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Amelia  Ahl headshot

COVID-19 Has Pushed Nonprofits to the Limits, Especially Those Led by People of Color

By Amelia Ahl
BIPOC-led Nonprofits

Many businesses around the globe have demonstrated adaptability and resilience as they faced the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some companies, often led by their employees, have also had somewhat of a role in supporting the uprising against police brutality and systemic racism. Others have been a model on how to navigate through crisis, as with Intel activating its in-house pandemic response team. Then we have other industries that just come across as looking out for themselves, as in the measures airlines have taken to lobby for increased government bailouts.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit sector is struggling, and it doesn’t have the financial largess and political connections needed to allow these organizations to help people who need assistance the most.

Stretched to the limit, BIPOC-led nonprofits are struggling

To that end, new research from the nonprofit activator Building Movement Project (BMP) illuminates the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and systemic racism on the nonprofit sector. BMP shares the voices and experiences of more than 400 nonprofit executive directors and CEOs of color in its latest report, which the group issued earlier this month.

The report’s findings show that nonprofits run by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have been disproportionately affected by social upheaval and COVID-19, cautioning that leaders in the field fear the worst is yet to come.

The nonprofit sector is the third largest employer in the United States after retailers and manufacturers, and until recently, it provided nearly 12 million people with relatively stable employment. The pandemic and subsequent economic uncertainty have sparked instability across the sector, with Johns Hopkins University estimating that more than a million nonprofit jobs could be lost during 2020.

BIPOC-led nonprofits hurt by the philanthropy gap

Job losses and funding cuts in the nonprofit sector threaten to worsen the racial wealth gap in the United States; the result could cost the economy more than $1 trillion in the next 10 years, according to recent estimates by McKinsey. And the affects will hit communities of color particularly hard.

Nonprofit organizations led by people of color are generally under-resourced, with less staff and fewer financial resources than those led by their white counterparts. That gap has been exacerbated since the start of the pandemic. At the same time, the BMP report indicates many of these nonprofits have also been showing up at the front lines to lead the sector’s response through advocacy, coalition-building, and organizing in support of anti-racism, equity and social justice.

“[Nonprofits] are charting new paths for systemic change, solidarity and sustainability,” the report reads. “The nonprofit sector, philanthropy, and government actors must follow the lead of POC-led nonprofits in order to secure a more equitable and just future for everyone.”

The research found that 87 percent of BIPOC leaders surveyed are working in communities that are hardest hit by the pandemic and current economic crisis, and two-thirds of them work with communities that don't have stable housing.

Nonprofit leaders also reported that due to governments’ inefficiencies in their response to COVID-19, they are scrambling to bridge gaps in the provision of necessary community services, with more than half of respondents stating that their constituents had lost access to basic services in recent months. In response, the majority of organizations increased their services in the hopes of maintaining some sense of stability in their communities.

COVID-19 is taking a toll on these nonprofits and their leaders

According to BPM, women leaders of color are bearing an undue psychological, physical, and emotional burden as they guide organizational responses to the current social and political environment. The toll this work takes on women leaders of color is exacerbated by intersectionality, a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race and gender affect the experience of Black women. Furthermore, these leaders are often running organizations that serve communities whose experiences are also shaped by this intersectionality.

BMP cautions that the current crisis will worsen for BIPOC nonprofit leaders and the communities they serve, with fears of a COVID-19 resurgence, continued implementation of racist policies, the threat of recession and growing wealth inequality.

The long-term success and stability of these organizations and BIPOC communities across the country is in peril, with organizations experiencing austerity measures and reductions or loss of their government contracts and funding. While the crisis is already acute across the nonprofit sector, the repercussions extend beyond the confines of these organizations and their constituents.

The future of BIPOC-led organizations and the communities they serve is at risk unless the philanthropic sector, government, and other nonprofits follow their leadership, according to BMP’s research.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how the well-being of organizations and communities is intrinsically connected — and makes it clear that instability in the nonprofit sector also poses a risk to businesses and their stakeholders.

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Image credit: Aaron Cass/Unsplash

Amelia  Ahl headshot

Amelia Ahl is an MBA/MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School, pursuing a degree in sustainable solutions. She has a background in humanitarian and international development, which fueled her interest in regenerative business models. Amelia's experience ranges from social business and impact investing to policy and the nonprofit sector. Her research and work is guided by social justice and antiracism. Amelia is a consultant for sustainable businesses and the co-founder of an accountability group for female and non-binary entrepreneurs.

Read more stories by Amelia Ahl