Ketchup with a Champagne chaser. Twizzlers red licorice candies and Reese’s peanut butter cups dipped in ketchup. Ketchup stirred into coffee. A ketchup and Scotch whisky cocktail. Ketchup blended into a protein shake. Broccoli with a side of ketchup. Ketchup drizzled over blueberries.
What’s up with all this ketchup in these retch-inducing combinations? It’s about fighting a problem that affects one in four children in the U.S. — hunger.
Jamie Hopkins, managing director of Carson Coaching and a retirement researcher, was looking for a way to raise funds for the growing number of children who face food insecurity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He saw the Ketchup Package Challenge on social media and gave it a whirl, while urging his Twitter followers to do the same. The result? A string of stomach-turning posts on Twitter and between $13,000 and $14,000 raised to feed hungry kids.
The Ketchup Package Challenge is a fundraising and awareness campaign of No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit organization that provides grants to schools and community groups that feed children in need. With COVID-19 closing schools and many parents out of work, the need to provide meals to children is especially urgent. No Kid Hungry estimated that one in four children in the U.S. was impacted by hunger in 2020 — an increase over one in five children in 2019.
No Kid Hungry challenged the public to “spoon, slurp, guzzle or struggle your way through 10 ketchup packets.” Participants were asked to film themselves attempting to eat the 10 ketchup packets, share the video on social media, encourage friends to donate and tag three people to complete the challenge.
“I have three young kids, and if I think about them being unable to eat because we had no food for them, it breaks my heart,” Hopkins said of his inspiration for raising funds for No Kid Hungry. “Especially in 2020, I was focused on the charitable side and giving back more than ever.”
Hopkins found support for his ketchup challenge among a group of financial professionals who call themselves #fintwit on Twitter. Earlier in 2020, Hopkins and another #fintwit member, Tyrone Ross, CEO of Onramp Invest, did a similar social media challenge and raised $6,000 for No Kid Hungry in one week. The ketchup challenge played out over several weeks in the fall among a larger group of Twitter followers, and raised between $13,000 and $14,000.
“It’s fun to see people come together and engage in a sense of community and then donate to a good cause,” Hopkins said. “And I think some of the power of social media on raising funds for charities is that it allows people to partake in that community feeling. If you simply post on social media that you want people to donate to a charity, there’s no way you’re going to raise that much money. But engaging people in a more fun way, especially in 2020, really seemed to work.”
The Industry Steps Up
The financial and humanitarian crisis brought about by COVID-19 has inspired many individuals to look at unusual or meaningful ways to give back. The insurance industry also has stepped up its charitable giving efforts during the pandemic.
The Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation has served as the philanthropic arm of the insurance industry since 1994. The foundation has supported numerous community organizations across the U.S. since its inception, but 2020 saw its member companies and individuals focus their giving efforts on the IICF Children’s Relief Fund. The fund was created in response to the pandemic and has provided money to organizations focused on helping children affected by hunger, educational disruption and family homelessness as a result of COVID-19.
IICF established the Children’s Relief Fund in April and raised $500,000 for the cause in the first three weeks after it was launched. A total of 40 companies and more than 1,200 individuals have raised $1.3 million to support the efforts of the fund in the U.S., said William Ross, IICF’s CEO.
So far, $280 million has been donated by U.S. insurers and their charitable foundations, and another $150 million has been contributed internationally to support COVID-19 relief efforts, Ross added. Organizations that have benefited include Covenant House, Blessings in a Backpack and numerous food-related charities.
Fundraising has been a challenge in the age of social distancing, Ross said.
“We’ve seen a lot of what we refer to as the virtual pivot,” he said. “Many of our traditional coming-together activities — whether volunteer activities or the annual fundraising dinners — have been converted to virtual types of experiences. But I think we all still have the ability to run effective fundraising programs. And we are seeing insurance organizations doing amazing things.”
The foundation’s pandemic-related work is far from over, Ross said. “I think it’s fair to say that for at least the first half of this year, hopefully not more, we’ll still be dealing with COVID-19. And I think you will see continued support for programs that help those affected by it.”
In 2021, IICF will launch another children’s relief campaign, focused on food insecurity and education, Ross said. He said he believes the industry, through individual contributions and efforts by carriers’ own charitable foundations, will continue to have pandemic relief efforts at the top of their philanthropic agendas in the current year.
Also in 2021, IICF will conduct the International Step Up Challenge. With so many people unable to exercise in gyms or participate in activities such as 10K races because of COVID-19 restrictions, the challenge is to raise funds while giving people an opportunity to exercise safely at home.
“It will run for six weeks, and it’s an opportunity to compete with how many steps can you get in, whether that’s running or walking or biking. And it allows us to convert those into steps in competing,” Ross said. “The top three winners who did the most steps will be able to make a personal grant to three organizations. It’s a way for us to help people with their physical and mental health while helping those in need.”
Easing Women’s Burden
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extra burdens on women, and Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina Mohammed called these burdens a “shadow pandemic.” Those who work with women who are breaking out of poverty and into self-sufficiency are finding COVID-19 adding another layer of challenges to those already faced by low-
Stephanie McCullough knows these challenges well and is using her financial background to help women turn their situations around.
McCullough is the owner of Sofia Financial in Berwyn, Pa., and serves on the steering committee for the Women’s Economic Security Initiative in Philadelphia. The initiative’s goal is to help all women in the region attain financial well-being for themselves and their families. The initiative is part of Women’s Way, a nonprofit organization supporting equal opportunity for women and girls, and gender equality for all.
McCullough attended a networking event three years ago and met someone who eventually introduced her to the executive director of Women’s Way. The exec was looking at ways the organization could help boost women’s economic security, and she discussed her ideas with McCullough.
“If we can find a way to help women be more financially stable, then everything else gets a little bit easier,” McCullough said. “There is a ton of research that shows when women are financially secure, they take care of their families and their communities and make the world a better place. And that’s my belief as well.”
McCullough said she agreed to serve on the initiative’s steering committee, which comprises women representing many sectors of the community, including women who’ve been there.
“These are women who have experienced economic insecurity or who are currently living through it,” she said. “That’s been really fascinating to me. I just feel so privileged too, because I hadn’t done work in nonprofits before. And I haven’t had the experience that these women have. Most of my clients at least can get by. So it’s been really eye-opening.”
One of the initiatives in which McCullough is involved is a financial coaching project, where Women’s Way funds training on how to become a financial coach, and those coaches work with women in the community. McCullough said she added a section on women and money to the training “because that’s my focus.”
“The coaches go out to places such as child care centers and talk to the staff and the families of the children there, try to get them on board to do one-on-one coaching with them,” she said.
The initiative is focused on lower-income women, and McCullough said she has learned more about the financial needs of that segment.
“It’s saving up that emergency fund. Dealing with debt. And getting enough in the bank to handle that unexpected expense. Getting out of that paycheck-
to-paycheck cycle and getting away from payday loans.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed even more of a burden on the women the initiative serves, McCullough said.
“Sally Krawcheck [CEO of Ellevest] called this current situation a she-cession. Women have been disproportionately hit by the job losses because a lot of the lower-paying jobs are filled by women. A lot of these women are moms, and many of them are single moms. So much falls on them already. But now the child care centers are really having a difficult time keeping it together and staying open. Kids can’t leave the house to go to school, so a lot of women are forced into home-schooling their kids.”
Looking beyond the pandemic, McCullough said the initiative is considering ways to help women become even more financially empowered in the future.
“We are looking at the wealth gap for women. That’s not the same as the income gap for women. That’s not just telling women to get a higher-paying job. It’s also about teaching women how to build wealth, build some assets, have some positive net worth. Because that’s the key to breaking the generational poverty cycle.”
Fighting Isolation, Embracing Inclusion
Humans have a need to connect with others, and pandemic restrictions have made that connection challenging over the past several months. One group feeling the effects of these restrictions is people who have autism. It’s a group that Andrew Komarow knows well. Komarow is the founder of Planning Across The Spectrum in Farmington, Conn., and
he — as well as half of his staff — is autistic.
Komarow’s practice specializes in advising individuals, families and employers of those who have autism or other disabilities. Outside of work, he is an advocate for those who have autism. He volunteers with Autism Speaks and serves on the state of Connecticut’s Autism Advisory Committee. He also started a self-advocacy group for other autistic people in Connecticut and runs a Facebook group for autistic adults.
Komarow has a particular passion for helping autistic adults, who often face a “cliff” when they age out of a system designed to provide services for children and teens. Although he assists them in accessing services they may need, he is more concerned about helping autistic adults attain independence.
“For those who want to live independently, there really is a gap in employment, in housing,” he said. “I want to help people navigate around those barriers that keep them from being independent.”
Komarow said he is most passionate about helping autistic adults gain employment or become entrepreneurs. But he knows many of the things that most adults take for granted often are more difficult for those with autism. Take driving, for example.
“Transportation is really important to being independent,” he said. “I think the majority of people underestimate how much of a challenge that is for people on the autism spectrum.”
He also talks with employers about the importance of hiring a neurodiverse workforce, and what they need to do to attract and retain that workforce. “I do presentations on the kinds of benefits they can offer that would attract everyone, about how they can have policies that are inclusive.”
In addition to employment, autistic adults need ways they can socialize and be a part of a larger community, Komarow said. He has organized video gaming events and other activities, where autistic adults can mingle, learn and have fun. He also hosts an online calendar of sensory-friendly, autism-friendly events from around the nation.
Komarow also works with the Yale University Project CASY (Community Autism Socials at Yale), an online and local community of people living with autism and the families and friends involved with their lives. “We have some in-person activities, but we also have some fun activities that can be done through artificial intelligence or online,” he said.
COVID-19’s restrictions on social gatherings have hurt the autistic community in some ways, but hasn’t hurt it so much in others, Komarow said.
“Some people are OK with staying at home and having some of their activities adapted to home,” he said. “But the majority very much dislikes Zoom or has a really difficult time with routines being disrupted. I see many struggling with not being able to have the social events they were used to doing or being able to do things the way they used to.”
Those who are employed are having a somewhat easier time under COVID-19, Komarow said. “The ones who have a job to go to still have a routine of sorts, and that routine and the ability to get out of the house are very important to them.”
Finding A Purpose Amid Sorrow
Many Americans have seen their mental health become a casualty of the long months of the pandemic. Larry Sprung and his wife, Denise Milano Sprung, are volunteering their time and efforts to help make sure no one experiences the pain that they did after a family member died by suicide.
Sprung is founder of Mitlin Financial in Hauppauge, N.Y., and his wife is the firm’s marketing director. They founded the Keith Milano Memorial Fund within the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Milano, Denise’s brother, died in 2004 after struggling with bipolar disorder.
“That was a life-changing experience for me as, up to that point, I hadn’t known anyone directly related to me who suffered from mental illness and ultimately died from it,” Sprung said.
Sprung said that as he learned more about mental health and suicide, he discovered that the number of Americans who die from breast cancer annually is roughly the same as the number of Americans who die from suicide in a year.
“But breast cancer gets funding in the billions, while suicide prevention gets a speck compared with that,” he said.
He eventually sought out the AFSP and began volunteering on the local level, and now he sits on the organization’s national board. Since the Keith Milano Memorial Fund was created in 2005, Sprung and his wife have raised about $1.5 million to assist in suicide prevention efforts.
For about the first 10 years of the fund’s existence, the Sprungs raised money through an annual golf outing. But that event ran its course, Sprung said. He and his wife were looking at a different fundraiser, and her interest in romance novels opened a door.
“My wife runs a book blog in which she reviews romance novels,” he said. “In addition to that, one of the niche markets our firm serves is the romance writer community. We help the writers handle their assets and plan for retirement. One of the writers was having a book launch and asked whether she could contribute some of her proceeds to the fund. How could we say no?”
Now, every May, between 30 and 40 romance writers contribute a portion of their book sales to the fund, Sprung said, with an average of $30,000-$40,000 raised annually.
The Keith Milano Memorial Fund has provided money for several suicide prevention projects, many of them films, Sprung said. One was a film on bipolar disorder, and one film was aimed at high school students, educating them about mental illness.
The fund also contributed to a public service campaign on TV, Instagram and Facebook called “The Awkward.” The campaign “tells young people that if they think their friend is having mental health issues, it’s better to seize the awkward situation and ask questions, risk the friendship, and potentially save a life.”
Whether the combination of social isolation and financial stress stemming from COVID-19 is causing an increase in suicides is not yet known, Sprung said, as 2020’s suicide figures won’t be available until later this year.
“But what I can tell you is that this situation is unlike anything we’ve experienced,” he said. “When you look at the last economic downturn, in 2008, what we saw was a financial crisis, and it was bad. But now you’re seeing a tremendous financial event for many people, combined with not being able to go out and see people the way you normally would and the fear about contracting COVID-19.”
During the years Sprung has served on AFSP’s board, he has seen the organization’s budget grow from about $6 million annually to more than $45 million. “We’ve grown significantly, but it’s a double-edged sword. We’re happy the organization is growing, but we cherish the day when we can put ourselves out of business because the problem has been solved.”