[Adapted from an original article that appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on March 9, 2020.]

Tacoma Community House has been helping immigrants and refugees thrive since 1910. For more than 3,200 clients a year from 115 countries of origin, they are a lifeline and a family. They are also less than an hour’s drive away from Kirkland, Wash., the center of the first cluster of Covid-19 cases in the United States.

When I called this week to check in with its leader, Lauren Walker Lee, she was steadfast in the face of a threat that has led many others to panic.

“We have served our community for 110 years, and we will be here for the next 110. We serve everyone with the same dignity and respect and do not discriminate based on where someone is from.”

Organizations like Tacoma Community House and leaders like Lauren are the fabric our social safety net is woven from and will be essential parts of how we get through this public health crisis. But they operate in a flawed funding system that does not cover the full cost of services and places crippling restrictions on how they can use the funding they receive. As a result, too many lack adequate financial reserves or the flexibility to navigate the disruption that this health crisis could bring.

Donors need to act now to ensure these organizations can not only help us through the crisis but also be in a position to rebuild our communities in the future.

Direct funding to support coronavirus response and research is only one part of what’s needed.  We also need to consider the impact the crisis could have on our communities and the nonprofits that serve them. The ability of organizations to weather other recent crises, such as the temporary abandonment of downtown Manhattan after the 2001 terrorism attacks or donation drops after the 2008-9 financial crisis, provide limited lessons. In this case, service and revenue disruptions could persist much longer and cover entire regions.

Cash on Hand

Any prolonged moves to limit social interaction will threaten the survival of nonprofit social-service groups. Half of these organizations have three months or less of cash in hand to cover expenses. Many are cancelling fundraising events (Tacoma Community House is postponing its annual event that usually brings in $100,000 for programs). Child-care centers like Head Start that rely on government contracts that pay only after proof of daily attendance will risk losing that funding. So too will elder-care organizations, job-training programs, and meal-delivery services. And theaters and museums will lose the ticket revenue they rely on.

Others will face increases in demand for services without the accompanying revenue that for-profit businesses could charge. Parents of children no longer receiving free meals in schools that are shut down will turn to food banks. And free health clinics will struggle to manage increased patient loads.

The burden of both lost wages and high-risk, unremunerated extra work will be borne disproportionately by the women of color who make up the bulk of the frontline workforce in many social-service groups. And many of those organizations are not equipped for remote work or capable of delivering a full range of client services remotely.

Already organizations are telling my team they’re seeing unexpected reductions in client, patient, and patron traffic. What is now a stress could become an existential threat to many organizations.

Action From Donors

So, what can donors do to support these organizations now and create the conditions in which more can get through this crisis and bounce back to play the role we will need them to in the recovery?

Check in with the organizations you support. Thank them for the essential work they do. Recognize the pressures they are under. Mutual trust and respect are the basis for improving how well we all turn donations into results for our communities. This is a great opportunity to build that trusting relationship.

Maintain or increase funding levels. I know a drop in the stock market is scary but your support during this crisis will be essential to allow the organizations on the front lines, and their dedicated staff, to survive. The stock market will rebound. The organizations, staff, and communities they serve might not rebound without your support.

Think about “safety net” organizations. All organizations are going to be impacted by this perfect storm. Even if your giving is focused in areas such as the arts or education, think about the safety net organizations (community health clinics, food banks, community-based organizations serving vulnerable populations) and add them to your giving plan if you can.

(If you are able) volunteer. Blood banks, food banks, and many other critical components of our social safety net are heavily reliant on volunteers, many of whom won’t be able to show up in the wake of this virus. Find ways to contribute beyond dollars if you can – remote data entry and other help might be in need as well.

Find ways to support the staff. The heart of every organization is its people, and those in nonprofits serving communities were overworked, underpaid, and under-recognized before this crisis hit. Consider small acts of kindness for those working so hard for our communities. I remember seeing a large flower arrangement with a beautiful note of support in the lobby of a Jewish community center following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018; the flowers became a daily reminder for all who were there working or visiting that they were recognized and valued.

Contribute to coordinated community efforts. Many places have developed rapid-response funds and other mechanisms to aggregate and disburse funding in strategic ways. Community foundations such as Seattle Foundation and Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, and others are leading to move money where it is most needed. After 9-11, my organization, Nonprofit Finance Fund, set up the New York Recovery Fund which eventually helped 700 local nonprofits get the rapid funding they needed to make up for losses and get through. We can build on this and similar experiences for collaborative funding now.

While we do not know how bad this will be, we have the advantage we lacked in other crises of being able to plan in advance. Now is the time for us to step up.

Tacoma Community House and other nonprofit service groups across the country will be an essential part of how we get through this crisis as they have been for the crises that preceded this one. Donors can take action now to help them ameliorate the pain this latest crisis will inflict and to set them up to accelerate our communities’ recovery.


By Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund. For more information, contact info@nff.org.