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ViewFinder nilsophon/shutterstock

Back in March, when health officials confirmed that the coronavirus was at large and spreading across the country, community foundations were among the first to respond, establishing special funds to ensure that frontline local nonprofits could stay in business and continue their essential services.

But now, about four months into the lockdowns and economic disruption that have transformed businesses and organizations throughout society, nonprofits have had to make unprecedented and often painful changes to many aspects of their operations. And not every problem they’re facing can be solved with a check. So community foundations and local funders across the country have stepped up efforts to provide other kinds of advice, consulting and guidance, from technology to HR. We spoke with a few such foundations to find out what kind of problems and needs have arisen in recent months and how philanthropy is helping, beyond making grants.

In New York, for example, where the coronavirus hit hard, the New York Community Trust, Robin Hood and UJA-Federation of New York established a new $500,000 effort to provide consulting services for the hundreds of area nonprofits that they collectively support. Six organizations that serve New York’s nonprofit sector—Cause Effective, Community Resource Exchange, Lawyers Alliance for New York, Nonprofit Finance Fund, Operations Inc., and Support Center—will offer a range of capacity-building services to help nonprofits adapt.

“The trust has always been committed to the notion of capacity building beyond just the grants we make,” said Patricia Swann, NYCT’s senior program officer for civic affairs, community development and technical assistance. “The COVID pandemic hasn’t changed that, but it has amplified the need. There are so many ways nonprofits need help that can’t be fixed just with grants.”

For example, Swann said, nonprofits must navigate a constellation of unexpected legal issues, such as how to deal with contracts that can’t be fulfilled under the lockdowns and suspension of so many aspects of everyday life, like regular schooling. According to the 2020 Nonprofit Employment Report, by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, some 13% of all nonprofit employees—1.6 million people—lost their jobs since the pandemic set in: That means surviving organizations have to restructure to cover or even eliminate services.

And with their operations shifted to remote work and altered in other ways, nonprofit leaders are frequently confronted with unprecedented human resource policy issues. The New York-area partnership will address those issues, as well as key matters like cash flow and financial scenario planning, fundraising and organizational restructuring, among others.

Accelerating the Digital Transformation

High among the issues nonprofits are dealing with is technology. For the moment, and possibly the foreseeable future, the virtual workplace of computers and online contact has broadly replaced the physical office. That includes all those meetings, formal and informal, filing cabinets, paper forms still hanging around, and years of established but suddenly unworkable procedures. Some of this is good (no commute!), and some is bad (I miss my colleagues and the kids are underfoot), and some has not yet been figured out (how do I keep confidential client data secure on my creaky old laptop?). But integrating computer technologies in the nonprofit workplace means much more than simply using Zoom and migrating data to the cloud.

“We’re all suddenly living through a crisis that is uniquely digital,” said Chris Worman, vice president of alliances and program development at TechSoup, an organization that helps nonprofits acquire and use technology. “It was all coming anyway for the nonprofit sector, just like it was for businesses and government, but the pandemic forced it to happen faster.”

How much faster? Well, TechSoup offers online courses and training in tech. Pre-coronavirus, its average webinar had 200 to 400 organizations participating, said Worman; now, it’s 2,000 to 4,000. For nonprofit leadership, technology overhauls went from “put off just one more year” to “must do immediately.”

Consulting support is helping nonprofits expand and improve their tech capacity. But Worman says the help that nonprofits really need is not just to technologize the old systems, but to develop new ways to use technology and data to improve capabilities for work and enable more effective collaboration between organizations.

In New Orleans, where weather-related disasters have always been a fact of life, the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF) had begun articulating disaster-response strategies a year ago that would encompass the nonprofit world as well as regional government officials and agencies. “Then the pandemic happened, so we knew that a large number of nonprofits were likely to be woefully unprepared to deal with this disaster, or any other," said Carmen James Randolph, GNOF vice president of programs.

As part of its Nonprofit Leadership and Effectiveness program, GNOF ramped up webinars and other outreach to help nonprofits figure out the way forward. One huge issue is financial planning. Lots of nonprofits lost the primary contracts that were their main sources of income, such as contracts with schools, Randolph said. Other webinars focused on applying for vital Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, which were difficult to secure for many nonprofits, including those run by and serving people of color. Other training and grants covered executive coaching, mental health, human resources and crisis communications.

More than ever, these community funders are themselves bringing in outside expertise to provide the education nonprofits need in areas like the law or technology. “As a community foundation, being able to support things financially is at the heart of what we do," said Bob Sorge, president and CEO of the Madison Community Foundation (MCF) in Wisconsin. “But there are things we’re experts in and things we’re not experts in.”

One of MCF’s moves was to spend $35,000 to engage a local law firm to provide advice to nonprofits applying for PPP loans. As of last month, more than 60 local nonprofits had availed themselves of the legal help—resulting in nearly $14 million in PPP loans for the area organizations. “Had we just given them money, even $1 million wouldn’t have gotten them very far, but by being able to leverage the law firm quickly, that $35,000 really paid off.”

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