Risk MSK,” Photo by A Syn.

January 11, 2018; Generocity

Like so many other nonprofits, Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia had a rough year in 2017. However, their commitment to their mission, their resilience, and their smart planning allowed them to survive into 2018 and hopefully beyond.

Last year was tough for many nonprofits and their allies across the spectrum of civil service, but refugee aid and resettlement agencies suffered particularly. The legal tussles over the travel ban and its ultimate implementation, the attempts to eliminate DACA, the ending of TPS for Salvadoran refugees, the limits placed on the number of refugees allowed in, and the forced closures of smaller refugee centers are just some of the blows to the ability of these organizations to welcome, protect, and support refugees arriving in the US. Just yesterday, mere months after the UN reported that 65.6 million refugees have been forcibly displaced from their homes, the president made a foul comment about the countries from which many refugees hail, indicating that residents of poor, Black nations are unwelcome.

NSC reported a 300 percent increase in demand for their services last year, which include legal representation, employment programs, mental health services, and more. But because federal grants to these organizations are given on a per capita basis, when fewer refugees arrive, less funding comes in. NSC resettled 100 fewer refugees between October and December of 2017 as over the same period in 2016, and the drop in funding forced them to cut $1 million in programming. In 2016, the majority of NSC’s funding—78 percent—came from government grants. While a 2017 Form 990 is not yet available, it’s safe to say that number was likely significantly lower.

By the end of the year, Executive Director Margaret O’Sullivan and Board Chair Alicia Karr faced pressure to fill their organization’s coffers, so they started the “Keep Philadelphia Welcoming Challenge.”

Foundations and individuals stepped in to help. In addition to individual donors, The Samuel S. Fels Fund, First Hospital Foundation, and Bennett Family Foundation all offered relief. So many donors pledged to match contributions that NCS reached $150,000 in matching funds.

Not only that, but the organization’s frank communications about its difficulties woke up the philanthropic community to a systemic issue that was going unaddressed. O’Sullivan told Generocity’s Ebonee Johnson,

The foundation and philanthropic community have really organized themselves around topic areas that they know are vulnerable because of what’s happening in Washington. We’ve had foundations that have stepped up and provided us with emergency operating grants for the first time. They are asking for meetings so they can really understand the issues that we’re facing. They’re responding to our need.

Not only does this support allow NCS to have general operating funds, it rescues them from commitments they made while money was still tight. They added two paralegals to help deal with the increased demand for help before the positions were fully funded, saying, “We basically had to put the cart before the horses.” Thanks to their donors, the risky bet paid off.

As NPQ has previously explained, “Risk is a byproduct of our work, and, as such, we need to get good not only at managing it but also at using it to launch ourselves to the next level of effective and powerful practice.” NCS engaged in wise risk management practice; that is, clearly communicating their strong values-based identity and the needs and work of their organization; remaining mission-focused; and maintaining their “preexisting circles of support or functional networks,” which is a crucial tactic of managing unpredictable risk like the drastic change in policy environment over the course of a year.

While so far no indication has come from NCS or its donors about future plans, the foundations’ interest in understanding the larger issues and their willingness to provide baseline operational support could indicate a more involved commitment to refugee services. All over the country, as climate science, sanctuary cities, and investigative journalism are threatened, cities, states, and nonprofits have stepped up to fill the gap in leadership and funding. A more supportive and systemic approach to refugee services could help millions of people who are in or trying to reach the US. NCS and its donors provide an example of the kind of leadership needed in this area of service.—Erin Rubin