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The social sector can’t let the COVID crisis go to waste

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“The social sector can’t let the COVID crisis go to waste” is reprinted from the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Natural disasters birth new communities out of the rubble of the old. After earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, people have no choice but to reimagine the structures of society. Historians have shown that instead of chaos and vandalism, disasters often lead to widespread acts of compassion, mutual aid, and a visceral sense of community. When confronted with disaster, people will create what author Rebecca Solnit calls a “paradise built in hell.”

The novel coronavirus is a slow-motion disaster, one cast with a peculiar uncertainty. It is hard to act and harder to plan. We can track case counts and market swings by the minute, but we don’t know if we will be back at work or school a year from now.

Through it all, our sense of time is thrown off. Is this a moment for speed or for patience? The pandemic has left the world of nonprofits and charitable giving with acute challenges and difficult questions. Does our nonprofit lay off staff now to save our organization’s future? Should our foundation draw more from our endowment to increase current grantmaking? Should we shift our organization’s strategy to focus on immediate needs or continue our long-term plans?

Each of these is a question about time during a period when many organizations can’t let the COVID crisis go to waste: Most American nonprofits have only enough liquidity to maintain operations for a few months.

4 guiding principles

As nonprofits struggle to address rising need, the “5 Rs” framework from the field of disaster response offers lessons that might help the nonprofit world think about how to act, plan, and even build. The most immediate needs are Rescue (save the person trapped in the rubble) and Relief (give shelter to the family that lost its home). In the medium term, attention shifts to Recovery (find temporary housing) and Rebuilding (re-create what was lost). The last step is building Resilience (ensure the resources are in place for the next calamity).

The 5 Rs provide more than an elegant organizational framework. The different stages evoke the emotional challenges felt by people facing a disaster—raw fear, endless logistics, and an uncertain future.

Everyone working in philanthropy and at nonprofits need to adopt a similarly thoughtful approach to addressing the coronavirus disaster. As we wrestle with how and when to act, let me propose four principles to guide us through the uncertain months ahead.

All time horizons for social good are moral. The argument between addressing immediate symptoms and structural causes can fall into a game of moral one-upmanship. Some insist that it is immoral to ignore immediate suffering. Others argue that it is immoral to ignore underlying causes.

In reality, all time horizons of action for social good are moral. Each one is an expression of the best impulses of the human spirit. We gain nothing by disparaging the good act of another just because it operates on days instead of years, or years instead of days. Your personal inclination may be to focus on the long term. (Mine is.) But we must honor those who focus on the needs right in front of us. And the converse is just as true.

Social good involves an interplay of time horizons. The world is complex. Social change operates at varying rates. Any serious effort to make a better world must recognize the interplay of the immediate and the lasting. A crisis-driven innovation at a food bank might offer an insight for future planning. A deep dive into long-term causes might reveal how to help right now.

Our challenge in the nonprofit world is to find the right balance of funds and attention across these time horizons. In the middle of a disaster, donors and nonprofits may choose to focus on immediate needs. As the dust settles, we have a chance to shift our thinking to the longer term. And let’s remember that we are not acting alone. Together, we can offer a range of time frames that balance current and future needs.

This is not a rainy day; it is a cyclone. Over the last 20 years, America’s nonprofits have added about $2 trillion to their collective net assets. Those resources are concentrated in a subset of nonprofits and foundations that justified savings as preparation for “a rainy day.” That foresight made them stronger. Now that the thunderclouds are bursting, it is time to use that strength.

Individual organizations should be free to choose how they allocate their resources. But they must make those choices in the context of the chaos around us, not the equilibrium they’ve come to expect. Organizations with greater resources have a greater responsibility—not just for themselves but for their communities.

This moment offers the potential for transformation. In times of equilibrium, our institutions preserve the status quo. This is not a time of equilibrium. The flux around us offers a chance to rearrange and reimagine, to fix the problems we’ve long seen.

Organizations are already stepping into the breach. Nonprofits are transforming their operations—because they must. Donors are offering flexibility to their grantees—because anything less would be unthinkable. Nonprofit leaders working on nearly every cause are opening themselves to new forms of partnership and leadership structure—because they have no choice. This crisis cannot go to waste; now is our chance to repair what has long been broken. This is our chance to build that paradise out of hell.


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