As a vital part of the American economy, the viability of the nonprofit sector is only as strong as the organizations themselves, and that strength has been in question for several years. In the State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey 2018, 57% of organizations reported that they couldn’t meet the demand for services (Nonprofit Finance Fund, 2018). According to the 2015 Threads: Insights from the Charitable Community report, the “lack of organizational capacity…is an obstacle to success for many nonprofits and, by extension, for the sector at large” (Independent Sector, 2015, p. 15).
As the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt across the country, the nonprofit sector will likely need both technical assistance and long-term change management to respond. Museums across the country have closed their doors, symphonies have gone silent, and zoos can no longer welcome visitors. Organizations that rely on patron fees for even a portion of their annual budget are wondering if they can keep staff employed and wait out the pandemic, while nonprofits meeting essential needs are feeling the pressures of serving even more people as millions of Americans have been furloughed or let go from jobs, putting more families at risk.
According to a March 23 coronavirus update on NPR, a survey of some 200 YWCA organizations found that “more than one third reported an increase in demand for domestic violence services of all kinds, including counseling, and more than half reported an increase in requests for housing and shelter” (McCammon, 2020, para. 6). Families in quarantine are experiencing even more stress. With one in seven children in the United States struggling everyday with food insecurity (No Kid Hungry, n.d.), millions of children are now looking to the nonprofit sector for meals they expected to receive at school. Across the country, food pantries are being stretched to meet growing needs. According to a report in The Guardian, as the coronavirus spread through northeast Kansas in early March, one area food bank “sent out 12,000 boxes to pantries on Monday 23 March — a 140% rise on the 5,000 boxes typically ordered” (Lakhani, 2020, para. 15).
This increased demand comes at a time when nonprofits are forced to cancel or postpone events to comply with the CDC social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders across the country. A March survey by the Community Health Charities (2020) found that their members would lose more than $644 million in just three months due to cancelled fundraising events — a loss that not all organizations are able to absorb. In mid-March, the Nonprofit Alliance polled more than 600 nonprofit leaders and found that “44% of participants said they did not have a clear plan in place to mitigate losses from canceled fundraising events” (Stiffman, 2020, para. 3).
[N]onprofits are faced with glaring examples of inadequate program delivery while struggling with the reality that they may not have enough resources to survive this time of crisis, much less thrive.
This lack of financial planning is just one way that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted cracks in the sector. Inadequate technology, lack of diverse communication channels, unclear strategic focus, poor board engagement, and lack of diverse representation on boards are all contributing to the crisis the nonprofit sector is now facing. Organizations and communities alike are becoming more aware of populations that are underserved, and nonprofits are faced with glaring examples of inadequate program delivery while struggling with the reality that they may not have enough resources to survive this time of crisis, much less thrive. So what capacity might an organization need to weather this crisis?
Using years of research, the TCC Group identified the key capacities that are essential for the success of a nonprofit organization (Connolly & York, 2003):
As the COVID-19 crisis progresses, we are seeing excellent examples across the country of nonprofit organizations demonstrating these capacities as they pivot programming, engage the community, and develop new partnerships.
With schools beginning to close and social distancing becoming the norm, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden could no longer welcome visitors onsite, but that didn’t stop them from engaging the public in getting to know their animals. Leveraging all of the capacity skills of an effective organization, the zoo announced Home Safari on March 15.
Every day at 3 p.m., zoo staff take their Facebook live audience on a mini-safari, one animal at a time. During these short visits, 11–15 minutes in length, staff bring the Facebook audience up close and personal with zoo animals, sharing interesting facts about the featured animal as well as the routine care of the animals. Following the live safari event, videos are uploaded to the zoo’s YouTube channel for future viewing. The zoo also provides resources on their website to engage children, including quizzes and art activities.
One of the highest rated zoos in the country, the Cincinnati Zoo had already developed a significant Facebook following. In response to the Home Safari, the zoo gained 1,000,000 new Facebook followers in less than two weeks according to the zoo’s communications director, Michelle Curley (2020). For the Cincinnati Zoo, Home Safari was just the beginning. They have added animal-themed face masks to their online gift shop, virtual garden tours, and they are sharing spring blooms from the gardens at the nearby Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
It’s difficult to predict the long-term impact these efforts will have on the zoo’s sustainability. The zoo has experienced a significant decrease in revenue due to the loss of gate sales, but they are leveraging their growing audience for corporate sponsorships of the animal encounters and creatively sharing their story online to solicit financial support from millions of Facebook followers.
The zoo [is] leveraging their growing audience…and creatively sharing their story online to solicit financial support from millions of Facebook followers.
Other organizations, both large and small, across the country are adjusting to the devastating toll COVID-19 is bringing, and many are using social media to tell their stories in new ways. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City gained national attention after their head of security, Tim, was asked to help maintain the museum’s Twitter account when COVID-19 forced the museum to close to the public. Tim’s down-home attitude on Twitter became so popular that it was featured on “Good Morning America” on March 25 (Brooksbank, 2020).
Food pantries across the country are leveraging their capacity by changing the way food they distribute food. As the public health crisis of COVID-19 collides with the economic crisis created by measures put in place to manage the virus, America’s food pantries are feeling the pinch. Hundreds of drive-thru pantries are popping up across the country.
According to an April 17 report in The Guardian, food pantries are experiencing lines up to six miles long, and in Silicon Valley alone “demand is increasing about 50% each week, with first-timers such as security and cafeteria staff furloughed by tech companies, teachers, and restaurant workers accounting for more than half of those needing food” (Lakhani, Singh, & Salam, 2020, para. 20). As the need increases exponentially, the supply chain is under stress.
With restaurants and schools closed across the country, routine supply and demand has been scrambled. Store shelves are empty due to panic-buying amidst pandemic fear, food prices are going up as the supply chain tries to right itself, and farmers are plowing under fresh produce and dumping milk that would have been sold to schools or restaurants (Cagle, 2020). One nonprofit organization is trying to help solve these issues, helping to feed the millions of Americans now out of work while getting some of those employees back on the job.
International chef José Andrés founded World Central Kitchen (WCK) in 2010 to find creative solutions to feed hungry people, particularly in times of natural disasters. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Chef Andrés and his team from WCK served “nearly 100,000 meals a day” in Puerto Rico (Gajanan, 2017, para. 1). According to its website, WCK “is now active in dozens of cities around the country, providing over 160,000 fresh meals every day,” helping to relieve the burden on already overloaded food relief programs.
There is another social benefit to the food programs being offered by WCK. Leveraging their vast network, WCK is helping to get restaurant staff back to work and the supply chain unstuck with the #ChefsForAmerica program. #ChefsforAmerica promises to purchase and distribute 1,000,000 meals from community restaurants to deliver locally across the country. This ecosystem approach to insuring that people are fed “is making a key connection between people who need meals and restaurant workers and drivers who need to earn a living” (para. 3).
The Cincinnati Zoo, Cowboy Museum, and WCK are just a few examples of the capacity that nonprofits have to survive in the midst of a pandemic. These organizations demonstrate the capacities of an effective organization with their adaptability, leadership, management, and effective use of systems and resources. The question remains, how might the sector ensure that these, and thousands of other nonprofit organizations — many of whom are much smaller — are resilient enough to thrive as the nation considers opening up and moving toward recovery from the pandemic?
While none of us can predict the future, resilience requires organizations to be ready to face it. As noted in a previous blog post, organizations can begin to envision their future through scenario planning and financial forecasting to build capacity for resilience. As organizations adapt and communities continue to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, nonprofits should take note of what they and others are learning during this turbulent time. Lessons of resilience are all around us and will be explored in part of two of this blog series.
 I have had many informal conversations with nonprofit executives and capacity building consultants during this time. These are the types of concerns repeatedly expressed.
Brooksbank, T. (2020, March 25). GMA. https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/living/story/internet-loving-cowboy-museums-twitter-account-updates-head-69789992
Cagle, S. (2020, April 9). ‘A disastrous situation’: mountains of food wasted as coronavirus scrambles supply chain. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/09/us-coronavirus-outbreak-agriculture-food-supply-waste
Community Health Charities (2020, April 3). Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire. https://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/44446-Survey-73-of-Nonprofits-Have-Already-Canceled-Fundraising-Events-Due-to-Coronavirus-Losing-644-Million
Connolly, P., & York, P. (2003). Building the capacity of capacity builders. The Conservation Company. https://www.issuelab.org/resources/8470/8470.pdf
Curley, M. (2020, March 27). Interview with Cincinnati Zoo.
Gajanan, M. (2017, October 16). ‘The American government has failed.’ Celebrity Chef José Andrés slams FEMA’s Puerto Rico response. Time. https://time.com/4981655/jose-andres-fema-trump-puerto-rico/
Independent Sector. (2015, October). Threads: Insights from the Charitable Community. Washington, DC: Author. https://independentsector.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ThreadsReport_April16.pdf
Lakhani, N. (2020, April 2). ‘A perfect storm’: US facing hunger crisis as demand for food banks soars. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/02/us-food-banks-coronavirus-demand-unemployment
Lakhani, N., Singh, M., & Salam, E. (2020, April 17). ‘We may have to ration’: US food banks face shortages as demand surges. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/17/us-food-banks-over-budget-demand-coronavirus
McCammon, S. (2020, March 23). As economy struggles, nonprofits ask congress for help. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/03/23/820243693/as-economy-struggles-nonprofits-ask-congress-for-help
No Kid Hungry. (n.d.) https://www.nokidhungry.org/who-we-are/hunger-facts
Nonprofit Finance Fund (2018). State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey 2018. https://nff.org/sites/default/files/paragraphs/file/download/341454_NFF_Survey_R1_Proof.pdf
Stiffman, E. (2020, March 23). 44 percent of nonprofits have no plans to mitigate losses from canceled fundraising events. Chronicle of Philanthropy. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/44-Percent-of-Nonprofits-Have/248302