Among the vast economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic there lies a dichotomy. At a time of turmoil, when the need for charitable donations is particularly pronounced, fewer people have the means — or the financial security — to provide help.
That is intuitively evident during the pandemic, and a recent study by the University of Washington confirms the scenario.
A survey of more than 200 nonprofit organizations in Washington found that requests for assistance during the pandemic have increased between 10 percent and 28 percent. Meanwhile, agencies have seen their funding and workforce cut in half.
With COVID-19 continuing to rage and with increasing numbers of people out of work — at least temporarily — nonprofits have struggled to meet demand, are facing a decline in donations and have spent down their reserves. Many also have seen a decline in volunteers, with would-be workers understandably reluctant to risk spending time in close contact with others.
“I am very concerned about the sustainability of the mental and physical health of the nonprofit staffs,” Erica Mills Barnhart, director of the Nancy Bell Evans Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at UW, told The Seattle Times.
Nonprofit organizations play an important role in the United States’ social safety net and also its economy. Individuals, foundations and corporations donated about $450 billion in 2019, according to GivingUSA.org; and according to the National Council of Nonprofits, such organizations employ more than 10 percent of the nation’s private workforce.
Now, as Martin Levine wrote in June for Nonprofit Quarterly: “Nearly every aspect of operations has been shaken. Organizations have had to find new ways to provide their services while staying as close as they can to their stakeholders. Revenues shrank, but expenses did not go away.”
In other words, economic downturns inevitably trickle down to organizations that serve our neediest citizens.
In Clark County, the impact could be seen by a large roster of annual benefit events being canceled. Nonprofits heavily rely on banquets and special events to cull donations from benefactors, but social distancing has scuttled most of those events since March.
The good news is that the annual Give More 24! event surpassed expectations this year. Organized by the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington to benefit charities in Clark, Skamania and Cowlitz counties, the online event in September raised $2.89 million after setting a goal of $2 million.
That will help fill food banks and provide health and education services throughout the region, and it stands as a testament to the generosity of the people in Southwest Washington.
As Jennifer Rhoads, president of the Community Foundation, said: “Our community has a tendency to step up when it’s most needed, and that’s today. The numbers are pretty astronomical.”
Yet the need persists. The University of Washington survey found that more than 60 percent of nonprofits have had to suspend various programs, and 14 percent have eliminated some programs. Arts organizations, the study found, are seeing a drop-off in demand “that is jeopardizing their ability to survive.”
As the University of Washington’s Mills Barnhart said, “This is a call to arms for foundations and legislative officials who are supporting these nonprofits.”
And it is a call for all of us to remember that charity begins at home, and to recognize the crucial work performed by nonprofits.