Whether you are enjoying time off or working through the busy year-end, we want to highlight some of our best articles from the past year that you will find relevant to your work in 2021.
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Whether you are enjoying time off or working through the busy year-end, we want to highlight some of our best articles from the past year that you will find relevant to your work in 2021.
The program, called Thrive East of the River, was counter to the way the group and so many like it work — mostly parceling out goods and services to clients. The new approach assumes that individuals can best determine what their needs are and solve their own problems. It moves the decision-making power from the professionalized nonprofit to the individual.
“We were really hoping that it could be catalytic,” says George Jones, Bread for the City’s CEO. “It wasn’t going to allow people to get out of poverty, but we still thought it was a robust enough amount of support that people could do a variety of things that might really change the trajectory of how they’re being impacted by the pandemic.”
Jones hopes that the approach of giving direct cash may one day expand to encompass reparations to African Americans and universal basic income, ideas that were once at the fringe that have moved closer to the center of debate.
Direct cash giving is a big shift — one that could have profound repercussions for the organization.
Bread for the City exists to provide basic goods and services for people in need. If people receive cash, they may no longer need the services the group provides. The employees who provide those services might no longer be needed or may have to do something else if cash transfers become a bigger part of the way the group operates.
Jones says that his group may be enacting the old nonprofit adage that its goal is to put itself out of business. Nonetheless, he says, he and other senior leaders are enthusiastic about the idea, particularly the way it gives people the power to come up with their own solutions.
“A lot of people talk about 2020 as a year they rue, a year to get over,” Jones says. “But in a lot of ways, we have seen some really amazing things happen.”
This year has been a time of tumultuous change and uncertainty. Shutdown orders to prevent the spread of Covid-19 forced many nonprofits to close their doors and move services online. The recession is squeezing charities sometimes to the breaking point.
Yet some groups see opportunity. The pandemic, recession, and demands for racial justice have thrown into sharp relief economic and racial inequality and structural racism. The federal government has paid out trillions of dollars to individuals and businesses. There have been big shifts in understanding about the problems the country faces and the kinds of solutions that might help solve them.
These multiple crises are pushing some nonprofits to reinvent themselves, to try new and different things, and to be bolder in their goals and the way they do their work. In the midst of catastrophe, there are opportunities for real change, a chance to create a world that will be radically different from the one we left behind.
“The concrete is wet right now in a way that I’ve never seen in my career. There’s a lot more opportunity now to reimagine,” says Henry Timms, CEO of Lincoln Center, which is shifting to become more of a civic institution as well as a cultural one. “My prediction is, in three years’ time, when we look back at this period, there’ll be a real difference between those organizations who saw this as just a pause, and those organizations who saw this as a chance to reframe their work.”
Move to Advocacy
When schools closed in March, it upended the way millions of kids receive free breakfasts and lunches. Share Our Strength, the group behind the No Kid Hungry Campaign, pushed for changes to regulations that required meals to be served in schools and forbid individually packaged meals. Legislators acted quickly to help ensure students could still receive food while learning at home. It was a quick and important victory.
SHARE OUR STRENGTH
What it did: Before the pandemic, the organization was laser focused on getting meals to hungry children.
How it’s changing: Now, it is asking what it can do to prevent childhood hunger. The group is considering how it can fund programs that strengthen families and better prepare kids for school. Another possibility: advocating for policies to reduce poverty.
Soon the group began to think differently about its work. As the pandemic and George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer put the spotlight on systemic racism the group’s leaders started to examine some of the root causes of the hunger they have worked to alleviate.
“We’ve been focused on feeding kids,” says Billy Shore, founder of Share Our Strength. “We haven’t been as focused as much as we could be, and should be, on preventing kids from being hungry.”
Now Share Our Strength is starting to do just that. It’s looking at how it can fund programs that strengthen families and better prepare young children for school. And it is starting to make a shift toward advocacy. It’s considering pushing for policy changes that could help alleviate poverty, such as increasing tax credits to put more money in the hands of poor people. “There is not just a permission but an understanding that you’ve actually got to do this,” Shore says.
Many nonprofits have started to advocate more for their missions and the needs of the people they serve. It is an important way that groups have adapted to shifts in government policy and public awareness driven by unpredictable crisis, says Ben Soskis, a research associate at the Urban Institute. “Human agency, mobilization, and advocacy are even more important in crises than in normal times,” he says.
The concrete is wet right now in a way that I’ve never seen in my career. There’s a lot more opportunity now to reimagine.
Like Share Our Strength, the National 4-H Council has started to advocate for the needs of its young members. This spring, the organization shut down in-person programs across the county. Since then, it has conducted some programs online. But many of its members do not have broadband access. About 40 million people, including 17 million young people, lack access to reliable broadband.
Before the pandemic, the group was concerned about the lack of reliable broadband in rural areas. But now broadband is absolutely critical for its young members, many of whom are attending school online. So this spring, the group decided to do more. It joined a coalition of groups led by Microsoft to advocate for better rural broadband. Advocacy is something the group has never done before.
The National 4-H Council was pushed, not just by the practical needs of its members but also by the protests against police brutality and for racial equity. Latinos account for a significant part of the population growth in many rural parts of the country. Obtaining broadband access in these communities has become an issue of racial equity, too.
“4-H has an important role in helping those families connect to the educational system for their kids to thrive,” says Jennifer Sirangelo, the group’s CEO.
New Economy Organizers
The move to advocacy can take many forms.
Since the economy ground to a halt and decimated small businesses, the think tank Democracy Collaborative has seen a spike in interest from cities in the United States and Europe in its economic programs.
About 15 years ago the group started working in Cleveland, which had lost 40 percent of its population and was in an economic tailspin. It helped to form worker cooperative businesses and, with help from the Cleveland Foundation, encouraged some of the city’s hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, the local government, and arts institutions to purchase more goods and services from local businesses. The laundry cooperative has profit-sharing and a home-buyer program, and its starting salaries are 15 percent higher than at other laundry services. It is tripling its work force thanks to a new contract with the Cleveland Clinic. In one British town that adopted this approach, unemployment fell by 50 percent. Now the Democracy Collaborative wants government to help once-healthy businesses by investing in them rather than lending money.
The surge in interest is not really a surprise. “In some ways, the whole nation became the Rust Belt overnight,” says Joe Guinan, the group’s vice president for theory, research, and policy.
This moment is a pivotal one for the economy, Guinan says. Tech companies have made billions, even as large businesses are filing for bankruptcy at rates higher than they were during the depths of the Great Recession. Private-equity firms have started to buy distressed companies. What happens now may determine the direction that the economy takes in the coming decades, he says.
“There will be ownership transition. It’s just a question of what shape it may take. There will be government intervention. It’s just on whose behalf and what form does that take,” Guinan says. “The status quo has vanished overnight.”
Because of the gravity of the situation, the group is contemplating a profound step for a think tank: starting an institute to train organizers and advocates.
The Democracy Collaborative wants to model the program on the Highlander Folk School, which trained many of the leaders of the civil-rights movement. It would develop a new generation of organizers and advocates to push for economic change.
“It’s not glamorous work. It’s like a mill — starting to train community organizers, grassroots leadership, and other nonprofit leadership in understanding what some of these tools and approaches are,” Guinan says. “We need to build a new capacity.”
Nonprofit leaders hoping to look to the past to help guide their decision making for the future are unlikely to find easy parallels.
“When has the whole world shut down?” asks Jeff Bradach, a cofounder of the nonprofit consultancy, the Bridgespan Group. He says some experts argue we might be on the cusp of a movement for racial equity to rival the civil-rights era, but that didn’t take place in the midst of a global pandemic and recession.
There are no exact parallels. But the Urban Institute’s Soskis, who is studying how the Great Depression led to changes in the nonprofit world, says there are important lessons to draw from that economic cataclysm.
Perhaps the biggest transformation during the Great Depression was the role of the federal government. At the time, charities were largely responsible for feeding the poor, Soskis says. But under President Roosevelt, that changed. Groups were overwhelmed by need, and the federal government took over many such programs. Charities were forced to see their own limitations. They also started to provide other services such as job training once they were freed from providing basic services.
As the federal government provided some basic services, nonprofits started to advocate for more benefits and entitlements, which gave them new skills that they would continue to use. Soskis points to the powerful advocacy by the American Legion to pass the GI Bill as a continuation of this work.
“Looking at the Great Depression, it’s clear that large-scale crises almost always do have some larger transformative effect on the charitable sector,” says Soskis.
Today something similar may be happening. Early in the pandemic, the federal government stepped in to aid people and businesses in a way rarely seen before. Individuals received stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits. Businesses have received forgivable loans. It’s a step toward normalizing an idea — giving people in need money rather than services — that has been gaining traction in philanthropy and among nonprofits for years.
Direct giving has the potential to transform work on homelessness and affordable housing. If people in extreme poverty have a guaranteed income, homelessness might be less common, for example. If people got help with down payments rather than a spot on a wait list for affordable housing, the nonprofit housing sector would look very different. The idea has sparked an important debate, says Amanda Andere, CEO of Funders Together to End Homelessness.
“This conversation is being accelerated really quickly,” she says of the move toward direct giving. “For someone who is thinking a lot about what does it mean to give people agency and power from a racial-justice lens, those, to me, are the right conversations.”
Direct giving has brought together grant makers from across the political spectrum in a way that is rare. Stand Together, the group founded by Republican mega-donor Charles Koch, has been a significant supporter of Family Independence Initiative, an organization that has raised $100 million to expand its direct-giving programs for people impacted by Covid-19. The group has also received money from Blue Meridian Partners, which brings together many traditional grant makers, as well as Google and the family foundation of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who toyed with an independent bid for the presidency.
“That’s philanthropy at its best,” says Brian Hooks, CEO of Stand Together. “That’s people putting their differences aside and focusing on the fact that we’ve got a whole lot more in common than we have in difference, working together to support an organization.”
Despite the divisiveness of the current election cycle, some groups are coming together to help one another. The idea of direct giving is just one of a handful of areas where people are finding common ground.
“That’s the untold story of 2020,” Hooks says. “Amidst all of this tragedy and crises, the fact of the matter is that this country is still full of really good people who are willing to do their part to help others. And in that, they learn something about themselves, and hopefully they can help us to chart the path forward.”
‘Room for People to Rage’
The national reckoning on racial justice has forced many groups to re-evaluate what they do and how they do it. The Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul is transforming itself so completely that it plans to adopt a new name: the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing.
PENUMBRA THEATRE COMPANY
What it did: For 44 years, the nonprofit produced plays by and about African Americans, such as this performance of the Black Nativity.
How it’s changing: The group is expanding its mission to become the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing. It isn’t abandoning the arts but will also work to promote racial justice. It has been working on the idea since 2015, and the pandemic gave leaders the time they needed to accelerate the transition.
Since 2015, the 44-year-old theater company, which focuses on the experiences of African Americans, has been in the process of changing — not to abandon the arts but to include resources for healing and promoting racial justice.
“The arts are so integral to our ability to resist, our ability to imagine worlds beyond what we’ve seen now today,” says Sarah Bellamy, the artistic director and daughter of the group’s founder. “It allows us to be expansive, elastic, innovative, resilient.”
To plan and implement the change, Bellamy wanted to take a year off from producing performances, something that would have been financially disastrous. So when Covid-19 forced the theater to close, the group got the hiatus it needed to accelerate planning.
Penumbra began with a series of virtual meetings for artists called the Racial Healing Artist Institute. It was meant to be a test, to help the group develop its ideas for how such a program might work. Then, three weeks into the program, George Floyd was killed.
“We immediately had to pivot and actually practice what we were trying to conceive. It was harrowing. It was incredible. It was such a fortifying mandate because of what we were able to accomplish in that virtual room,” Bellamy says. “Everyone who participated said they weren’t sure that they would have been able to get through what happened here in Minnesota without that space.”
The group has also invited a range of speakers to talk with artists — health experts to discuss the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people of color, psychotherapists, climate-justice activists, and others. “There was room for people to rage, to cry, to play music, to sing, to mourn,” she says. “It was incredibly powerful.”
The Role of Race
Many groups have not been as prescient and are just now starting to do the hard work required to confront systemic racism and racial inequities in their organizations and in their work.
What it did: The organization trains volunteer coaches to teach young people social and emotional skills through sports.
How it’s changing: The pandemic and the national reckoning on racial justice forced it to look at the role race plays in its work and acknowledge that almost all the children it serves are kids of color. It is recruiting more people of color to coach when the program resumes.
“If you work in education, you can’t make real progress without confronting issues like racial disparities in school discipline. If you work in the environment, you can’t make real progress without confronting the legacy of racist housing and zoning policies. Economic injustice has left people of color exposed to toxins at a much higher rate and so on down the line,” says Phil Buchanan, CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. “This has upended everybody’s approach to strategy.”
Coaching Corps, an organization that trains volunteer coaches to teach social and emotional skills to young people through sports, began to see its work through the lens of race in the spring. Its coaching programs were shut down by the pandemic, so it began to recruit volunteers to distribute food. Professional athletes, including former NBA basketball player Antonio Davis, volunteered and helped to bring out more people of color from the Oakland community that the group serves. That began a change in thinking for Janet Carter, the group’s CEO.
“We have never said the truth, which is almost all of our kids are kids of color,” she says. “One of the ways we’re looking at changing what we do is acknowledging the fact that we are talking about kids of color.”
Now, drawing on deeper ties to Oakland, the group is recruiting more people of color to coach when the program restarts. Carter says that will lead to better outcomes for the young people the nonprofit serves.
While many groups, like Coaching Corps, are just starting to understand what they need to do to address inequities and racism, Bellamy saw the need much sooner than others. She says that is because she is a Black leader in an organization focused on the Black community who is much closer to the struggles and needs of her community than white leaders.
Yet Black-led groups like hers have traditionally received far less funding than white-led groups. She hopes that will change now that the expertise of Black leaders is more broadly valued.
“It’s important to invest where the insight, the intelligence, the experience, and authenticity is,” she says. “It’s not about trying to bring organizations that are behind up to water level. It’s about who’s floating, who’s reached land. Let’s resource those folks so that they can go even further and actually lead.”
Like Penumbra, many arts groups have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic. Most rely on people gathering together to fulfill their missions and generate much-needed revenue. While some groups pivoted to virtual events, others are thinking more fundamentally about their place in the communities they serve. One small group that produced public art projects in Michigan is eschewing the arts entirely.
Even Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, one of the country’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, is grappling with how it serves its community and the role it can play in advocating for racial justice.
- Some nonprofits are using the crises of 2020 as a catalyst to examine their work and rethink how they advance their missions.
- There are no exact parallels in history to serve as a guide. But experts say charities changed significantly during the Great Depression — providing new kinds of programs and starting to advocate — as the federal government started to provide basic services to the poor.
- The national reckoning on racial justice has forced many charities to grapple with the impact race has on their work. Some are making big changes as a result.
- Giving cash to people in need is winning new support across the political spectrum. The approach puts decision-making power in the hands of the people receiving assistance.
“The challenge now is not simply to pause and hope that we can get back to business as normal,” says Timms, its CEO. “There is an opportunity to think, ‘OK, how does this very challenging moment allow us to accelerate some things and prioritize some things that perhaps might have taken longer to get to the top of our priority list.’”
The organization now views itself as a civic institution as well as a cultural one. In May, it started to host online weekly memorial concerts for people of all faiths to recognize the people who had died from the virus. The New York Philharmonic, which performs at Lincoln Center, has musicians playing 10-minute concerts around the city from the back of a pickup truck. The building is being used as a polling place, and it is helping with the census. It has featured performances highlighting racial inequity.
“The question we’ve been asking more and more often throughout this process is, ‘How can we be of service? What is it we can be doing with resources and the talent we represent?’” Timms says. “The place to start is actually being a lot more genuinely connected to communities.”
One arts organization has decided that art is no longer powerful enough to address today’s vast and deep challenges. Amplifier previously brought in landscape architects, graphic designers, performance artists, dancers, conceptual artists, and architects and worked with local artists to produce public art — murals, public-art events such as parades and art festivals in Flint, Mich., and other cities — as a way to highlight positive change and help residents to revitalize their communities. But no longer.
Amplifier spun off the Flint Public Art Project as a separate group in 2018. Its board has been meeting since just before the Covid crisis to determine how to proceed. The problems it identified have only been exacerbated by the pandemic — a failure of institutions, disinformation, and distrust that calls even basic facts into question.
Those problems have a real-world impact. Large numbers of Americans say they won’t get a Covid vaccine when they become available. Art cannot bridge that divide, says Amplifier vice president James Andrews.
“The very structures that any organization exists within — global governance, the economy, the environment — it’s those very things that seem to be slipping and can’t be taken for granted,” he says.
The organization has invited a series of experts to its board meetings to help members better understand challenges and how the group might respond. The group is still hammering out the path forward, but art, once its core focus, is off the table for now.
“The direction we’re heading in are programs that are longer, deeper, that are much more deeply integrated into the functioning of a dominant institution,” Andrews says. “We’re still debating what’s the best approach. But gestures, public offerings, symbolic actions, things like that are not anywhere near our discussion.”
He says this nation and many other countries are in such deep turmoil, and challenges such as climate change are so dire, that this time requires nothing short of a complete transformation.
“Nonprofits should completely reassess their missions, their goals, their timelines, their norms from top to bottom. Re-evaluate, and don’t base your analysis on hope,” he says. “People should be adapting and not just wishing that 2018 or 2014 is going to come back.”