Nonprofits have saved us. Now let’s save them.

Thoughts & Opinions | Mar 2021

Nonprofits have saved us. Now let’s save them.

Thoughts & Opinions | Mar 2021

By Danielle Foreman

Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle

One year after the Bay Area initially shut down, Koret’s director of programs, Danielle Foreman, reflects on the impact of our community’s nonprofit sector, as well as its future.

As we mark a year of life under lockdown, Americans are reflecting on COVID-19’s devastating toll: a year of loss, closures and anxiety. But if you know where to look, it has also been a year of innovation, ingenuity and resiliency. In the Bay Area and across the country, nonprofits and community organizations have stepped up as never before, plugging the holes in our lives created by the pandemic. Now, with the end in sight, it’s time to ensure they too are able to weather the storm and reemerge stronger than ever in a world after COVID-19.

The nonprofit sector was far from immune to the pandemic’s devastating economic effects. Organizations were hit hard, losing the ability to generate earned revenue; unable to host annual fundraising events; and starved of government funding as states and municipalities turned their attention to more pressing matters. As a result, nonprofits’ revenues took a nosedive, forcing massive staff layoffs and deep cuts to programs and services.

Despite all this, the nonprofit sector shined during the pandemic, filling gaps in social services, education, community connections and culture. In the Bay Area, for example, the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco, San Francisco YMCA, San Francisco Parks and Recreation and other neighborhood youth centers suddenly found themselves providing not just after-school programs, but essential support for vulnerable families. These organizations, in partnership with the city’s Community Hub Initiative have helped provide food, essential childcare, academic and social-emotional care for students from low-income neighborhoods throughout the crisis.

And to combat the acute social isolation that came from the closures and social distance requirements, community organizations have stepped up to provide a sense of togetherness and solidarity — if only from afar. Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Meals on Wheels delivered thousands of meals daily to elderly and homebound adults across the Bay Area who are struggling with loneliness and food insecurity. Other food banks increased their capacity, catering to immediate and soaring demand while also radically adjusting their models by shifting to outdoor dining spaces serving free meals, drive-through food pantries, contactless deliveries and more. Glide and St. Anthony’s expanded services to distribute hygiene supplies and provide COVID testing and other supportive services.

Nonprofit leadership has proved itself especially nimble throughout the pandemic. Necessity is the mother of invention, and leaders have found themselves making difficult decisions in the face of grave uncertainty, taking leaps they otherwise never might have. For example, the San Francisco Symphony recognized early that the future of audience engagement and development required a serious investment in digital infrastructure, so it launched a new at-home streaming service, SFSymphony+. Other major arts institutions, like the Asian Art Museum, de Young, ACT and the SF Opera, also dove into digital content while expanding their education programs by connecting out-of-work artists and musicians with students online. These innovations, though necessitated by the pandemic, are likely to outlive it.

None of these services and programs would have been possible without the philanthropic community’s willingness to extend its generosity, stepping up giving to unprecedented levels throughout the pandemic. Unlike most economic downturns, which usually cause sharp declines in philanthropic giving, the pandemic created a collective sense of social responsibility and pushed donors to think more flexibly about giving. Philanthropies locally and across the country developed and contributed to pooled giving funds, lifted gift restrictions, and fulfilled pledges at higher rates than in previous years, according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and Candid.

Even as restrictions are lifted and we begin to return to a greater sense of normalcy, nonprofits will be in recovery mode for years to come. Demand for services will remain high; hiring back laid-off staff and reinstating programs that have been cut will take time. Funders should think long-term about pandemic response and recovery, identify the nonprofits reaching communities most affected by this year’s events, and commit significant resources to ensure nonprofits can take the time needed to rebuild. Sustained philanthropic investment will be essential, otherwise COVID-19 risks becoming a black hole that some of our most vital community organizations can’t crawl out of.

We are all ready for a post-pandemic life, when we can send our kids safely back to school, enjoy the arts and culture scene again, and return to participating fully in our communities. But we can’t forget the nonprofits that served the Bay Area community in its hour of need. They were there for us; now we must commit to being there for them, too.