BDO International, a financial advisory firm, reports that during the pandemic, 35% of U.S. nonprofits showed an increase in demand for their services, while 75% had a decrease in funding. In Westchester, it has been no different, with nonprofit organizations being asked to do more with less as they continue to face adversity during the era of COVID.
“So many of our nonprofits did everything they could to not miss a beat,” says Jan Fisher, executive director of Nonprofit Westchester. The White Plains agency supports other Westchester nonprofits to strengthen their impact on the county. “It was about thinking strategically, making changes, and meeting the day-to-day challenges of protecting people and keeping them healthy and safe.”
“I believe it is true that many donors want to support basic life needs, and it has affected us.”
—JANET LANGSAM DIRECTOR, ARTSWESTCHESTER
The human-services industry is a people business by nature, and connecting with people during the pandemic has required creativity. Making that connection while eliminating, or vastly reducing, physical contact meant balancing the safety of all involved with the efficiency of doing things virtually.
“Creativity was, and is, the number-one priority,” says Jennifer Flowers, CEO of Mamaroneck’s Accreditation Guru, which helps nonprofits get and maintain certifications and accreditations. “Some immediately shifted to a virtual platform, but for many organizations, it has meant completely rewriting the employee handbook. It is still fluid, and I think we are still writing the new normal.”
Zoom, Google Meet, and Webex are, of course, at the heart of the new normal. The technology to connect people through the internet existed before March of 2020, but it was not central to daily business. For many, that virtual pivot wasn’t as easy as it was for others. Small nonprofits often operate without much margin, and their IT systems can lag behind the rest of the business world. There was also a steep learning curve, not just for those receiving services but also for the professionals trying to deliver those supports.
“A very positive thing was the recent policy changes that reduced the barriers to telehealth to deliver services. Organizations were able to bring professionals and people together without the risk of exposure,” Flowers says. “People generally found it helpful, but it does require technology, and some people don’t have the privacy or a secure space to be able to share what they need to with a therapist. They also have to know how to use the technology, and the digital divide is very real.”
Nonprofits know they can’t assume every client has the tech or is computer literate, so an all-virtual delivery of services just wasn’t feasible. When Zoom couldn’t get it done, it called on the creativity of the organizations to find another way, especially in situations where the goal is to physically get resources in people’s hands.
914Cares, in North White Plains, is such a program. Its mission is focused on ending poverty in Westchester County, and much of what it does requires literally reaching out to people to get them what they need. Those needs often aren’t glamorous or exciting, but they are real, not just options.
“We have a lot of what we call ‘banks,’” reports 914Cares CEO Jessica Reinmann. “We have a baby bank, with the necessities someone needs to take care of an infant. We have a diaper bank, and we have a clothing bank. We had to find a safe way to get people what they needed.”
“In some cases, donors recognized the adversity agencies were up against and increased their gifts.”
—STACEY COHEN CEO, CO-COMMUNICATIONS
Many people don’t realize the extent of poverty in Westchester nor how it manifests itself. Most of us are fortunate enough to not have to be concerned about meeting our basic needs. But for others in our county, the lack of resources can be paralyzing.
“One of our most important initiatives is the Period Project,” says Reinmann. “We provide feminine-hygiene products to women who can’t afford them. It may be a topic many of us don’t like to talk about, but it is a serious need.” It is a very good example of a need that may seem simple, but has far reaching effects on lives beyond just the individual.
“If a young woman can’t afford menstruation products, they don’t leave the house. They are embarrassed; they ruin clothes; they can’t go to work or school, and they put themselves at health risk. The Period Project addresses that problem,” Reinmann says.
Pre-pandemic, the products were distributed in schools, so when students stopped going to their schools, there was no way to get the products to the young women who needed them most. 914Cares’ Period Program devised a drop-off system that minimized physical contact, and they were able to continue to get supplies to approximately 600 women every month.
914Cares is a small organization, staffed with 16 part-time people and volunteers. Reinmann points to a couple of factors that enabled the organization to be effective during the pandemic.
“We are very passionate about what we do, and our board is very passionate. I do everything I can to get our staff and volunteers to check their egos at the door,” says Reinmann. “The people doing the work really care, and our board is very responsive.” As CEO, she doesn’t take a salary and makes sure that every donated dollar goes to programming and not to salaries. During the pandemic, 914Cares received a grant to cover staff salaries.
The pandemic highlighted the need for nonprofits to have strong boards of directors. For many up-and-comers in the for-profit sector, board volunteering is part of the networking-success-ladder blueprint. Many board members are committed professionals who are generous with their time, talent, and treasure, as fundraisers like to say. Others are primarily concerned with resume-building. The pandemic brought to light the need for a truly active and committed board.
“Collaboration was and remains essential,” Flowers points out. “The organizations who are really engaged with their boards were able to really get assistance in weathering the pandemic.” For nonprofits, boards of directors have several important functions. They raise funds; they make connections; they advocate and open doors throughout the community. All these skills and functions were called into demand in the last year and half but especially the ability to fundraise.
“Nonprofits rely on special events for fundraising. During the pandemic, some were able to creatively move events virtually, while others struggled,” says Stacey Cohen (fourth from right in photo), CEO of White Plains’ Co-Communications, which handles public relations for many nonprofits. “I like to say: ‘If you keep doing the same things, you’re standing still.’ During the pandemic, if you kept doing the same things, you were headed in reverse.”
“Creativity was, and is, the number-one priority.”
—JENNIFER FLOWERS, CEO, ACCREDITATION GURU
Cohen points out that staging a virtual event is not easy. She says it was imperative to think outside the box when it came to communicating with board members and donors. She also says that it wasn’t all bad news when it came to fundraising.
“In some cases, donors recognized the adversity agencies were up against and increased their gifts. People really stepped up and were quite generous. I’ve heard from nonprofits that their number of smaller gifts have increased, as well,” Cohen says.
Reinmann adds that “donors are now more focused on basic and essential life needs. They want to know where their money is going and how it is helping people survive.” That means agencies whose missions are focused on the arts or for organizations involved in large-scale capital campaigns have faced some very real fundraising challenges.
During the pandemic, one of the most successful shifts to a virtual world was made by ArtsWestchester, in White Plains. They kept programming going and offered a wide range of performances, lessons, and seminars, which, because of the technology, may have reached more of the community than ever. Fundraising, however, was difficult.
“I believe it is true that many donors want to support basic life needs, and it has affected us,” offers Janet Langsam, director of ArtsWestchester. “We had a 15 percent cut across the board to all of our employees’ salaries. It was painful.”
Perhaps healthcare faced the hardest climb during the pandemic. Treating people with the virus, being overwhelmed with cases, and trying to keep their staff members safe was a priority. To say it was a challenge would be a gross understatement, and though they received generous community support, other fundraising initiatives had to be put on hold.
“The pandemic has drastically changed the philanthropic landscape, with most foundations only accepting applications for COVID relief. This has undoubtedly hindered our $30 million capital campaign,” says Pat Tursi, CEO of Elizabeth Seton Children’s Hospital, in Yonkers. “The ‘Home to Stay’ campaign has now resumed in full force as we urgently work to create an age-appropriate home for young adults with severe and complex medical needs.” Tursi adds that the campaign has raised $4 million so far, but they are still seeking that all-important leadership gift.
Nonprofit leaders also have said that some changes are here for good. Some of those changes promote flexibility and create new opportunities. Others may not be so ideal.
“There are definitely changes that seem to be permanent, and many of them are for the good. Virtual meetings enable staff to reduce driving time and to attend more meetings with convenience. That means more collaboration and there are opportunities for more training when done virtually,” says Rachel Halperin, CEO of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, in Yonkers. “It also enables us to reach some clients that we never could.”
Halperin also points out a crucial limitation, and it is one that all nonprofits have had to wrestle with as they plan for an uncertain future.
“There’s no doubt that the virtual world offers quite a bit, but at the end of the day,” Halperin says, “there are some people who need a warm hand on their shoulders and someone they can look in the eye. Nothing can replace human contact.”