Jeanne C. Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits
When we look back on 2020, what will our story be? What will your story be?
For many of us in the nonprofit sector, our strengths have been challenged and our resilience tested. Yet, once again in the face of crisis and disaster, the nonprofits in our communities have risen to meet the challenges, working closely with philanthropy and the public sector to meet critical needs. Some organizations have had to make difficult decisions to keep their doors open. Those providing direct services that include food, shelter, housing, transportation, child care, and education have been called to serve more as demand for their services has increased. Philanthropic partners have tried to increase flexibility to support nonprofits’ ability to respond with needed services.
Undoubtedly, we will remember this as the year of COVID-19. Words like pandemic, pivot, going virtual, and “zoom me” have become part of our everyday vocabulary. We learned of new ways to care for one another – keeping six feet of distance between us and wearing a mask in public.
We also focused in new ways on racial injustice as we saw horrific violence, many of us from the comfort of our own homes, against Black citizens in our streets and in their homes. The realities of racial disparities were further exposed as communities of color experienced a disproportionate share of illness and death because of the virus. The dual impact of COVID-19 and racism bore down on our lives, challenging our norms and our ways of life. Our lives were not quickly returning to any sense of normalcy any time soon, and we began to understand this.
At the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits, we began the year with anticipation and a look forward to celebrate the ‘Year of the Nonprofit.’ As we began the year, we were mostly unaware of COVID-19 spreading in our midst. Then it seemed suddenly, in mid-March, that our lives were turned around. We did not see what was coming.
When we left our offices to work remotely, we thought this would be a temporary arrangement, perhaps for a couple of weeks, and then life would return to normal, right? Unfortunately, as we close out this year, we have not and will not return to life as we knew it.
Organizations seized opportunities to adapt in many different ways as they continued to achieve their missions in the face of this disaster. Calvin Allen of Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation shared that their work with nonprofits in rural communities facing disaster resilience actually grew stronger during these past months of the pandemic. They focused on compiling a comprehensive list of resources and addressed gaps in service more directly. Like many of us, they moved to a virtual meeting world seeking to reach direct service providers who were anxious and becoming exhausted. As an outreach organization, they found that their funding grew significantly and were able to strengthen partnerships in the rural communities in which they work. Their outreach to Latino/a/x communities became stronger while continuing to focus on the needs of Black communities.
When asked about some of the positive outcomes arising in this pandemic, Amy Lytle, executive director of HandsOn Northwestern North Carolina, shared how she and her team launched a weekly “Nonprofit Happy Hour” networking event. Bringing people together across their service area in the Triad in the very early days of the pandemic gave people a chance to check in, share struggles and successes, and ask questions related to the rapidly changing news of the day. Their weekly gatherings included topics that ranged from legal issues, working from home challenges, the PPP application process, funding opportunities, and mental health resources. These informal gatherings among peers were invaluable, especially at the onset of the pandemic, reducing the sense of isolation among nonprofit staff facing uncertainty.
Down east, Stephanie Straughn, program manager with QENO (Quality Enhancement for Nonprofit Organizations-UNCW), shared how Brunswick Family Assistance (BFA), who assists families and individuals in crisis, went above and beyond the call to meet the needs of their clients while assuring their staff’s safety. They experienced a sharp influx of families who suffered from food insecurity resulting from school being closed and many losing their jobs. Because of the pandemic, like many other direct service organizations that depended on volunteers to supplement staff, they faced an immediate reduction of those able to assist. In the face of these challenges, BFA managed to meet the families’ needs without volunteers and while working remotely. They learned that some families were having difficulty with transportation or unable to leave their homes due to the virus contagion. BFA stepped up and began delivering food and meals to assure that those in need would not go hungry. While pivoting to a new way of caring for their constituents, they continued to provide needed financial support for utilities in the hope that families would not fall far behind on their bills. These essential workers rose to the occasion and showed their dedication to their community.
I believe that even in the face of this pandemic and the realities of racial injustice, the stories we will share and remember will be those that resonate with our goodwill toward others. We will remember the workers and volunteers who valiantly assisted others, to bring food, offer shelter, and share resources. We will remember acts of kindness and the grace shared from one to another. We will remember how we reached out across our networks to offer support.
These examples of heroism and reaching out to others abound in all of our communities across the state. Nonprofit folks across the state know the roles they have played and they have been essential. At the risk of wallowing in the reality of the negative, which is not my usual approach, I feel the need to recognize the pain and suffering that many have endured this past year. It is real and inescapable. For those who lost loved ones, I am deeply sorry for your loss.
That said, I must also live into the future with the optimism and faith that guides my life. These have been a part of my story and the foundation of my work for 40 plus years, working in the nonprofit sector, believing that together we can make a difference. Like those of you who have re-committed yourselves to your mission and your organization, your story is important. You help improve the lives of our friends, families, and communities. You are making a difference.
The Center will continue to share stories of how nonprofits are serving our communities. My hope going into 2021 is that we will finally identify a national plan to respond to this national disaster. We have the hope of a vaccine and the promise of a plan that will inoculate as many of us as possible, as soon as possible. We have the hope of bringing our communities together in new ways to address racial injustice. We can continue to build on the foundations formed in our communities to help those in need, to improve the quality of life for all.
The differences we make in our communities stand on the shoulders of our dedicated staff, volunteers, boards of directors, donors, and public and private support. More than ever this year, we learned how important it is to collaborate, to work together. As we look at 2020 in the rearview mirror, let us also look ahead with optimism in the belief that we will remember all that we achieved. These are the stories we will remember and share. For your story and all you do, we at the Center say thank you for your service – we are here for you, and here with you.