Photo: David Herraez Calzada/shutterstock
Photo: David Herraez Calzada/shutterstock

The Rural Community Workers Alliance—a tiny nonprofit in Milan, Missouri with an annual budget of $109,000—is proud of what it did last year for employees at local meat-processing plants.

As the coronavirus spread, “a lot of workers here were really scared and afraid,” said Executive Director Axel Fuentes, the organization’s only employee until this year. The meat-processing companies, Fuentes said, “asked workers to stay on the job, but were not doing anything to keep them safe, not even giving out masks or hand sanitizer.”

The Rural Community Workers Alliance advised workers to ask their companies for basic protections, but their entreaties were ignored. “I heard stories of workers having panic attacks and working under high levels of stress,” Fuentes recalls. Even though he contacted media outlets hoping to publicize the workers’ plight, nothing much changed, Fuentes said, until he approached a nonprofit legal group that took steps to file a lawsuit. The threat of legal action, he said, finally compelled his local meat-processing facility to start following safety guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control.

With a small increase in donations last year, Fuentes recently hired a part-time employee to help with communications. If the organization’s fundraising returns keep growing, he wants to hire a French-speaking employee. About 30% of the area’s meat-processing workforce, he explains, are immigrants from African countries whose native language is French.

COVID shines a light on essential workers

Like other charities providing for basic needs like food and shelter, nonprofits that focus on workers’ rights and workforce development saw contributions rise last year, often by healthy margins. That trend is continuing into 2021. The pandemic, along with a new emphasis on racial justice, has brought awareness and concern about the many millions of people in the United States who are still unemployed and struggling, especially low-income workers and people of color.

To help such people, We The Action, a group organizing 40,000 lawyers who’ve donated more than $100 million worth of legal aid, supports the Service Workers Legal Clinic founded by the National Legal Advocacy Network and One Fair Wage. More than 60 lawyers have volunteered to date, and a dozen have started working with clients after being trained in unlawful discrimination, wrongful termination and other employment issues. “What we are hearing from lawyers is they want to be part of urgent, necessary issues like unemployment insurance,” said Katie Waldo, head of community impact at We The Action.

While the nationwide vaccination campaign has raised hopes for an end to the pandemic, the fundraising outlook for workers’ causes may be shifting in wide-reaching and as yet uncertain ways. “We still don’t know how the world will re-open in the coming year, and there could be curveballs we didn’t see coming,” said Andrea Kippur, development director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which partners with employers to improve jobs and equip workers for success, among other work. “We’re focusing on how to be nimble, responsive and adaptive to a changing world, something that will be necessary beyond the pandemic,” Kippur said.

The National Fund for Workforce Solutions raised $9.5 million in the fiscal year ending September 30—up from $7 million before the pandemic—and the organization learned some valuable lessons from the pandemic, Kippur said. For example, companies that offer childcare, mental health support, living wages, consistent scheduling and paid time off weathered the health crisis much better than employers who don’t provide those benefits, Kippur said. That is proof, she says, that employee-friendly programs merit philanthropic funding and other investments—before the next national crisis occurs.

Policy groups look beyond the pandemic

Another workforce development group looking beyond the pandemic is the National Skills Coalition, a D.C.-based nonprofit that pursues federal and state policies to promote high-quality skills training for job seekers. Created by a group of foundations, the organization joins others reporting a rise in corporate support.

Just last week, for example, the National Skills Coalition announced a new $2.9 million grant from Walmart to pursue an inclusive economic recovery over the next two years. The grant, which nearly doubles Walmart’s previous investment in the charity, will be used to promote digital literacy, which both the retail giant and the National Skills Coalition regard as critical to the re-employment and advancement of millions of workers, including those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The National Skills Coalition’s chief executive officer, Andy Van Kleunen, says he is also heartened by the White House’s recently announced infrastructure plan. “In [President] Biden’s plan, there is $100 billion for workforce development, and we have been advocating for this,” he said. “Now we have to try and make sure Congress goes for it.”

Another group focused on labor and employment policies that has experienced a big surge in giving is the Center for Law and Social Policy, also based in Washington, D.C. Last year, individual donors to the center made gifts totaling $400,000, many of them matched by donations from their employers, far exceeding the nonprofit’s goal of $100,000. Foundation grants totaled another $9.5 million. Virtual meetings played a role in many grantmakers’ giving decisions, and the center plans to continue holding them for the foreseeable future.

Like other workplace organizations, the Center for Law and Social Policy has been trying to figure out how it can sustain increased giving as the pandemic fades. “Donors’ support makes a huge difference,” said Akosua Meyers, the center’s director of development. On entrenched inequities in employment, Meyers said, “Racial issues are systemic and not quickly changed. How do we keep this momentum when we are outside the immediate crisis?”

Public and private support

Workforce development organizations tend to get a significant amount of money from government grants and contracts, while those protecting workers’ rights tend to rely on charitable giving to a greater degree. While attempts to bridge that gap are still rare, there are some notable examples that draw on philanthropic support, one being Rework the Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area.

One major recipient of grant dollars in the workforce space, Jobs For the Future, works with community colleges and government agencies on workforce development. It raised $60 million last year, with a quarter of that amount coming from the government. Public funds accounted for far more, 60%, of its 2019 budget. The remainder comes from foundation and corporate grants and contracts.

YouthBuild Boston, a 30-year-old charity that develops career skills of young adults, looks to the Department of Labor and other government sources to provide 60% of the money it raises every year. It has no individual donors. Like other such groups, it hopes to create a program to attract individual supporters in future.

YouthBuild Boston’s Director of Development Arleaya Martin says she hopes the nonprofit’s work will attract more donors interested in racial justice. “We serve 16- and 17-year-olds who have already dropped out of school. We have not given up on them,” she said. “We try to provide them with a high school degree while putting them into construction and other workplace experiences. There is a positive path forward.”

“We don’t want to just go back to the way the world was”

Another workforce group, San Francisco’s Jewish Vocational and Career Counseling Service, works with area employers to help low-income people. The charity, which experienced a small increase in contributions last year, offers career training for healthcare and technology positions. It also provides job search assistance to people lacking resumes and professional networks, and offers a high school “bridge” program for people who don’t attend college but need to learn financial management and other life skills.

When the pandemic hit, the organization was forced to offer virtual training, but quickly realized that many low-income students couldn’t participate because they lacked the necessary technology or faced other barriers. The charity helped many students stay in the program after creating a COVID Response Fund that raised more than $1 million, said Rachael Brown, its chief development officer.

“At a time when COVID caused so much uncertainty, we had to provide payments to people in our program,” she said. “Many clients were in a precarious position; they could have been laid off and could not get unemployment, or someone in their household lost a job. We were hearing about clients who could not afford groceries or utilities. These folks could not be fully present in our classes.”

Looking ahead, Brown said, “We don’t want to just go back to the way the world was. We hope to build a more equitable job market. Hopefully, there will be less of a sharp divide around who’s at greatest risk, who is most negatively impacted.”

Like other charities in workforce development, Year Up saw donations surge last year from companies concerned about racial equity and from people whose employers matched their gifts. The charity, a national organization headquartered in Boston, offers  six months of job training to people aged 18 to 26, followed by another six months in a short-term position. It raised more than $80 million last year.

Increased corporate support “is a rising trend,” said Susan Murray, Year Up’s lead fundraiser. The most notable example, she added, was Amazon’s Black Employee Resource Group. Unsolicited, the Amazon group ran an employee giving drive that generated more than $1 million for Year Up in 2020. “It brought in an amazing group of new donors,” Murray said, “and a lot of the gifts were more than $1,000.” For Year Up, she said, “it’s exciting.”