A few things for nonprofits and foundations to consider in light of the Coronavirus

[Image description: An adorable red panda, staring at the camera. I was looking at pictures of the coronavirus, and even though it would be more relevant for this post, it is nowhere near as cute as this red panda. Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. I know many of you have COVID-19 on your mind. I live in Washington State, where there have been multiple deaths from the virus. Nonprofits have been canceling events, and many companies and organizations are having staff work from home.

We all need to take this virus seriously. Many of you are still in denial. Wash your hands regularly, clean and disinfect surfaces, cancel events if you need to, allow staff to work from home, and use extra precautions if you work with older adult volunteer or clients. Also, check out this catchy and delightful song and video from Vietnam’s health department.

If you are looking for information to learn and to pass along to your community, here’s the WHO website, and also the CDC Foundation. Here are some great recommendations from Washington Nonprofits on talking to your team and planning a response.

While we continue to work to contain infections and prevent panic, there are many things we also need to think about. The virus reveals several of the weaknesses of our sector and our society, shedding light on things we need to get a better grasp on. Let us use this opportunity to learn and strengthen our work. Thank you to various colleagues for bringing up these critical points for nonprofits and foundations to consider:

We need extra support and assurance from funders: Nonprofits are having to do extra work in response to this virus, on top of all their regular responsibilities, and with the risk of funding being jeopardized due to canceled events and programs. Foundations, now is a good time to reassure grantees that you got our backs, by relaxing your expectations on outcomes and timelines, providing rapid response funding, and not withdrawing your sponsorships and grants for postponed or canceled events and programs.

We need to end the nonprofit starvation cycle: Nonprofits are put into difficult situations: Continue forward with fundraising events and risk spreading the virus, or cancel them and not have enough funding to provide vital services, which may also cost lives. Decades of chronic underinvestment from funders have been leading to these terrible choices. The funding philosophies and practices that have been defaults in our sector have perpetuated a scarcity mindset and constricted our abilities to do effective work. Foundations, you need to change your entire way of doing things.

We need stronger advocacy on safety nets: While many of us are lucky to be employed by supportive organizations that allow us to work from home, there are millions in society who cannot. They don’t have sick leave. They may get fired if they take time off. They depend on tips. Etc. It puts everyone at risk because people are at work when they shouldn’t be, but society gives them few options. Unfortunately so much of nonprofit work has been responding to the failures of crappy systems instead of rallying to change them. We need to invest significantly more time into advocacy for such things as universal healthcare, paid sick leave, increased minimum wage, etc. There is still so much misinformation and ignorance, with many people still believing nonprofits cannot or should not do lobbying or advocacy work.

More funding needs to go to intermediary organizations: State associations and capacity building organizations play vital roles in connecting nonprofits, disseminating timely information, and leading collective actions, all essential during crises like potential pandemics. And yet these organizations are constantly fighting for survival as funders and donors gravitate toward missions that are easier to explain or tug at heartstrings more. Looking at the responses to COVID-19, it’s clear many of us are uncoordinated and uncertain. We have to strengthen how we are organized, and this includes understanding the crucial roles intermediary organizations play. Funders need to fund them, and nonprofits should join as members.  

We need to address ableism and inaccessibility: The virus has revealed just how pervasive ableism is. This is something I am just starting to learn myself. We waffle and push back when disabled people request technology that would allow them to participate remotely, citing the lack of resources etc., and now that everyone has to work from home, those things magically become available. There are still many of us who use insensitive, ableist language. We all need to be more thoughtful in what we say and the recommendations we make. Here’s a great article to read: “5 Things to Know About Coronavirus and People with Disabilities.” These are issues that go beyond the Coronavirus; we need to do better.

We need to improve in emergency and disaster preparedness: Let’s be honest, most nonprofits suck at emergency preparedness. We don’t have time to think about it, we don’t have the energy, and we have plenty of figurative fires to put out without also having to worry about literal fires. But the coronavirus is not the first and won’t be the last crisis we face. So let’s do a better job proactively preparing for all emergencies. Here’s a helpful article with lots of good resources. Funders, meanwhile, you need to encourage nonprofits to be prepared for emergencies, by funding emergency preparation and by allowing for reserved funding to be stored by nonprofits to deal with crises.

We need to be aware of and take public stances against racism: The virus is fueling racism and violence against Asian people. Asian restaurants and other businesses have been suffering and will continue to do so in the coming months. In your messages to your constituents reminding them to wash their hands and take care of themselves, please also dispel racist misconceptions about this virus. Be clear and public about it.

I know there are other things to think about. Please jot down your thoughts in the comment section. The following weeks are going to test all of us. We will have to do things differently and more thoughtfully. Not just washing our hands and stocking up on emergency supplies, but also think about how we are operating as a sector and how we can shore up some of our weak areas.

Quick announcement:

This Thursday, March 12th, is my birthday. Which means it is time for shameless requests for money and other things! If you like this blog, please consider making a donation to my former nonprofit, RVC, which I just left. It supports dozens of organizations led by and serving communities of color, while training cohorts of strong leaders of color. Even though I’m no longer the ED there, it’s still my baby and I strongly believe in it and I drop by from time to time to steal snacks.

Also, if anything I’ve written or said has affected the way you or your organization or foundation has done something differently, please take a quick minute and write about it in the comment section. Sometimes, I have no idea if any of my ramblings has an effect out in the real world, and for my birthday I would really love some feedback. Thank you for reading NAF, and for all you do.