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Beyond the usual suspects: Supporting community-based nonprofits in a time of crisis

By Phil Buchanan
February 18, 2021

Young girl gives a mature woman a high five as they volunteer together during a neighborhood cleanup day.

Reprinted from the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

As the country endures a period of division in which both elected leaders and regular citizens traffic in lies and conspiracy theories and seek to undermine democracy, the question of philanthropy’s role in charting a better future is crucial. The need for unprecedented levels of giving from both endowed foundations and individuals is clear. That didn’t end when 2020 ended.

After all, even with the inauguration of a new presidential administration last month, we face existential threats to our democratic systems in this country. The role of independent, mission-driven nonprofit actors could not be more important. We need to be encouraging donors to be digging deep to support them.

In the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, I wrote here about philanthropy’s role in this country’s next chapter. I encouraged foundations and individual donors to 1) support grassroots efforts to strengthen democracy; 2) give up resources and power; 3) break out of the bubble in which too many of us reside; 4) center racial equity, no matter the issue you’re working on; and 5) build on moments of hope. In a subsequent post, I argued that foundations and donors need to be better listeners (which is part of breaking out of the bubble), and that this is essential to effectiveness right now—and in the long term.

As we do all this, let’s remember that this work isn’t just about well-known national organizations—from those countering voter suppression to those advocating for action on climate change. Their work is vital, yes, but we must also not forget about the diverse array of community-based organizations in every state that are too often overlooked but provide vital information, connection, and opportunity to those they serve. Indeed, so many organizations like these have risen to the moment in the past year.

Last May, researchers Aaron Horvath and Jean Lin described their study of how 800 diverse nonprofits had responded to the pandemic. “While the crisis has underscored the importance of organizations whose missions relate to health, unemployment, or poverty,” they wrote, “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.” Horvath and Lin went on to applaud the creativity and adaption of those organizations.

They also noted that many Americans view government actors with skepticism and that, “when in doubt, people are turning to the organizations they trust, and these organizations are helping to translate, elaborate, amplify, and, when necessary, counteract the information their communities are encountering. 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.”

CEP reported last spring on the challenges facing nonprofits, especially those serving historically disadvantaged populations, during the pandemic. The data revealed that, “while COVID-19 has had devastating impacts on nonprofits, the negative impacts have been magnified for nonprofits that provide direct services and serve historically disadvantaged communities,” my colleagues Hannah Martin, Ellie Buteau, and Kate Gehling wrote. We have just fielded another survey to CEP’s nationally representative Grantee Voice Panel to understand the challenges nonprofit organizations face now, as we approach the one-year mark of the pandemic’s major impact in the U.S. Findings from this research will be released this spring.

Meantime, community-based organizations have been doing amazing work. I have written about some of those organizations here in the weeks and months after the pandemic began: folks like the staff at Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services in Houston, which has had to reimagine the way it provides services to the vulnerable people it serves; or World Relief Seattle, which saw its client population of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers decimated by job losses in the hospitality industry.

Organizations like these and so many others continue their work under incredibly trying conditions. Their work is exhausting and not getting easier as the pandemic rages on.

Nonprofits—supported by philanthropy—have in many cases during this time of crisis been the thread holding communities together. Their staff have been the heroes helping those who have been left behind and disregarded by government policies and inaction. While it’s easy to understand the ways in which nonprofits help that are tangible and direct, it’s also important to remember their role in fostering connection, independence, and freedom.

The importance of community-rooted and often small organizations is, in my experience, too frequently underappreciated by big donors in particular. Indeed, these organizations can be overlooked when we think about national crises and threats to our democratic institutions. This is true in the U.S. and also around the world. In Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution in Egypt and Beyond, a deeply researched and insightful book by Catherine Herrold of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Herrold describes how, in Egypt, it has often been organizations whose missions did not appear overtly related to the promotion of democracy that made the greatest difference in fostering incremental progress toward greater freedom.

While Herrold’s book, published last year, is in many ways a critique of the top-down approach that has characterized both U.S. foreign aid and some “big philanthropy,” it is also a stirring reminder of the value of organizations that are closest to the regular people who make up communities and are trying to make ends meet. Donors seeking to promote democracy, Herrold argues, should “look beyond the usual suspects as grantees and seek a wider range of views and insights from people across geographical, socioeconomic, religious and cultural communities.” Such advice resonates from Egypt to Europe and from East Hartford, Connecticut to Elyria, Ohio.

In this country, the sheer number of nonprofits—more than 1.5 million—is often pointed to by critics as a sign of waste, duplication, and inefficiency. Self-styled reformers and “venture philanthropists” call for mergers, lament that some organizations are ineffective, and speak of scale as the answer. Others see philanthropy as nothing but a band-aid or, worse, a cynical ruse intended to distract us from corporate wrongdoing, obscene wealth accumulation, and the failings of government. There can be truth in these critiques, but they are not generally true nor a fair depiction of the vital role of American nonprofits, supported by philanthropy.

What, then, to do? Individual donors can turn to their local community foundations, many of which have played crucial roles in this time, for help identifying organizations to support. Private foundations can make sure they’re listening to folks in the communities they seek to help, including intended beneficiaries, current grantees, and also declined applicants. They can also support intermediaries and pooled funds that may be more closely connected to certain communities than they are. And everyone can dig deep to give at a level that is commensurate with the scale of our challenges.

In fact, supporting nonprofits in this time should be nothing less than a national priority and a constant source of discussion among all of us who care about the future of this country. My hope is that this conversation can happen with the recognition that it is often unsung, community-based nonprofits that are doing the real work of weaving the fabric of our society together.

Tags: Foundations and grantmaking; Social sector