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Public Allies Releases Special Report – COVID-19: Impact on Nonprofits

Click to read the full report.

COVID-19 has had an immediate and dramatic impact on the economy, and especially on nonprofit organizations. Given Public Allies’ unique position as an intermediary working with hundreds of nonprofits in communities across the country, we are uniquely positioned to understand how this crisis has affected the nonprofit sector. While there are many other surveys around COVID-19 and the nonprofit sector (we have been reviewing and collecting those results here), we set out to primarily focus on three other questions:

  • Are organizations anticipating an increase in requests for services moving forward because of the economic impact of the crisis? If so, what are the types of services they anticipate being in demand?
  • Do organizations envision needing to deliver services and programming differently going forward? If so, what supports will they need to make that happen?
  • Not including financial support, what resources are needed at this time to help organizations through this crisis.

Key findings from Public Allies’ survey of 320 nonprofit professionals identified the following key findings:

Demand for community organizations’ services are increasing / expected to increase, just as those same organizations are experiencing declining revenue and decreasing staff capacity calling into question the sector’s ability to meet community needs to address this crisis.

This further supports the need for intentional/additional investment in things like The Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, targeted support for non profits, investment in community infrastructure, and financial support for local and state governments that have lost billions in tax revenue as a result of this crisis and make up roughly 30% of nonprofit funding.

Furthermore, these efforts must be designed with equity at the center. We have all heard it said that the coronavirus does not discriminate, but research coming out of Milwaukee, New York and elsewhere is making it clear that people of color and those from lower incomes are disproportionately affected both by COVID-19 and its economic impact. This is not to say anything of the tenuous position America’s younger adults find themselves in, financially unprepared to weather an economic downturn and vulnerable to changes in employment. If we are to meet the needs of the communities most impacted, then we must center our responses around principles of equity, such as PolicyLink’s A Common-Sense, Street-Smart Recovery.

Most immediate needs articulated by partners across our network were opportunities/spaces that support continuous learning and resource sharing across organizations as they adapt quickly to the changing (and incredibly challenging) circumstances all around them.

The COVID-19 crisis quickly forced nonprofits to operate in ways that are new and unfamiliar, with organizations desperately attempting to learn new technology, change methods of service delivery, adapt to managing staff remotely, and operate with less staff capacity, all while dealing with the underlying mental health challenges an event of this magnitude presents. Staff across the sector are overwhelmed trying to figure out new technology, and worried about what comes next. As one respondent stated, “The worry is how COVID-19 will change, forever, how we implement and conduct programs as well as how we work with groups of people within the community and involving them in the work that we do.” Staff are struggling to make this transition, and desperately trying to gain some footing. They are looking for the curation of applicable tips, tools, and resources they can implement to deliver services virtually, and for the opportunity to connect across institutions, places, and/or  issues to learn what is and is not working for others in real-time. 

We also see that as individual staff members, organizations, and communities face unprecedented challenges and changes on multiple fronts simultaneously, there is a strong desire to simply connect with each other to build community, hold space, and support self-care. 

Looking ahead, social distancing and some level of remote program delivery are expected to become the new normal, but the double-sided digital divide poses a barrier to delivery and access.

The lack of technology infrastructure investment in the nonprofit sector is not new, but it is being put under a magnified light given the nature of the COVID-19 crisis. A commitment from funders to support investment in technology infrastructure, along with the training and personnel required to properly implement new solutions, is required.

But as so many respondents highlighted, oftentimes those who most require services do not have access to internet service or a devices with which to connect. According to the FCC, there are 21.3 million Americans without basic broadband access, although PEW Research pegs that number at closer to 33 million. Furthermore, PEW’s research shows there are noticeable differences in internet access based on income, education level, and race. Ensuring there is appropriate policy, funding, and intentionality to continue expanding internet service to all must be a priority.  

COVID-19 is ravaging communities of color and the support systems on which they rely; shining a harsh light on long-standing fault lines in the social safety net across the country.

As noted above, the non-profit sector and localities are facing multiple challenges in addressing the COVID-19 crisis, including: 1) Increased demand for services, 2) decreasing revenue, 3) decreasing staff and volunteer capacity, and 4) antiquated technology infrastructure.  The nonprofit sector exists for the very purpose of being an essential part of a safety net to help community members. For so many not to be able to fully respond in this moment due antiquated technology or a dependence on volunteers because we do not have the funding to staff operations fully, while at the same time major foundations in the United States hold $1 trillion in assets, is a serious call for change being echoed across the sector.  

In many cases, community members are turning to each other and mutual aid to meet their immediate needs. A quick review of Public Allies’ COVID-19 Resources page lists more than 2 dozen mutual aid initiatives across the country, while this list includes over 120 mutual aid networks that sprung up quickly to address the COVID-19 crisis; often building on organizing begun in previous crises. While these mutual aid networks offer powerful examples of community care, their necessity should give the nonprofit sector and its funders reasons to self-reflect and examine why they are needed in the first place.  

It is critical that even while we seek to meet immediate needs on the frontlines of this crisis, we in the non-profit, public and philanthropic sectors also look in the mirror at what underlying conditions, decisions, and under-investments led to these outcomes in the first place.  As we pursue a more just and equitable future, we can’t be satisfied with “going back to normal,” but instead must re-imagine a new more inclusive and equitable normal going forward; something we’ve seen a hunger and appetite for on our recent Virtual Community All-Network calls.  The creativity and innovation happening in communities across the country can and should be harnessed.  Indeed – even as the critical demand for direct service support increases – philanthropy must simultaneously find ways to keep working towards and  investing in systems-change.

Read the full report here.