Even as we await implementation guidelines for the CARES Act, philanthropy appears to remain largely in denial about the scale of the COVID-19 crisis, which would once have been unimaginable. Nonprofit organizations are being forced to make impossibly difficult, relatively immediate decisions.
The choices being made vary with different types of organizations. For example, any organization that depends upon program sites where people congregate is having its timing driven by a limited number of variables: Are alternative forms of programming possible? Will those who pay for the service continue to do so even when you cannot provide it? How soon will the entire endeavor fail if it’s mothballed?
Other types of organizations that depend less on face-to-face contact may find the call for their work increases; they then need to discern how to work with that reality in an environment where philanthropy is not yet freeing up significant additional funds and corporations are having problems of their own. (To be clear, we are not sympathizing with foundations and corporations here. We think they need to sacrifice more deeply than they have thus far for the common good.)
Thus, though there are categories of problems for nonprofits, they are also dependent on the enterprise itself and how awake their funders are. But day by day, we learn more about what these conundrums look like and the answers they and their communities are finding.
Gali Cooks, president & CEO of Leading Edge; Ilana Aisen, CEO of JPRO Network; and Alicia S. Oberman, a founder and board member of the Institute for Jewish Nonprofits, used eJewish Philanthropy to report the results of a recent leadership survey they conducted that illustrates how differently organizations may be reacting to working conditions with a lot of unknowns and people under stress in the mix.
As leaders manage these issues, they are struggling with how much and what information is appropriate to share with their teams as they are acutely aware of the responsibility to be transparent but do not want to add undue anxiety to their teams. Board members are trying to define and understand their fiduciary responsibilities and role.
The unanticipated financial and time burdens of the crisis have led to some board member resignations…it has also led to boards coming together and rising to the occasion in inspirational ways. However, this new climate has greatly exacerbated challenges for organizations that were already struggling with board partnership and board culture.
Sandra Bullock, who leads First Impression of South Carolina, which provides transitional housing for homeless women, captured the difficulty in comments to Louisville Business First. “We’re struggling,” Bullock says. “We were expecting a couple of grants and they haven’t come. We can’t get even our women into the doctor, the clinics…calls from people asking how they can help or if they can volunteer have also stopped.”
I’m at the point where I don’t have staff, so it’s taking its toll.
We already struggle to keep money coming in just to keep the programs going, and then things like this, when your funding sources shut down, you’re struggling just to make ends meet.”
Nonprofit leaders don’t just worry about their organization’s survival and the clients they serve; they also worry about their staff, who are key to their effectiveness. Andrea Smith, the director of Senior Action, describes this concern to the Greenville News. “So, my staff are really carrying the brunt of this whole thing on their shoulders and normally we use a lot of volunteers, so that’s been hard,” she says. “I’m concerned that my staff stay healthy for themselves and because of the clientele that we serve.”
As NPQ noted on Monday, many organizations, particularly those who rely on fee-for-service income, have already seen no alternative but to lay off their staff, risking losing their invaluable institutional wisdom and commitment, assets that will be needed when they are ready to begin operations as the pandemic eases. Danielle Clore, CEO of Kentucky Nonprofit Network, is seeing that across her state.
In the past week, the number of emails I receive each day from a nonprofit notifying its stakeholders that they are laying off or furloughing staff members is increasing…this crisis means a loss of vital services to Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens, loss of jobs and shortly, organizations will be forced to close their doors.
Seeing the crisis caused by threatened and lost funding, communities are trying to ease the financial burden on their local nonprofits so they can survive to serve another day. The Facebook-based initiative Katie Phipps quickly launched attracted more than 1,500 supporters and has begun generating new donations at a grassroots level; as Phipps said, “This crisis was going to be like nothing that had happened before to nonprofits.”
Suzanne Washington, who leads Portland’s Meals on Wheels program, has seen a similar level of community support. But she worries whether this wave will last. As she tells the New York Times that “the outpouring has been amazing,” but ”our fear is that the longer it goes on, and the worse the economy gets, funding will dry up while volunteers have so many troubles of their own, they start to disappear.”
Some larger funders are also recognizing the need to step in. In hard-hit New York City, the Times notes that “Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and 23 other foundations as well as individual donors have created a $78 million COVID-19 rescue fund for New York City nonprofits. Grants will start going out to small and midsize social services and arts and cultural organizations on Monday. Interest-free loans will follow.” Similar community funds have been created in other locations from coast to coast, but we find these efforts less impressive than a clear commitment to double payout, for instance.
NPQ is looking for our readers to contribute their own stories and opinions about what needs to be done in the face of this complex situation. We are interested in advice for nonprofits, philanthropy, and government. Let’s share strategies!—Martin Levine and Ruth McCambridge