New Challenge: Nonprofits stretch to respond to COVID-19 amidst uncertain future

CHRIS 180 volunteers Tamkea Askew and Selima Morrow pack food bags.

As COVID-19 disrupts our health, dally lives and the economy, nonprofits are navigating uncertainty, changing demand for services, loss of workforce/volunteers, loss of revenue, and/or other challenges while trying to stay true to their missions.

“We are experiencing a shared community trauma that is having a magnified impact on people already struggling with mental health issues, addiction, domestic violence, loneliness, physical health issues, housing instability and poverty,” said Kathy Colbenson, President and CEO of CHRIS 180.

The Georgia Center for Nonprofits (GCN), the state association for nonprofits, quickly launched an online COVID-19 resource complete with webinars, tools and guides (e.g., CARES Act Guide) and recently created a cross-sector taskforce.

“We are trying to be a steady agency to help nonprofits respond for their own organization, for their subsector and what can we learn from this,” GCN CEO Karen Beavor said. The taskforce includes representatives from 100 nonprofit providers, government, business and philanthropy sectors.

“The task force seeks to optimize our response to vulnerable populations, strengthen the nonprofit sector and pursue an inclusive recovery,” Beavor said.

GCN surveyed nonprofits about the impact of COVID-19 but received responses after the submission of this story. So, Atlanta INtown reached out to nonprofits we’ve covered – spanning behavioral services, housing, education and the arts – to see how they’re faring.

“We are seeing an uptick in anxiety, domestic violence and suicidality and our counseling referrals have increased dramatically,” Colbenson shared.  “To respond to the crisis of job loss for people living on the edge, CHRIS 180 began a food delivery program which includes resource flyers, well checks and sometimes toys, baby formula and diapers. We also distributed Chrome books, tablets and MiFi cards [WiFi hotspot] to help with schoolwork, as well as tele-counseling for those economically disadvantaged.”

CHRIS 180 is concerned that social isolation, financial distress and fears are fueling a mental health and addiction epidemic alongside the pandemic, while fewer resources are available.

“Currently, we reach 5,000-plus people in 1,273 households per week with food and other resources – this service is steadily growing in response to the increasing need,” Colbenson added.

Lost-n-Found Youth? (LNFY) continues to provide shelter and support services to Atlanta’s homeless youth ages 18 to 25 – with a focus on LGBTQ youth  – adapting its emergency transitional facility for extended stay and providing meals and other essential services.

“We could not afford to miss a beat,” said ?LNFY Director Nasheedah Muhammad.  Before COVID-19, “LGBTQ youth represented over twice the overall youth rate in reports of unstable housing. Now more than ever, our organization is their lifeline.”

LNFY closed its thrift store for two months and recently reopened by appointment, reduced hours and virtual shopping. The thrift store represents more than 60 percent of LFNY’s monthly revenue. They’ve paused their volunteer corps and social distancing has decreased the number of occupants they can accommodate.

Leap Year had to quickly adapt in-person college prep for their first-generation Leap Year Fellows and 2nd grade literacy tutoring to virtual learning.

Lost-n-Found Youth Center

“We created a YouTube channel where the Fellows read books aloud. They introduce the book, do a guided read aloud session and then give a little quiz. We have over 30 videos and they are widely available,” said Amber Scott, executive director of Leap Year.

But Scott worries about widening educational disparities.

“There was already a learning gap before and now it’s exacerbated. There many K-12 kids who experiencing a major learning loss who are going to need additional support to make sure they are well-prepared for the future. Leap Year wants to be able to grow to help meet this immense,” Scott said.

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company also adapted in-person experience to virtual.

“We shut down on March 15. We cancelled six shows and all in-person camps. All 24 full time actor/managers, teaching artists and administrative folks went on unemployment,” said Laura Cole, The Atlanta Shakespeare Company Director of Education and Training. “Our main business is selling tickets to live performances. We can’t do that right now but we are doing what we can do.”

In one weekend, they produced three educational tour show videos for their school clients and family groups.

“We’ve had over 1,600 views and I have gone into a number of digital classrooms from Atlanta to Colorado, so far,” Cole said

Their summer camps for 2-8th graders and teen programs have all gone digital.

“We so want to be performing for a live audience in our wonderful theater space. Some day soon that will happen again! Don’t forget us,” Cole urged.

The community remembered nonprofits on #GivingTuesdayNow, coordinated by GCN.  On May 5, more than $1.26 million was donated, by 7,881 donors, to 700-plus nonprofit – likely amplified by giving directly to nonprofits.

“In 2019 we ran $4 million through GA Gives but the total from other platforms was $14 million,” Beavor shared. You can still make a donation to any registered nonprofit in Georgia on or directly to the nonprofit.

And the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, a joint effort from Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and United Way of Greater Atlanta, as of early May, raised more than $25 million through collective resources.

More than $17.3 million was mobilized to 320 nonprofits focused on childcare, education, emergency financial assistance, food security, health, housing and small business support.

“Our latest round of decisions considered more than 650 requests from nonprofits across the region,” said Lita Pardi, Vice President at Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.  Foundation donors also responded with $25 million in grants from their donor-advised funds.

Support funds will be released on a rolling basis throughout the outbreak and recovery of the crisis.

“Years of disinvestment and systemic barriers have exposed families with low incomes and communities of color to the worst effects of the crisis,” said Katrina Mitchell, United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Chief Community Impact Officer. “It is critical for philanthropy to continue to strategically invest in vulnerable communities and solutions that ensure all children and families to thrive.”

Philanthropy, while often more nimble than government, is not the sole solution to the revenue loss and rising demand for services.

“Nonprofits are the human security system for the state and we have stood up over and above anything we even thought we were capable of,” Beavor said. “This system is comprised of many small agencies that have lost revenue and the concern is that they won’t be able to absorb any more impact. The scope of this problem requires that government, business and nonprofits are at the table working on solutions together.”

Despite being stretched to their limits, nonprofits remain optimistic and caring.

“This pandemic is exposing the best of us and the worst of us. We need to practice kindness and compassion for ourselves and each other. When we help someone else it always makes us feel better. Taking action helps us get to the other side,” Colbenson said.