In this Time of Crisis, Our Sector Shows It’s Essential

Andrew Wolk
Apr 6, 2020

A little over a year ago, I wrote, “I cannot help but believe that nonprofits, philanthropy, and government can harness all our good work as a major force to help bridge this divisiveness and advance the country through the twenty-first century.”

The outbreak of COVID-19 is beginning to show just how true a statement that is.

Yes, I’ve been writing regularly about the dysfunctions of what I (and others) call the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. Over the decades, we haven’t created as much population-level progress along the Pathway to Lifelong Success as we should have. But at moments like this, the best of what we do comes into plain sight.

Across the country, the COVID-19 crisis is revealing that programs our sector has created are essential, the first line of defense for people who have long been the most vulnerable.

Right now, it’s critically important that these programs be fully funded by government and philanthropy to ensure people are fed, housed, and safe.

Let me give you just a few examples from the Boston area, where I am sheltering in place.

First, there’s the Cambridge-based Food for Free organization, which when there’s no pandemic helps feed more than 30,000 people each year through its Food Rescue and Distribution program; brings food to low-income seniors and people with disabilities through its Home Delivery program; repackages rescued food from university and corporate dining halls and delivers heat-and-eat meals to families, and sends school kids at risk for hunger home with healthy food for the weekends.

Much like a manufacturing company that in times like these might change what it produces and shift to much-needed hospital supplies, the coronavirus pandemic has shown the value of Food for Free’s established food collection and distribution channels and its thriving network of volunteers. Food for Free responded to the crisis by partnering with the city governments in Cambridge and neighboring Somerville to bring food to thousands of seniors and other people sheltering in place and who are literally unable to leave their homes.

Then there’s Boston Cares, New England’s largest volunteer agency, which for years has been filling more than 25,000 volunteer spots annually to support nonprofit agencies in the greater Boston area. As the pandemic crisis began to unfold, Boston Cares first figured out how to change its programming so it could create opportunities for volunteering alone or virtually, to respect social distancing. Then the organization launched an appeal for new volunteers it promised to train and place and began to figure out just where volunteers would be most needed.

Now, while schools are closed, Boston Cares is utilizing its volunteer system to find, train, and place volunteers to provide breakfast and lunch to the 54,000 students at schools across the city, where nearly three-quarters live at or below the poverty line, are at risk of going hungry and rely on these two meals Mondays through Fridays.

Another example in Massachusetts is JRI, which provides 24/7 care to about 500 kids on behalf of the state’s Department of Youth Services. It also serves another 20,000 Massachusetts families with home visits to ensure at-risk children are safe. The pandemic makes the usual home visits impossible, and so the organization has shifted to telephone appointments.

These are but a few examples of what is essential across the United States. Keeping these important programs going requires ensuring their funding continues to flow.

In Massachusetts, we got some very good news on March 31. Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order that applies to all nonprofit social service providers and provides supplemental payments and new funding mechanisms, all aimed at extending “critical financial support” to providers “facing extraordinary demand” due to the pandemic but that “have lost significant revenue.” We need to push for similar victories across the country.

Along with the government, philanthropy also has a role to play here. Tell all your grantees that you will maintain your giving for an extended period while tapping into your endowments to provide support for programs on the front lines. For those with influence, use it with state and local governments to pass measures similar to the one in Massachusetts.

Right now, let’s use our resources—be it money, influence, or time—to make sure the coronavirus doesn’t leave an entire group of victims in its wake.

But let’s not stop there. In the same blog post quoted above, I continued, “Together, nonprofits, philanthropy, and government can ensure that more people receive a better education, secure a good-paying job, and so on, while doing so our work must also reduce disparities based on race, class, gender, or geography.” As we emerge from the crisis, we have an opportunity to set new priorities and push for new ways of working between the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. This crisis reveals what is truly essential not only at one given moment in time, but for getting and keeping people on a pathway to lifelong success. Even before COVID-19 is just a memory, our sector should already be organized around demanding more so we can take what we are now learning about what is truly essential and use that knowledge to push forward on making population-level progress for people across the United States.