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Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.

Maureen Berner is a professor with the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. She conducts research on the intersection of local governments and nonprofits, especially around their roles in our social safety net at the community level. She will discuss the importance of local nonprofits and their efforts to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Maureen Berner: Nonprofit Capacity

One of the primary actors in the response to the COVID-19 crisis are the community-level nonprofits that exist throughout North Carolina. Nonprofits serve as the ultimate social safety net in towns and counties across the state. How are they doing? To answer this question requires two different perspectives. First, we can talk about the ability of the local nonprofits to respond to the community needs in general. Second, we can ask about the nonprofits’ own survival. Nonprofits are stepping up mightily to serve others in crisis at the same time that their own future is in question.

If we ask whether or not nonprofits have the capacity to meet the demands that they are facing, it’s a difficult question to answer easily in terms of yes or no. That is because there are different types of capacity and an organization may be fine in terms of one but be lacking capacity in another. My research has focused on four areas of nonprofit capacity – administrative capacity, financial capacity, infrastructure capacity and human resource capacity. Let me walk through each in turn and give you some examples of what I mean from the nonprofit food assistance world.

Administrative capacity refers to the ability of the nonprofit to navigate the administrative steps to actually run the programs. Think about the administrative work involved in setting up the emergency feeding response for the children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch but couldn’t receive the meals because they were sheltering in place at their homes. The community-based organizations that jumped in to respond had to deal with the administrative details of purchasing food and other supplies, meal preparation and delivery payment, scheduling, training and supervision for both staff and employees, the accounting, reporting and reimbursement paperwork involved, and the need to adhere to social distancing and other requirements by public health departments and other local authorities. Nonprofits have to have the capacity to consistently do the basics of keeping an organization running, funded, responsive and accountable over time, whether you are in a pandemic or not.

Financial capacity, a second lens, is also necessary to function, but it is often overlooked in thinking about an organizations ability to meet needs in a crisis. Simply put, in order to be nimble and responsive in a crisis, you have to have resources available to deploy. In terms of financial resources, you need money in the bank, or credit that can be accessed, or funders who can be called upon. This can often be overlooked, however, when we ask nonprofits to provide services for which they will be reimbursed later. Unfortunately, that means we expect nonprofits to be able to pay the bills or carry the expenses until the administrative capacity kicks in and the paperwork makes its way through the reimbursement process. Many smaller community-based organizations do not have extensive financial capacity. They may be primarily volunteer or donation based. A lack of financial capacity can serve as a barrier to the ability of nonprofits to meet needs in an emergency, or to even engage in certain programs on a normal day-to-day basis. Nonprofits have to ask – fundamentally – if they can afford some funding opportunities due to the processes involved. For example, federal programs to feed children in the summer, when school meals are not available, require nonprofit and local government partners to fund the program up front. A local church wanting to run a lunch program for local kids in a rural area may simply not have enough money in the bank to cover expenses over the initial months. They also bear the financial risk if something goes wrong in the reimbursement process.

Infrastructure capacity, a third lens, is also key. When I speak about infrastructure, I mean both bricks and mortar – that is buildings, space – a place to actually meet or provide services, as well as the equipment needed to provide the services. For example, in the food assistance programs trying to serve hungry kids you have to have a place and equipment to actually make the food, store the food, transport the food, serve the food – you get the picture. Something as important as having a kitchen available for large scale meal preparation is obviously necessary. Less obvious but just as important are the bags that will keep hot food hot and cold food cold and all the food safe while it’s being transported to those who need it. Infrastructure capacity is the space, equipment and tools needed to actually make the program happen.

Finally, none of this can be accomplished without people. The fourth lens of capacity is human resource capacity. In the nonprofit world at the community level it really is about people – the humans in the term “HR” instead of an administrative department – the volunteers and staff needed to put the programs on. Does the nonprofit have enough people with the right skills, interests, time and energy?

So now that you have sense of the types of capacity, how well are the nonprofits able to meet community needs during the COVID-19 crisis?

In terms of our first capacity lens, administrative capacity, early observations suggest the complexity of the COVID-19 crisis, with constantly changing circumstances and the uncertainty about the timeframe and extent of the crisis, presents significant administrative burdens and a real strain on administrative capacity of nonprofits. Guidelines and rules change as more information is gathered and the situation is re-assessed. Planning is difficult beyond day-to-day or week-to-week. A recent discussion I had with nonprofit leaders about where they need the most assistance focused on needing help with navigating the bureaucracy of paperwork around funding.

In terms of financial capacity, most small, community nonprofits do not have significant financial resources to fall back on for more than the very short term. Many rely on annual fundraising events for a significant portion of their budgets. COVID-19 struck at exactly the time when many community-based nonprofits would be holding annual fundraising events – think of the local spring gala and silent auction or the 5K fun run and the walk for your favorite charity. These types of event are major revenue sources for nonprofits, and their already shoe-string budgets are now a thread.

In terms of the third lens, nonprofits – especially food assistance nonprofits – have some level of infrastructure capacity, and some have been able to partner with others to expand that capacity. For example, school kitchens have continued to prepare meals, school buses have been used in some jurisdictions to deliver meals, some restaurants that are closed to the public are preparing food, shelf stable meals are even being delivered through the US mail to thousands of kids in rural areas of North Carolina. Of course, social distancing and safety requirements present dramatic barriers to program operations, on top of the ever-present barriers such as distance and lack of transportation in rural areas, and there are limits to the infrastructure capacity innovations which are making the system work for the time being.

Human resource capacity is probably the most worrisome capacity aspect in the nonprofit world right now, especially with food assistance. Most food assistance programs rely heavily on volunteers, particularly older individuals who are now part of the population most at risk from COVID-19. For example, think about the Meals on Wheels program. It generally relies on retired volunteer drivers to take food to homebound individuals, often the elderly. The organizations that had functioned due to a dedicated army of volunteers suddenly lack the ability to run its program. The army disappeared overnight. Washington state, California, Mississippi and North Carolina have called out the National Guard to help staff the food banks because of the lack of human resource capacity.

At the beginning of this podcast, I mentioned that there was a second question – what are the needs of the nonprofit organizations themselves? There’s significant discussion about the ability of many of these nonprofits to survive. According to the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits, three-quarters of North Carolina nonprofits report that the COVID-19 crisis has caused a significant impact on their general operations from canceling programs and events, to disrupting their service delivery, to having long-term budgetary and staffing implications.

When they lack the administrative capacity, financial resource depth, having to work with a changing infrastructure environment, and where the volunteer base cannot serve without considerable risk, nonprofits will face very difficult choices on how to survive the process of trying to help others.

There are several ways local governments can help:

  1. Speak often to the community leaders about immediate, mid-term and long-term needs in the nonprofit community. As the situation changes, needs change.
  2. Reduce administrative burden by simplifying paperwork, while at the same time making expectations and obligations clear. Explain. Communicate. Be consistent and reliable. And remember that funding accountability processes in normal times are probably not as flexible as would be appropriate in an emergency situation. A local government would not want to unknowingly create obstacles that generate risk or even penalize nonprofits.
  3. Think about ways you could support these organizations using local government resources that are being idled – for example, for hungry families, use of school buses to transport meals made at the school to neighborhoods on reverse routes.
  4. That resource may be manpower – the Food Banks in NC are receiving assistance from the North Carolina National Guard already, and farmers markets may be able to function with local park and rec staff help who are not doing regular programming.
  5. Finally, local government can serve as a convener and matchmaker, such as bringing people together to think of innovative ways to serve multiple needs, such as the food hubs popping up around the state.

For nonprofits, the National Council for Nonprofits has several pieces of advice:

  1. First and foremost is both self-care and community care – that is, to take steps as recommended to provide for the safety of people in your community, and while doing so, to make sure to take care of yourself and your staff. These are incredibly stressful times and we’re all in it together, so compassion is a key word.
  2. Second, as with local governments, communicate. Communicate with your board, with your clients, with your volunteers, staff and donors. It is even recommended that you do so with video conferencing rather than telephone or email at times so that you maintain the human connection.
  3. Third, there are a variety of efforts underway to support nonprofits and/or businesses as we move into re-opening. Unfortunately, the information can be overwhelming, changing and confusing. Fortunately, resources are becoming available to help guide you through the bureaucratic process – these are regularly updated on association websites.
  4. Financial stability is the new priority – and difficult conversations will have to be conducted around the balance between services and sustainability.
  5. For my part, I want to add that this can be a time of innovation, of re-creation from the ground up. We are being forced into natural experiments, so I suggest it is worth the time to look with new eyes on what can work or not. Gather data. This will not be the last crisis we encounter, and we need to learn from our experience.
  6. Finally, nonprofits can also serve as conveners and matchmakers, like local governments can. In fact, an ideal situation may be where there is an established relationship with key players on both sides to make coordination quick, easy and trusted.

Nonprofits need all of us to help if they are to survive. Government and private entities need the expertise and networks of nonprofits to successfully reach all members of our communities. To access the benefits, governmental and philanthropic funders need to understand the operations of nonprofits so that they can support and not inhibit the success of these important community partners.


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