GENEROCITY • Nonprofits find a way, and now must chart a future course

Monday, May 18, 2020

Originally published by Generocity

Nonprofits find a way, and now must chart a future course

May 18, 2020


This guest column was written by Matt Bergheiser, the president of University City District.


My son and I share a New Year’s Eve ritual of watching the film Apollo 13 together.

Like all parents, I cling to traditions with my children, none more than this one as my newly minted teenager won’t much longer find holiday revelry in a movie night with his old man.

My favorite part of this true tale of a failed lunar mission and safe return home is when the actor Ed Harris, portraying NASA Flight Director Gene Krantz, refocuses distraught flight engineers pondering the fate of a wounded spacecraft 200,000 miles from earth. Tiring of predictions of doom, he demands a status report on what’s still working. “What have we got on the ship that’s good?”

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, it feels like we’re in a “what’s still good on the ship?” moment as we tally the toll on Philadelphia’s nonprofits. Much conversation has focused on the sector’s deficits — who is in danger of shutting their doors, how our business models need to change. But for a status report on what’s good, simply look around.

The donations pouring in to buy food for those in need fuel a sophisticated distribution network run by the most resourceful nonprofits anywhere. Even in normal times — if the daily epidemic of thousands of hungry families can be normalized — these organizations are on round-the-clock detective missions to locate excess food and repurpose it for good. 

Other groups, already strained beyond capacity before the crisis hit, have done what nonprofits do best: they’ve figured out how to do even more, working against the odds and in defiance of their balance sheets to house a few additional families experiencing homelessness or treat a handful more souls shattered by addiction. 

In the throes of quarantine, Philadelphians desperate for fresh air and a brisk walk have sought out places like Schuylkill Banks and Race Street Pier — public spaces built, nurtured and tended to with love by nonprofit organizations. And the bicycle lanes quickly becoming the lifeblood of safe transit in our city are there only by dint of the tireless work of a longstanding 501(c)3 coalition of advocates.

The work of nonprofits is everywhere to help us through the crisis. When small businesses on the cusp of insolvency initially struggled to access federal relief funding, nonprofits stepped into the breach.

In an old building in West Philly that once pulsed with the music of American Bandstand, a community organization churns out the latest hits — stimulus loans to entrepreneurs of color who would otherwise be shut out.  

Tiny theatre companies with threadbare budgets reinvented their work overnight to bring song and dance to computer screens instead of stages.

A Center City organization that operates more like a tech start-up than a 501(c)3 has connected thousands to public benefits and financial stability.

And, across Philadelphia, nonprofits are increasingly the vehicles through which we consume our crisis news, and channel our desire to respond and help.

I am immersed in the nonprofit world through my work at University City District (UCD), the economic development organization in West Philadelphia. Among the most indelible moments at UCD are the opportunities to sit in on graduations at our West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, which connects talented residents to life-changing jobs. As so much of the work of all of our nonprofits centers on moments like these when dreams can be realized, I always remind myself that our graduates are there because a whole bunch of people willed them to be — the graduates themselves and their families, of course, but also scores of colleagues, board members, funders, partners. 

So many people — on all kinds of projects across all of our organizations — refused to stop pushing forward even when they were worried about keeping the lights on or getting the next dollar in the door. 

Nonprofits find a way. They will things into existence. But for all this strength, we know we will need to change post-crisis. The entreaties we hear all the time are more palpable now.  Partner. Merge. Earn income. Get to scale. 

It is also true, though, that the systems and supports around nonprofits need to change.  Rebecca Solnit, who has written about historical responses to disasters, challenges us by asking “Why, if you fed your neighbor during the time of the earthquake and flood, didn’t you do so before or after?” The work of nonprofits needs to be seen not in the exclusive domain of emergency or crisis or, frankly, even charity, but rather as the essential work of a functioning society. 

Institutionalizing and embedding this work will mean moving more money, a lot more, off the philanthropic sidelines at the same time fewer restrictions are placed on those funds. It will mean support and partnership for the often-taboo political advocacy that can be a moral multiplier of our local work. And it will require more chances taken on Apollo-esque civic moonshots, not all of which will succeed.

The star of Apollo 13, of course, is Tom Hanks, who plays the role of the steady and steely long-time astronaut, Jim Lovell. The real-life Lovell, speaking in the aftermath of the earlier Neil Armstrong-led Apollo 11 mission, noted “From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It’s not a miracle. We just decided to go.”

We nonprofits, in the business of creating small miracles every day, were made for this moment of crisis. And, as experts in responding to the very societal vulnerabilities that have been laid bare by COVID-19, we are built to shape a recovery driven toward broad prosperity and led by uncommon purpose. All of us, together — staff members, boards, philanthropy, corporate partners, volunteers — will need to find a way. 

All of us, together, just need to decide to go.