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By mid-March of 2020, it was clear that nonprofits in the U.S. would be tested as they had not been in at least a generation. They rose to the challenge, and then some, which should be a cause for celebration.
However, this performance was ultimately rewarded with a decline in the public’s trust — a fact which should concern every donor and every foundation and nonprofit staff member. This twin reality of both amazing work by nonprofits and a decline in trust is, to me, the most significant and confounding development for the nonprofit sector since the onset of the pandemic.
Let’s step back and remember what happened when COVID-19 hit us, when nonprofits across fields and geographies had to rise to previously unimaginable challenges. Nonprofits providing health services were on the front lines of a pandemic the likes of which the world hadn’t seen in a century.
Organizations that had never served meals found themselves suddenly doing so when their clients showed up desperate because they’d been furloughed or fired and couldn’t put food on the table. Those whose historic mission actually was to feed the hungry found themselves looking out at miles-long lines of cars. Agencies serving young people tried to help them stay connected and avoid depression and despair as they spent day after day in their rooms, online, in virtual school. Arts and culture organizations were shuttered but got creative, with virtual and outdoor performances.
Up was down and down was up. Earned revenue, ever touted as the key to “sustainability,” turned out to be a source of great financial vulnerability in the wake of the pandemic as nonprofits dependent on ticket sales and admission fees saw revenues evaporate. In an unexpected twist, nonprofits that were heavily dependent on foundation funding were, in fact, the most “sustainable” in pandemic times.
Amid all the challenges, nonprofit leaders and their staff showed tremendous resilience and creativity. “While the crisis has underscored the importance of organizations whose missions relate to health, unemployment, or poverty,” researchers Aaron Horvath and Jan Lin wrote in The Boston Review in May 2020 after studying 800 nonprofits’ early responses to the pandemic, “other kinds of organizations — museums, garden clubs, choirs, PTAs, fraternal societies, sports leagues, and so on — have had to find ways to repurpose their resources, either wholly or in part, to fit the times.”
The researchers went on to applaud the creativity and adaptability of those organizations, noting that, “Nonprofits have proven to be critical links in the nation’s public health infrastructure, activated in a moment of crisis to perform duties outside the scope of their founding mandates.”
Despite the multitude of highly visible and crucial roles they were serving, a survey CEP conducted in May 2020 showed the degree to which nonprofits were planning to take drastic actions in order to survive, such as cutting staff and tapping reserves. Ultimately, as we reported roughly a year later, fewer had to resort to these steps than feared, thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program as well as stepped up philanthropic giving, especially from foundations. But nonprofits themselves should also be given credit for their hustle in raising money and asking for what they needed.
Read the full article about nonprofit heroism and trust by Phil Buchanan at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.