I just got off a heartbreaking call with a fellow nonprofit executive director. It was the third such call today. She’s reached her limit. Relying on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, she’s losing her grip and her connection to the community she loves and serves. She is among an alarming number of nonprofit leaders who are on the brink. All while our nation is on the edge of civil unrest and facing threats of civil war from far-right extremists. Oh—and then there’s the pandemic.
In nearly all areas of health and human services, nonprofits lead. This critical moment is no exception. Solutions we hope will find their way into our public policy are born and created in the nonprofit sector. Though many only know us from our gala events and charity breakfasts, our organizations fill the gaps in services that the government cannot and will not fill. We’re working at every intersection of our communities, from the ground up, and with limited resources.
While no group of philanthropists understands the sector better than foundation partners, they can and need to make adjustments to their practices to better meet this moment. Sure, they may be moving slightly more money. Yes, they ask different (and more) questions in their “COVID Response” applications. They host webinars. They send resource lists and tell us they care. But ultimately, the support comes with too many strings.
Foundations: You recognize what we’re up against and what we’re solving for. You see first-hand the critical support services we offer. And most importantly, you know us. Individuals and corporations aren’t in the fight quite like you are. And it is because of our closeness and longstanding relationships that I’m leaning on the foundation community to release your nonprofit partners from the tight grip of applications, reporting, marketing requests, required trainings, and cohort models—from this moment and until the world regains its sanity. To put it bluntly: Nobody has time for that.
This sentiment isn’t new, but what might be is our willingness to say something. Still, nonprofit leaders are afraid. They’re afraid that in this time of uncertainty, telling the truth to our foundation partners is going to backfire and we’re going to lose resources. You can be part of the solution by welcoming the concerns and feedback from your trusted partners, and by providing unrestricted, multi-year funding. No hoops. No applications. No reports. Just faith that the trusted providers of services, the community builders and innovators, have doubled down on doing what we’ve always done. Serving, Protecting. Building. Dreaming. Filling the gaps. And keeping our communities alive and whole.
Unfortunately, the hoops that community nonprofits are being asked to jump through to provide critical and life-saving services (amid an overwhelming global pandemic and threatened by unprecedented domestic terrorism) may as well be rings of fire. Compare this with the wealthiest in our nation, who have more than tripled their assets during the pandemic while small-to-mid-sized nonprofits have struggled to keep going. When the “haves” face hoops (if they do at all), it seems they come with pots of gold on the other side.
For eleven years, I have been blessed to be the executive director of a Denver-based youth empowerment nonprofit organization, Youth on Record (YOR). Yes, it still feels like a blessing, though my dream is that one day we’ll be able to spend less time on administrative requirements associated with grant contracts and more time on serving our community and advancing important sector-wide conversations like this one. My intention is to build a bridge between struggling executive directors and foundation leaders, to inspire executive directors to more bravery and truth-telling, and to work in partnership and solidarity with foundation leaders.
Youth on Record is one of many organizations nationwide that are meeting the needs of the next generation of creatives, leaders, problem solvers, and all-around good humans. Our students are brilliant and resilient. Despite the odds against them, they demonstrate determination, creativity, talent, willingness, and courage. As YOR works to ensure that young people achieve their academic, artistic, and personal best, we recognize that our students face systems that make it increasingly difficult for them to survive and ultimately thrive. YOR works to address these systems and seeks to provide our youth with personal and professional tools to both navigate and ultimately dismantle systems of inequity.
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We also recognize that education alone cannot solve for systemic injustice, nor can it alone liberate youth. Art is a powerful tool, but it also cannot bear the sole responsibility for creating more equitable communities. Still, education and art, when integrated under the right framework, are powerful tools toward liberation and equity. YOR’s education, music, and community programs are designed to help young people become more free, more rooted in their personal power, and better able to thrive in spite of systems and circumstances that disempower and marginalize them. We design and implement strengths-based, music-centered programs intended to equip young people from historically under-resourced communities with the skills needed to find success in life by advancing their academic success, increasing their economic opportunities and career skills, and strengthening their community connections and networks.
Our work in the community is no small undertaking, and the added administrative pressures during these uncertain times are taking their toll. This month, I have six grant applications and three reports due. They are all different, all time-intensive, and all are just one fire-laced hoop after the other. Next month is more of the same. I have spent more time on grant management, writing, and reporting since the start of the pandemic than any other time in our organization’s eleven-year history. I’m not alone in this plea for less restriction and more trust.
In truth, my real work during the pandemic and national uncertainty is (and should be):
- Getting my staff and teaching artists vaccinated
- Adapting critical services to meet the growing and changing needs of youth during this time
- Managing staff and student trauma from a deadly pandemic
- Disseminating information for my team about civil unrest threats and COVID cases and regulations
- Figuring out how to pay for part-time staff to get health insurance so they don’t die from the virus (something philanthropy is not keen on paying for)
- Providing preparedness and civil unrest supplies and skills to our team so they can ride out multiple planned terrorist attacks on our city’s Capitol building and surrounding areas
- Diversifying funding
- Surviving, because I am also a person, and I’m not immune from all that’s going on
Critical nonprofits should not be beholden to foundation partners right now. Funding and faith in nonprofit leadership should be a forgone conclusion, allowing organizations to focus their attention on providing critical services to communities, supporting their teams, and building relationships with people who don’t know and support us, but should.
Just consider yourselves an old friend who we haven’t talked to in a while. We promise, we’ll pick up where we left off the next time we’re together. We’re just a little busy right now solving the world’s problems. Oh, and please send money.
With respect and much hope,
Jami Duffy (She/Her), Executive Director, Youth on Record