Watch out!” by Jacob Bøtter

March 8, 2019; Nonprofit AF (republished in Generocity)


As an NPQ article last week pointed out, more than a few of us around the nonprofit and philanthropic world will be feeling the effects of COVID-19 as events of all types are cancelled, posing high costs financially and otherwise. For those trying to power through, a little humility is being visited on us. Vu Le, who hails from the state of Washington, where the contagion’s presence in one institution, a long-term-care home,  led to multiple deaths from the virus, urges us all to take it seriously.

Le asks us also to reflect as we take precautions. He has both a short-term and a longer-term suggestion for foundations. In the short term, he urges philanthropy to be thoughtful and generous with grantees:

Nonprofits are having to do extra work in response to this virus, on top of all their regular responsibilities, and with the risk of funding being jeopardized due to canceled events and programs. Foundations, now is a good time to reassure grantees that you got our backs, by relaxing your expectations on outcomes and timelines, providing rapid response funding, and not withdrawing your sponsorships and grants for postponed or canceled events and programs.

But he also acknowledges that a lack of financial cushion can place nonprofits in impossible positions. Cancel the fundraiser or cut vital services? This state in which much of the sector finds itself, he says, was not inevitable—it has been constructed by funders who choose to ignore the harm they inflict by doing business in a manner that keeps their nonprofit partners in scarcity mode. Addressing this would change the entire way in which foundations do business…but if not now, when?

Le suggests that funders still do not pay anywhere near enough attention to nonprofit infrastructure, either between or within nonprofits—yet that infrastructure serves as a central nervous system during a crisis.

As for nonprofits, Le correctly asserts that many nonprofit leaders in their advocacy focus too much on the well-being of their own institutions and not enough on the interests of the communities with which they work. This is an issue you will be hearing more about from NPQ in the near future, but here is his take on the problem:

While many of us are lucky to be employed by supportive organizations that allow us to work from home, there are millions in society who cannot. They don’t have sick leave. They may get fired if they take time off. They depend on tips, etc. It puts everyone at risk because people are at work when they shouldn’t be, but society gives them few options. Unfortunately, so much of nonprofit work has been responding to the failures of crappy systems instead of rallying to change them. We need to invest significantly more time into advocacy for such things as universal healthcare, paid sick leave, increased minimum wage, etc.

Finally, Le reminds us that there are few general threats to the public that don’t visit their effects on some marginalized and vulnerable groups much more severely than on others. In this case, he writes, it’s a good time to consider the impact of the virus on members of the Asian community and people with disabilities. About our continuing refusal to acknowledge the marginalization of those with disabilities, he says, “These are issues that go beyond the Coronavirus; we (this sector) need to do better.”—Ruth McCambridge