By Carol M. Highsmith.  Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID highsm.11604. Public Domain, Link

March 17, 2020; The Patch (White Plains, NY) and Arizona Daily Star

Last week, as Congress was throwing together legislation to address the COVID-19 crisis, 40 national nonprofit organizations sprang forth to make sure Congress did not forget nonprofits like it normally does. As NPQ wrote last week, the nonprofit coalition presented a joint statement identifying actions specific to nonprofits that Congress could take. The House bill used some of the ideas, making sure nonprofit employers were treated no differently than for-profit employers. But even as Congress was passing that bill, it was planning a much larger economic stimulus measure.

Yesterday, the coalition, now expanded to almost 100 national nonprofits, renewed many of its earlier policy proposals and added some more in this joint letter by charitable nonprofits delivered to every House and Senate office on Capitol Hill.

(We stop here to direct readers to our feature today on the Great Recession, because even as the saving of nonprofits is on our minds, we must not ever put it before our involvement in the policies that affect the wealth and well-being of our communities.)

But for now, the National Council of Nonprofits is urging you to write your congresspersons and tell them how this crisis is affecting your organization, your employees and the people you serve.

Writing your senators and representatives is easy; just click those links and find your officeholders. The message is easy: “I want you to understand what this pandemic is doing to the ability of my nonprofit to serve your constituents.” Tell your story. Close with something like, “I urge you to include the policy solutions proposed by the nonprofit community in any COVID-19 relief and stimulus legislation.”

This quick work spearheaded in part by the National Council of Nonprofits comes from an understanding of what is at risk and at stake for nonprofit organizations. There is, and will be for months to come, a critical need for the services and supports that are best provided by thousands of nonprofits big and small, organizations with roots in their communities and with dedicated staff and volunteers passionate about their missions. What Tom Gabriel, the president and CEO of the United Way of Westchester and Putnam County in New York state, said a recent meeting of local nonprofit leaders describes this moment for the entire sector:

Nonprofits are seeing an increase in demand because people are finding themselves in situations where their employment is jeopardized due to facility closures or lack of available childcare and their access to necessities, including food and diapers, is compromised. As during any time of crisis, the nonprofit sector will come together and serve the needs of the community.

What’s less certain is whether the funds will be there to meet that need. Jan Fisher, executive director of Nonprofit Westchester, recognized this when she told that New York audience that “the financial impact of the coronavirus on the nonprofits is a huge problem that will have lasting repercussions.”

Few nonprofits entered this moment with coffers overflowing. Despite an ostensibly growing economy, funding from government and philanthropic sources has often left organizations just able to keep their heads above water, with little ability to grow the reserves that are needed for moments like today. The dramatic and sudden changes that responding to COVID-19 will require will further limit many organizations’ fundraising, and the demand to serve should pull attention toward clients and away from nurturing donors.

Across the country, led by community and large private foundations, the philanthropic sector is trying to step up, recognizing that agencies on the front line need new funding if they are to meet the human challenges they face. Last week, the Seattle Foundation, in a community that was hit early and hard by the virus, announced the creation of a COVID-19 response fund with $2.5 million in initial funding. With this funding, they will offer one-time operating grants and “provide flexible resources to organizations in our region working with communities who are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus and the economic consequences of this outbreak.”

The Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative says more than 30 similar efforts have started across the country. One of them arose in Tucson, Arizona, with an initial commitment of $10,000. Clint Mabie, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, spoke to the Daily Star about the need to backstop risky fundraising. “Nonprofits have big events planned now throughout the spring,” Mabie says. “We were hearing from many who have had to cancel essential events; it will definitely have a financial impact on our local nonprofits and their ability to serve their clients and we hope to help fill the gap through creation of this fund.”

Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, which is one of the backers of the Seattle fund, described a vision of what these funds might accomplish.

As our community focuses on public health needs during the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s important that we also rally together to address the unmet economic needs developing around us. Our hope is that this new fund will help to strengthen the community’s safety net through this crisis, and we encourage others—including corporate, government and philanthropic sectors—to come together to help those who are most vulnerable.

Good intentions, and a real need. But can philanthropy’s resources meet a need that will last well beyond the immediate crisis? For a community foundation with assets exceeding $1 trillion in a community that’s home to many of the nation’s largest corporations, $10 million seems disappointing.

Fisher thinks government must play a bigger role. “Nonprofits are not typically allowed to get assistance from the Small Business Administration; however, we no longer live in a typical time. If not through the SBA, the federal and state governments need to find a way to help the nonprofit sector through these troubled waters, so that we can continue to help those in need.”—Martin Levine and Ruth McCambridge