With the passing of time, some things become so obvious: Hindsight is 20/20. Buying a house in San Francisco in the early 1990s would have been an amazing investment. The person we hired for that position was destined to do great things. Upgrading our technology earlier this year was a good call.
Our understanding and perspective of phenomena or events are vastly improved, maybe even perfect, only after they have happened. This year, 2020, is 20/20 — the year that everything we should have known became obvious.
Of course, some among us already knew these things, and now the rest of us cannot ignore them. They demand new ways of learning, planning, thinking, and doing. They demand action. Let’s start with the following priorities.
1. Centering anti-racism.
For decades, advocates worked to advance racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. It took years of advocacy to mainstream these concepts and to build commitments to advance them. In recent years, equity became a buzzword even as its meaning remained nebulous to many. Addressing racism head-on was almost unheard of.
What’s obvious now: Why were decades of advocacy needed to make this a priority? Why didn’t we go further, more forcefully amidst such blatant racism? Well, we know why, and it’s simple – racism and privilege, including our own. Our organizations need to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, and do much more — we need to center anti-racism in everything we do.
In many ways, the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors serve as patchworks that keep racist systems in place. As Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in The New York Times, “Over and over, Black people have asserted the simple but radical truth of their own humanity and worthiness, and over and over, America has not fully heard them.” This is the moment to hear and respond by centering anti-racism: to interrupt racism by correcting the policies and practices in our organizations and in our society’s systems that are built on and perpetuate entrenched racism that harms Black people and all people of color.
2. Prioritizing mental health and wellness.
Societal awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness continues to grow, and yet prioritizing resources and practices that promote it in workplaces lags behind. This is true in the nonprofit sector, which is staffed by individuals who deliver food, shelter, health care, and other basic services, often with low pay and scant or no benefits, and often with little respect for their work and commitment to the common good. Now, they do this with the added pressures and dangers from the pandemic.
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And our communities are made more vibrant and healthy by those working in the arts, for the environment, and in community development. This work, too, is generally done by staff who are passionate, underpaid, and under-appreciated.
What’s obvious now: The current situation is not fair and it is not sustainable. People working in nonprofits are expected to work for low pay and benefits, in uncomfortable and under-resourced workplaces, and without much respect or appreciation from the general public. In fact, it is common to hear funders and people from the private and government sectors lament the high pay and administrative expenses in nonprofit organizations —despite the fact that both are incredibly low compared with for-profit enterprises — reflecting a gross misunderstanding of what it takes for nonprofits to contribute to healthy communities and economies.
Nonprofit organizations play an essential role in all communities, and often at the expense of the mental health and well-being of the people who work in, volunteer for, and lead them. It is time to prioritize the mental health and wellness of people in nonprofits by recognizing their vital role in communities, by showing them respect, and by funding organizations adequately so they can take care of their workforces.
3. Having a seat at federal, state and local policy tables.
When the scope of the pandemic came into view in March 2020, we heard nonprofit leaders say, “Philanthropy has to step-up.” We agreed and we knew they would, yet noted that philanthropic dollars represent a fraction of dollars that support the safety net system and other nonprofits. After all, the growth of the nonprofit sector in the 1980s and 1990s was the result of increased outsourcing of services by governments.
Today, many nonprofits operate as government contractors, and they are often (not always) constrained by outmoded government resources and regulations.
What’s obvious now: Government has to step-up. Government funding goes where the need is expressed and heard; not simply where the need is, but where an articulated need is heard by those in power. Multi-million and multi-billion dollar businesses getting PPP loans and other bail-outs are an illustration of this point.
Nonprofits need to be at the federal, state, and local policy tables. Government dollars are our dollars, and nonprofits should have a say in where they go and how they are used.
In addition to dollars, we have seen almost immediate regulation changes in response to the pandemic, such as the relaxing of public assistance enrollment requirements to make sure people could get food and the ending of cash bail to protect people’s health. Cuts to red tape and shifts in policies that were thought impossible only just months ago happened almost immediately, which demonstrates that big policy changes are possible. We have to be heard to make them happen.
4. Investing in the organization is emergency preparedness.
Organizations that are weathering the current upheaval were ready for it. Almost no one could have predicted the current situation, but organizations that invested in their leadership, policies, technology, business continuity plans, communications, volunteers, organizational culture, networks, and cash reserves (yes, cash reserves) are doing better. T
hey are shifting services, personnel, and resources, they are responding to rising emergency needs, and they are finding creative ways to serve people and communities.
What’s obvious now: It’s not enough to just get by. It’s not acceptable to put ‘every dollar into services’ as we frequently hear funders and members of board of directors say. We have to educate organizational leaders, funders, donors, community members, government leaders and administrators, and volunteer board members about what it takes to run a nonprofit enterprise, and the importance of ensuring that it has a strong business operation and the resources to invest in itself and in its people.
5. Honoring nonprofits and nonprofit workers as essential.
As one nonprofit staff member said recently, “Not all essential workers are acknowledged as ‘heroes.’ I have not heard or seen any public thank you’s for social workers, residential treatment facility staff, essential service administrators that are working 10-12 hour days, day cares working with a waiver, and so many others that make up the safety net.”
What’s obvious now: Nonprofits are essential to the basic functioning of communities and economies, and to meeting the basic needs of our neighbors, yet they are largely invisible. Where would we be without them?
Food, socialization, arts, the environment, child care, health, education, community and job development, historic institutions, and other pillars of our communities would be out-of-reach, unaddressed, or would collapse without the nonprofits that are meeting those needs now and every day — they were there before the crises of 2020, they responded with creativity and adaptability, and we will continue to need them. So let’s cherish them.
Throughout 2020, we have experienced events that are likely to shift our society and its systems for generations. This is the moment to draw on our wisdom and to shape those shifts so our nonprofits and our communities are healthier, more vibrant, and more just than before.-30-
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