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As nonprofits using the promotora model pivot due to COVID-19, so do their funders

July 13, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


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“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the    circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last year, almost $450 billion was donated to nonprofit organizations. And every funder ultimately wanted an answer to the same question — is my money making a difference? This is particularly so with foundations which gave $75.7 billion, nearly 17 percent of all charitable dollars in 2019.

Measuring impact is the gold standard to determine if a social change organization is living up to its goals and creating value. However, a 2019 report revealed that the majority of nonprofits were struggling to measure the impact of their work.  Even in the best of times, connecting mission to an appropriate metric is extremely difficult.

But these are now the worst of times.

When the pandemic hit, Governor Tom Wolf closed the state. Businesses were shuttered, unemployment soared, normality was upended, the safety net ripped and the stark disparities between the haves and the have-nots was unveiled.  Overnight, many social justice organizations, especially immigrant-focused nonprofits, transformed from grassroots organizing groups to mutual aid societies.

Blanca Pacheco. (Courtesy)

“COVID-19 shed light on the realities that were already there,” said Blanca Pacheco, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. “There were already inequalities. People were already living paycheck to paycheck. People were still unable to meet their basic needs.”

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Before COVID-19, the New Sanctuary Movement was an interfaith, multicultural immigrant justice organization. After COVID-19, it became a human service agency, trying to help its community stay afloat.

Measuring impact gave way to ensuring the survival of people and of the nonprofits themselves.

“The COVID-19 crisis has created struggles for many nonprofit organizations internally,” said Jennifer Leith, executive director of The Alfred and Mary Douty Foundation, “while at the same time requiring them to pivot into areas where they don’t usually operate — such as food distribution, translation of pandemic-related materials, rent stabilization work and academic support for local students — because they are the trusted entity in their community.”

“We want to support these organizations’ financial needs as they take on new approaches to their general operations,” Leith added.

And the financial need is critical.

Before COVID-19, Pennsylvania foundations funded a robust nonprofit sector. Some 6,500 Pennsylvania foundations with combined assets of $35 billion gave statewide social service organization almost $3 billion dollars in 2015, the latest data available. The money was used to provide education, human service, health, as well as arts and cultural programming, according to the  Pennsylvania Foundation Center. Another $1.3 billion was received from non-Pennsylvania foundations which awarded a total of 48,000 grants.

But within the first three weeks of the state shutdown, the Pennsylvania Association of Non-Profit Organizations (PANO) announced that 81 percent of the 190 nonprofit organizations they surveyed were significantly impacted by the COVID-19. Collectively, they had seen $3 million in increased expenses. Also about 9,600 staffers were expecting reductions and over 800,000 clients were expecting reductions in service.

The national numbers are no better with about 33 percent of nonprofits predicting closure within the year. Less than 30 percent of foundation funding goes to nonprofits’ general operating support, which leaves an organization undercapitalized and at risk at times of crisis.

Most hard hit are immigrant-serving nonprofits, especially those that specialized in grassroots organizing. Organizations such as Puentes de Salud and the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.

It isn’t a matter of impact.

Pacheco said the promotora model is highly effective because it is a culturally sensitive grassroots organizing model that Latin American immigrants carried with them from their native countries. Promotoras form a front-line outreach team to help vulnerable populations deal with systems-level barriers. It employs local residents, who understand the culture of the community, and has them build trust relationships with residents as they connect them to health care, support services, education or advocacy.

The New Sanctuary Movement uses promotores (spelled with an “e” to indicate gender inclusivity) as bridges of communication between their congregation and immigrant membership, while Puentes de Salud uses promotoras in the more traditional role as community health workers. They work as part of the patient care team, providing peer-to-peer support for lifestyle changes which yield better health outcomes than the Western healthcare model.

It’s a matter of injustice.

Latinx social justice organizations have largely been left out of philanthropic largesse.

Candid, a nonprofit research firm that tracks donations, conducted a survey between 2011 and 2015 that showed only 1% of major-foundation grants go to organizations that support immigrants and refugees, even though they make up nearly 14% of the population. Nationally, according to Candid, the international philanthropic response to the COVID-19 pandemic has totaled more than $10 billion. But by Candid’s calculations, only 3% of the pandemic-related  funding has been awarded to organizations with a minority focus.

Locally, one of the most well-known pandemic relief funds is the PHL COVID-19 Fund which last week announced its seventh round of relief funding awarding $2.1 million to 80 nonprofits. The Fund was launched on March 19 and is led by the Philadelphia Foundation and United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey (UWGPSNJ). In total, the Fund has awarded 548 grants totaling $17.5 million.

The National Center for Responsive Philanthropy said that much of the funding for immigrant groups has been limited to a small group of founder allies like the Douty Foundation in Philadelphia.

Jennifer Leith. (Courtesy)

Leith said that the Douty Foundation has been spurred on, both by its half-century of making grants and by the pandemic, to rethink its giving model.

Founded in 1968 by Mary and Alfred Douty, the couple wanted to support education and organizations that lacked resources in both Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. But the Doutys were also looking for organizations that would make an impact. “Fifty years later we were trying to determine what the next chapter would look like, and we were having conversations about ‘what should the Douty Foundation do next? Did it need to exist into perpetuity?’ And then COVID hit,” Leith said.

For Leith and her board of directors the pandemic changed everything. Leith is moving the Douty Foundation into an urgent pandemic-driven discussion about philanthropy: “This is not the moment to settle on typical philanthropic practice.”

Douty joins the Council on Foundations, National Center for Responsive Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations in pushing the philanthropic sector to go beyond giving the legally mandated five percent of assets.

“The assets of a foundation are not just the dollars that comprise its investment portfolio,” she said. “The assets are the people and communities that our funds support. If ever there was a time to step up giving and tap into endowments, this is it.”

The Patriotic Millionaires, a group of more than 260 wealthy donors, is asking Congress to double the 5% minimum that the nation’s foundations are required to donate each year.  The group estimates that this would pump an additional $200 billion annually in charitable giving. The group is also advocating that the change covers the 700,000 donor-advised funds and the 86,000 family foundations.

What the Douty Foundation ultimately decided in April ,was to release $1.5 million, 23% of their endowment, to make three $500,000 grants in light of the problem.

“In this moment, all nonprofit organizations need more funding,” Leith said. “In particular, organizations that are inclusive of those who enable our economy to produce while being excluded from its relief programs and rewards need extra support.”

In addition to the nonprofits in its grantmaking portfolio, Douty is also providing $1 million in equal amounts to two local relief funds, the Philadelphia Worker Relief Fund and the PA Immigrant Relief Fund, to help them continue providing rental assistance and cash support for workers — including the city’s large population of undocumented immigrants, left out of the federal stimulus and unemployment compensation programs.

“While we will aid some workers in the short-term through these two relief funds, there is a long-term opportunity for leadership and action in all sectors — philanthropy, government, corporate and nonprofit — to reimagine our economic system to affirm the value of all of our workers, families and communities. We need action on universal benefits like paid sick days and access to healthcare, and childcare, in addition to immigration reform and a living wage,” Leith said.

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