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Westchester Nonprofits Cope With Unprecedented Challenges

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Westchester nonprofits tackle numerous challenges. Adobe Stock | Romolo Tavani

Between climate change, human rights setbacks, and rising housing costs, area nonprofits face an unprecedented convergence of challenges.

The entire business world has been dealing with unprecedented disruptions over the past three years — and the nonprofit sector has not been immune from them. In 2020 and 2021, it was the pandemic that impacted every business sector, including the not-for-profit organizations that serve Westchester residents. But while the pandemic’s effects retreated in 2022, they were replaced by uncommonly difficult economic pressures, like skyrocketing inflation and social issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, extreme weather events, and the recent Supreme Court ruling restricting abortion rights.

According to Jan Fisher, executive director of Nonprofit Westchester (NPW), it may be too early to know how these events have affected the nonprofit landscape. NPW is the county’s only membership organization dedicated to advancing and advocating the needs and interests of the nonprofit sector, the people it serves, and the nonprofit workforce.

One thing these events have not derailed is fundraising. “We only have hard data and facts for first-quarter 2022 fundraising trends in the nonprofit sector, and they would not reflect any impact on fundraising imposed by the Supreme Court decision or severe weather,” Fisher says. “Overall, environmental nonprofits receive only 3 percent of philanthropic dollars nationwide while dealing with one of the most vital issues of our times.” So any change would be small.

Westchester nonprofits face a variety of challenges. Adobe Stock | Romolo Tavani

But fundraising is only part of the equation. “The bottom line is that neither of these situations helps nonprofits, financially or otherwise, or the people who seek our services and the opportunities to improve their lives and meet very complex needs in any way,” Fisher says. “When human rights and women’s rights are limited, nonprofits are tasked with additional work to meet very serious human needs. So, any analysis of increased funding has to be coupled with increased costs and other factors, such as the Great Resignation, inflation, a divided nation, and increased demand for nonprofit services.”

For example, extreme weather events, like this summer’s scorching heat waves, have resulted in increased need for shelter, food, healthcare, community centers, and other critical services — and thus increased need for nonprofits and the work they do. “This increased demand is rarely coupled with a meaningful increase in philanthropic funding to meet the demand of already underfunded nonprofits,” Fisher says. “This is not because people aren’t generous. It’s because it takes a great deal of work to fundraise and retain donors.”

westchester nonprofits

Nonprofit Westchester’s Good Governance event focused on advancing racial equity and inclusion on nonprofits’ boards of directors. Photos courtesy of Amy Rivera | Nonprofit Westchester.

Women’s Rights

Westchester nonprofits have not yet felt the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding a woman’s right to choose in the same way counties in other states have. “I am not sure that they will,” notes Fisher. “I could hypothesize that given the commitment of Westchester people who support women-serving organizations, coupled with the Supreme Court decision, people may give to such organizations in other, less progressive, states.”

Cheryl Brannan, founder and CEO of Sister to Sister International (STSI), agrees. “I think New York and Westchester County have been ahead of the curve in passing laws ensuring that women have autonomy over their bodies,” says Brannan, a local, state, and national leader in addressing issues impacting women and girls, with a focus on those of color. “I know that many women who have the means will visit New York to have abortion and health services that are not offered in their states.”

The recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Brannan says, is “burdensome and places Black and other women of color in the South and other states in a dire situation related to access to abortion and basic healthcare. This should be a human right. This is totally unacceptable and why STSI has been working with our national, state, and county government officials and nonprofits to mitigate the circumstances that women find themselves in today.”

In 2021, Brannan was invited to join U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer when he announced a three-part plan to address the maternal mortality and racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes. The event was held at St. John’s Riverside Hospital, which has the only maternity ward in Yonkers. In March 2022, Schumer returned to the hospital to announce he had secured $990,000 for critical upgrades to the unit that will fund a new, racial equity, community-based program to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women.

Racial Equity

The awakening of many Americans to racial equity issues over the past three years may have also made a difference in fundraising, but at a great social and psychological cost. “Let me say that most nonprofits are mission-driven and want to make a social impact. When additional funding comes as a result of someone being killed by authorities in a racist and heinous fashion, like what happened to George Floyd, it then becomes bittersweet,” Brannan says. “In some regard, it’s like getting blood money and gives one pause on the very dire situation our country is in today.”

Brannan added that she believes it is much easier to throw money at an issue than it is to make the tough decisions and to truly pursue racial justice and systemic change. “I would not say all funders have adopted this mindset, and many are trying to fund programs that assist in undoing racism and support programs, like pay equity, Black maternal health, and STEAM and STEM for Black girls and women.”

Amy Price, chief development officer at the Westchester Center for Racial Equity, says recent events make the need for funds more critical than ever. “With all that is happening locally, nationally, and worldwide on the social-justice and racial-equity fronts — along with inflation, escalating utility costs, and a looming recession — it remains an especially challenging time for nonprofits overall and the people we serve.”

The Center for Racial Equity, launched in April 2021 by YWCA White Plains & Central Westchester, is a dedicated space and organization working toward racial equity in Westchester County. The Center provides community resources for individuals and organizations committed to racial equity, racial justice, and antiracism. “While the YWCA White Plains and Central Westchester has experienced generous corporate funding commitments and engagement around social justice and women’s economic empowerment, one of our biggest challenges is translating individuals’ passion into philanthropic support, especially during election season, when many of these same individuals also feel compelled to support important political campaigns,” Price says.

She notes that the pandemic only heightened the needs of the people that the Center serves, while the cost of delivering services has also increased. “The tremendous human need at every level means that the nonprofits in Westchester County are ever more reliant on donor generosity to fulfill basic funding needs,” adds Price.

Climate Change

The notable effects of climate change do not seem to have resulted in increased donations to local environmental nonprofits. Groundwork Hudson Valley, which creates sustainable environmental change in urban neighborhoods through community-based partnerships that promote equity, youth leadership, and economic opportunity, hasn’t seen an uptick in funding from individuals or foundations, according to its executive director, Brigitte Griswold. “One thing that has shifted, which I am fairly hopeful about, is that corporate and government sources of funding have increased,” Griswold notes.

On the government side, the federal Inflation Reduction Act allocated $369 billion for climate and clean energy. At the state level, in April 2020, Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature approved a $4.2 billion bond for a multiyear investment in clean water, air, wildlife, and the environment. This bill was initially approved for the 2020 budget resolution, but it was tabled when the pandemic hit. Now called the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Green Jobs Bond Act, it is the first such legislation since 1996, and climate-change organizations are hopeful that it will make a difference. According to Riverkeeper, the Ossining-based environmental nonprofit, “Investments from previous bond acts have yielded benefits for every corner of New York, investing in public parks, wildlife conservation, open-space preservation, water infrastructure investment, toxic site cleanups, and more.”

“The corporate world seems to be paying more attention to increasing their support for social justice and environmental issues,” Griswold adds. “I find that hopeful.” She also is optimistic about another trend: business and government “looking at the intersectionality of these issues, which I haven’t seen historically.” The state bond act, she notes, is expressly for environmental work, but it also mandates that 35% to 40% of the allocated funds go to underserved communities. “The intersectionality of racial equity, and environmental health, that’s new,” Griswold adds.

Groundwork Hudson Valley, The Saw Mill River Coalition, and volunteers gather for the annual Great Saw Mill River Cleanup

Groundwork Hudson Valley, The Saw Mill River Coalition, and volunteers gather for the annual Great Saw Mill River Cleanup in April. Photo Courtesy of Groundwork Hudson Valley.

Griswold notes that Bank of America has invested $1.25 billion nationally in racial equity. “In the past two years, it has quadrupled support for our organization to support climate justice work,” she adds, with up to $250,000 going to the group in 2021. Among other initiatives, the money helped create a map of Yonkers to correlate extreme heat, flooding, and redlining. “Those areas are also the hottest areas,” she says. “We are working to help those impacted by extreme heat.”

Though Groundwork Hudson Valley hasn’t seen any of the money yet, Griswold hopes that it will provide new opportunities for groups to team up and “hold hands with one another.” For example, the organization has used $400 million in funding from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ foundation to partner with Westhab, Westchester’s largest provider of housing and services for the homeless and its largest nonprofit developer of affordable and supportive housing. Groundwork Hudson is also painting the rooftops of some Westhab properties white in order to reflect heat and reduce energy costs for low-income residents.

Housing

Richard Nightingale, president and CEO of Westhab, agrees that collaboration in the nonprofit world is at an all-time high. “It has been growing for years,” he notes. “I always thought the competitive nature of nonprofits makes no sense. If I can help someone through a partnership, why wouldn’t I?” He also believes that every social issue connects to housing.

“If you work with seniors, in foster care, in the disability space, there is not enough housing. It becomes the umbrella issue for the nonprofit world,” Nightingale says. “The intersectionality is so huge. Even environmental justice is about dense urban environments being literally hotter than green suburbs. The issues are life and death — even the sun discriminates.”

Nightingale believes that there is increased awareness and dialogue this year about income inequality and cost-of-living pressures for those at the bottom. The elevation of this issue helps make the affordable-housing case not just about something that is ethically the right thing to do but also an economic necessity to ensure that there is an available workforce for the diversity of positions that need to be filled. “With so much conversation about inflation and the cost of living, in some ways I think there is a growing understanding of how hard it is to make it in the metropolitan New York area,” he says.

In the past, the response to his pitch often was: “Why don’t they just get better jobs?” Now, Nightingate says that more people understand that income inequality and high cost-of-living challenges are not due to a labor shortage, but a wage shortage. “You can’t live on $15 an hour,” he notes. “The coffee shop is closed because nobody can work there, because a barista can’t afford housing within an hour of the shop. Income inequality has become a mainstream topic, which brings the people we serve more into focus.”

The biggest challenge remains the time it takes to build housing. Even if laws changed tomorrow and money poured in, land and approvals for developments are still required. “More people understand the economic realities of people at the bottom,” Nightingale concludes. “But that doesn’t mean anything new is being built for them the next day.”

Westchester Nonprofits

The coalition of community partners who make up Sister to Sister International’s Black Woman Girl-Child Initiative helps improve the lives of Black women and girls throughout Westchester. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Brannan.

Nonprofits Themselves

Along with the work they do and the people they serve, nonprofits also need to care for themselves. And they have struggled in many of the same ways as other businesses, resulting in an impact on life in Westchester County.

“Nonprofits in New York and Westchester employ 20 percent of the workforce and benefit every person at every income level,” Fisher says. “Our communities and families depend on a stable and thriving nonprofit sector that delivers the vast majority of human services in our neighborhoods, villages, and towns.”

Nonprofit organizations provide critical services that contribute to economic vibrancy, stability, and mobility, and strengthen communities for people of all ages and backgrounds. “Nonprofit essential workers — childcare and nursing-home providers, care workers for people with disabilities in residential settings, and so many more — took care of our families before and during the pandemic and now,” Fisher notes. But income disparity makes it hard for these organizations to sustain themselves. Nonprofit workers, Fisher said, “should not be struggling and should not be living at or below the poverty line. But too many are, and the situation has worsened over many years. This trend cannot continue.”

Climate change has affected a wide variety of nonprofit organizations as well. “During various storms, all our equipment was down, and we had to rejigger budgets to address increased expenses,” she says.

Nevertheless, Fisher remains optimistic. “This sector is an extremely resilient bunch, filled with people with expertise and commitment. We have pivoted so many times during every national disaster, every social crisis. We are the first to be cut [from budgets] and always underfunded, so we already know what it’s like.”

What she really hopes for, she says, is a shift in thinking. There is a tendency to focus on fundraising and not on what the nonprofit sector does for the community — what it costs as opposed to what value it adds. “There is always a focus on needing money, not on what they do for the community, investing in the community, fortifying the community,” Fisher says. “I wish we didn’t need philanthropy, that we lived in a society where these are funded fully.”

But we don’t, and outside forces, from pandemics and economic downturns to social injustice and a world in climate crisis, aren’t good for the people Westchester nonprofits serve — or their bottom lines. “They always end up costing us more money,” Fisher concludes.

Related: 6 Activists & Advocates Working to Spark Change in Westchester

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