September 8, 2020; Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette

A few days ago, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette covered a report about the impact of COVID-19 on nonprofits in Arkansas. The article bore the headline, “Arkansas Nonprofits Meet Virus Challenge.” Even given the upbeat headline, the story and the study upon which it’s based are now very familiar in tone and content, and that’s because local studies like these are often derived from the same base instrument—which, as you might imagine, has its pros and cons.

The Arkansas Nonprofit COVID-19 Impact Survey was produced by the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Public Affairs, and the Arkansas Community Foundation. On first blush, this particular survey was somewhat representative, with 316 responses from every county in the state and from organizations of varying sizes and missions. Granted, two-thirds of the respondents are from organizations with annual budgets under $500K, but that is reflective of the sector overall.

Taken at face value, the key findings are bleak:

  • Eighty-two percent of respondents report having completely cancelled one or more programs.
  • Sixty-nine percent say they are operating at a reduced capacity.
  • More than half say they are having trouble accessing the supplies they need to operate safely.
  • Sixty-four percent have seen earned revenue loss and the same amount have seen a decline in individual donations.
  • For employment, 33 percent of respondents have had to reduce staff hours, 17 percent had furloughed staff, and 15 percent have laid staff off.

These results cohere with good old-fashioned common sense, and we would tend to believe them. One interesting note in the Arkansas survey that may seem a little counterintuitive is that the larger responding organizations were more likely to have completely cancelled one or more programs than the smaller ones. All of the respondents from organizations with more than $5 million reported cancelling a program completely, and 89 percent of respondents between $1 million and $5 million had cancelled a program completely. At the other end of the spectrum, 72 percent of agencies under $100,000 and 80 percent of those between $100,000 and $500,000 report closing a program completely. No analysis of this is offered in the report, but we might speculate smaller organizations simply have fewer programs to elect to end. Or, considering the size of the sample, perhaps the difference may not be all that significant.

But if all of this seems familiar to you, it should be. This report draws on the results of a survey adapted from one conducted a little earlier in San Diego. NPQ reported on some preliminary results of the San Diego report in March of this year, but a full report was released by University of San Diego in May. The Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee also released a report on the preliminary findings of a survey based on the same model.

These three reports are all from different parts of the country, based on surveys taken at different times, and focused on slightly different issues. Still, there are commonalities. For example, in San Diego the report describes a “hollowing out” of the nonprofit workforce, with 53 percent of respondents reporting layoffs, furloughs, and reduced hours. Although the Arkansas report separates these categories of actions related to the workforce, the numbers would seem to be similar. In Wisconsin, it would appear that close to 50 percent of respondents have reduced staffing, either through layoffs, furloughs, or cutting hours.

In San Diego, just as in Arkansas, more than 60 percent of respondents report a decline in individual giving. Wisconsin’s report does not have this statistic, but did report that more than 90 percent of respondents are worried about declining donations. (Then again, when aren’t nonprofits worried about that?)

In programming, the results are again quite similar. In Wisconsin, more than 50 percent of respondents report moderate, severe, or complete reductions in services provided. This is less than in San Diego, where 71 percent report service disruption, and Arkansas where the rate was 69 percent. Again, this point looks relatively obvious and in little need of reinforcing data, but the public deserves to know the conditions their favorite nonprofits are up against so they can boost their support if need be.

The list of needs cited in the Wisconsin study is quite long. They ask academic and community partners to help share the message of what the sector is facing, to help create crisis management plans, and to help employees take care of themselves. This last is echoed in San Diego, where managing stress is a top priority. That report also describes the need for greater access to technology to help deliver programs. The report from Arkansas cites unrestricted operational support as the greatest need, but also the need for help with planning and access to technology.

All three reports do find a thin silver lining in the storm clouds. Nonprofits in each community were successful at pivoting to run many programs in new virtual ways. This reinforces what NPQ learned from a data-based retrospective of the last recession: Nonprofits tend to be more resilient financially than the households they serve, and that’s a disturbing thought.—Rob Meiksins and Ruth McCambridge