expand their grant program to help an industry panicked by the oncoming global pandemic.

“We saw 20,000 applicants in the first 24 hours our application was live and by the end of the first week, we were receiving applications at the rate of over 1 per second. With our $500 charitable gifts it would take more than $50 million dollars to help all those who have applied,” Travis recalls. In the face of staggering amounts of applications, he and Amanda relied heavily on their Board of Directors’ resources and know-how. Scaling up an organization usually takes years, but in this case, the team at ARAR had to learn how to do all that growing in only six months.

Challenges included fielding applications from Spanish-speaking folx. By partnering with Stanford Business School students who helped conduct bilingual phone interviews, ARAR ensured that almost half of the grants went to Spanish-speaking workers who might not receive government assistance. Keeping the final vetting team small was important to Travis and Amanda, ensuring that applicants felt secure sharing sensitive information, but it took an army of volunteers to complete all the work that needed to be done. At one point, there were more than 200 people lending a hand and ultimately giving help and hope to almost 10,000 families.

COVID-19 is by no means over, but as ARAR looks to the future, they aspire to provide professional development and leadership opportunities for womxn, Black folx, People of Color, LGBTQ+, and undocumented folx in bars and restaurants.

Across the country in New York City, John deBary, co-founder of Restaurant Workers Community Fund (RWCF), also vividly remembers that weekend in March. By that Saturday the 14th, John and the RWCF team flew into action, rolling out a strategy for a dedicated response to the COVID-19 crisis.

RWCF’s original mission addressed four issues: wages and career ladders, gender equity and sexual abuse, racial equity and fair treatment of immigrants, and mental health and substance abuse. In 2019 they raised an impressive $40,000 dollars, built a twenty-person Board of Directors, and distributed one-third of the funds to 11 local nonprofits across the country. 2020 looked to be a great year of growth, grantmaking, social justice advocacy, and community building.

RWCF became a nexus of fundraising and relief distribution early on in the pandemic. By March 15th, RWCF published an online worker’s resource that included unemployment information, financial assistance information, healthcare information (especially for immigrant specific concerns,) and launched their emergency relief fund for restaurant workers. The response was overwhelming. RWCF quickly made the decision to link up with Southern Smoke, another crisis relief organization for the food and beverage industry based out of Texas. Southern Smoke assists by evaluating applicants and distributing funds. The perfect partner to RWCF and their values, Southern Smoke takes a holistic approach to evaluating applicants by assigning them a caseworker to assess what kind of relief might be best.

As more and more money was raised, the Board of Directors for RWCF also implemented an updated distribution model: 50% percent of the funds raised were used for direct assistance to individuals, 25% went to nonprofit organizations serving restaurant workers, and 25% went to zero-interest loans for restaurants to get back up and running. As of the beginning of January 2021, RWCF has raised over $6.7 million dollars, giving almost $1 million dollars to local organizations, setting aside $1.2 million dollars to set up Restaurant Futures Loan Program, and granting $3.4 million dollars to Southern Smoke who distributed the money to 2,072 individuals in need. This is an astounding success for a foundation that anticipated a budget of $130,000 for 2020.

John deBary is quick to point out that they couldn’t have done even a portion of this good work without the help of many volunteers and an involved and committed Board of Directors. Although, he jokes, it didn’t hurt that Jimmy Fallon name-dropped the community foundation twice on The Tonight Show. While there is certainly more to be done as the hospitality industry still struggles, “The last year has been extremely validating for our founding mission,” John stated. “We are able to explain to the general public that restaurant workers have been a vulnerable population for centuries and that the way the pandemic has affected them is just another argument for why structural change is needed.” John and the leadership of RWCF look forward to building a brighter future for RWCF and for the industry it strives to lift up. By continuing to raise funds and granting money to local organizations that inspire and drive change, RWCF will keep working toward its core values of social and racial justice, mental health awareness, gender equity, and professional development.


[1] Zhang, Jenny G, The Restaurant Industry Lost 5.5 Million Jobs in April, Eater, May, 8 2020

[2] The Bureau of Labor and Statistics, The Employment Situation April 2020 and December 2020

[3] Marte, Jonnelle, ‘This is not our fault': Pandemic job losses fall hardest on hospitality workers, Reuters, January 8, 2021