What We're Learning: Nonprofits' Early Response to COVID-19

Gladys Hairston, Program Officer with John Rex Endowment, has a unique “seat at the table” with grantees and community leaders as a matter of course. With the advent of the COVID-19 challenges, she has become a “virtual” listener and observer, bringing back important information to the Endowment about how nonprofits are coping.  Recently we spoke with her about the lessons she’s learning and observations she’s making.

Q: Ever since the COVID-19 community response began, you’ve been in touch with the Endowment’s grant-funded partners. What do you typically ask them?

A: I begin with asking how they personally are doing, and then how their organizations are faring, along with any questions on the grants they have with us.  Just a few questions usually leads to a lot of interesting and valuable feedback.

Q: How would you characterize their outlook as the virus and its repercussions impact their missions?

A: Nonprofit leaders are used to getting through crises, so I have not detected any panic.  They are using tools from other crisis situations they weathered to see what works now. What I am hearing from some is that while they know first-line needs like shelter and food will receive initial funding, there is also going to be a major financial impact upon their organization down the road. This means leaders are teaching themselves to wait and plan until that second wave of financing comes along, either from the government or the community or both. This is a cooperative competition at this time.  However, it will be important for the philanthropic community to consider the long-term impacts on organizations that aren’t considered “frontline.”

Q: What do you hear about the emotional impact of COVID-19 upon leaders’ daily lives as they continue to work in this challenging climate?

A: I would say that leaders worry not for themselves as much as for their staff members who are on the front lines taking care of others. Leaders want to be sure that staff are physically and emotionally healthy when they go home to their own families. Encouraging a climate of nurturing and self-care is a top priority right now.

Q: Are these nonprofits being helped with other funding such as government grants?

A: Some are. The concern is that simply applying a cash grant to a nonprofit’s program is not a one-time solution.  Many of our organizations do wraparound care, such as working with families to get them out of homelessness, into safe temporary housing and then onto a more permanent footing. It takes a lot of highly trained employees working with these families to show them ways to better position themselves for financial and housing security, like budgeting skills, how to speak with a landlord and how to seek employment.  Not every funder supports the scaffolding around these services—the staff and infrastructure costs—which are also vitally important.

Q: What do you see the Endowment’s role being now that we are nearing the end of three months of significant workplace and community changes, while we all anticipate what is coming next?

A: We are available to answer questions and provide links to community services, or simply provide a listening ear. We encourage our grant-funded partners to call any time of day or night and leave a message for us or send us an email. We know so many of them are working long and irregular hours, so reaching out to the Endowment needs to happen on their schedules, and we will follow up quickly.

We also see the Endowment as an important coach and advocate for our partners as they cope with the ‘new normal’ we’re seeing in our community. Many people are suddenly experiencing food insecurity, joblessness or homelessness for the first time in their lives, and they need help accessing emergency systems that may be more complicated than they expected. Some of these organizations now are dealing with a brand-new client base in addition to their usual clients. Our role is to consider how our current and future funding needs to shift, and how we can best collaborate with other funders to meet community needs.