How nonprofits can cope during COVID-19 pandemic

Linda Czipo. (File photo)

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a devastating effect on the nonprofit community in New Jersey and across the country. Nearly all of the nonprofits responding to surveys in March and April by the Center for Non-Profits and Council of New Jersey Grantmakers reported severe or moderate disruptions to their services, including staggering losses of revenue and thousands of layoffs.

It’s times of crisis that elevate appreciation of the importance of nonprofits in our lives. Unfortunately, past experience has shown that the financial downturns that accompany these crises tend to hit nonprofits immediately, while economic recovery reaches the nonprofit community much later than other sectors.

How can nonprofits cope and adjust in these turbulent waters?

Stay informed. Bookmark key government sites such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of New Jersey’s COVID-19 information hub for up-to-date directives. The Center for Non-Profits maintains a comprehensive COVID-19 resource page featuring a wide array of relevant nonprofit information, including links to webinars, operational guidance, public policy updates, relief funds and more.

Communicate. Whether you’re providing front-line services, whether programs are suspended or you’re open but working remotely, the importance of regular communication can’t be overstated. Be sure your stakeholders — staff, board, volunteers, constituents — know what’s going on, and update them regularly. Talk about the importance of your mission and programs, within and outside the crisis. If you don’t have a reference to COVID-19 on your website yet, be sure to add one, even if it’s just to let visitors know your organization’s status during the emergency, how to reach you, how to support your work or to link to key government sites like for assistance and referrals.

Examine your finances and programs. The pandemic has wreaked financial havoc on organizations of all sizes and types. Reexamine your financial projections as well as your programming so that you can plan for different scenarios. Perform a cost-benefit analysis on your functional areas, looking at revenue streams and expense lines. Examine which programs are core to your mission and whether there are secondary programs that need to be adjusted or if other entities might fulfill that need. Engage your board in the decision-making process.

Have frank discussions with your donors and funders. Remember, your current supporters are already invested in your organization, and they want it to succeed. Be clear about how the crisis is affecting your nonprofit and its programs, how you’re stepping up, the challenges you’re facing and how you’re adapting. Be direct about how they can help. If you’re having trouble meeting restricted grant or contract obligations, many funders have been flexible in allowing organizations to repurpose the money. For canceled events, ask your sponsors if you can retain the sponsorship as a donation. Many funders in New Jersey have increased their grantmaking in recognition of the magnitude of the crisis.

Looking for targeted COVID-19 funding? Check these regularly updated pages from the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers (New Jersey-focused) and (U.S.). For government grants and loans, see the New Jersey COVID-19 business page.

Begin to plan (carefully) for reopening. For those not already providing front-line programming, discussion has shifted to phased reopening of public areas, for-profit business and nonprofits. The decision of whether and when to resume in-person activities requires careful consideration of safety, human resources, financial, programmatic, risk management and other factors. Government agencies such as the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration have issued guidelines for safe work spaces and public gatherings, and the Center for Non-Profits will soon be issuing a compilation guidebook tailored to nonprofit concerns.

Remember stress management. The crisis has taken a tremendous physical and mental health toll on many levels. Help staff and stakeholders to connect to mental health and self-care resources, and make morale a priority in the physical or virtual workplace.

Prioritize equity. It’s clear that the virus is having a disparate impact on people in poverty, communities of color and other marginalized populations, laying bare the human toll of deep-seated inequities and unaddressed needs. In program delivery and recovery, comprehensive actions to address this imbalance will be critical.

Advocate. Government policies are pivotal to how quickly and how well nonprofits, and society overall, weather and recover from the crisis. Nonprofits offer invaluable expertise and are vital partners with government and for-profits in forging solutions. After many years of underfunding of vital infrastructure and supports, a significant infusion of funds is needed now and in the long term. Be sure government leaders are hearing from you, and become engaged with membership organizations and other leaders in your field to amplify your voice.

Complete the census and urge your networks, clients and stakeholders to complete it. With billions of dollars and electoral representation at stake for the next 10 years, filling out the 2020 Census is the single most important way to help secure critical funding for New Jersey’s needs. Let’s make sure New Jersey is counted, for our communities, for nonprofits and for everyone who needs them.

The road ahead will be bumpy and challenging. Staying connected will help to make the journey a little smoother.

Linda M. Czipo is CEO and president of the Center for Non-Profits, New Jersey’s statewide umbrella organization for the charitable community.

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