By Sarah Williams

August 11, 2021

This article originally appeared in Second Wave: Michigan.

Over the last 18 months, nonprofit organizations in the region have spent much of their days in a reactive state: responding, experimenting and working to survive in order to continue serving community needs.

But the critical events of COVID-19, vaccination engagement, a heightened sense of racial justice and issues of climate change have also forced nonprofit leaders and those who support their work to look beyond the immediate to consider the future.

How has this storm of challenges altered the nonprofit world, for better or worse, causing leaders to question and reimagine their systems of funding, models of work, governance and values?

“What are the things we’re leaving behind, and what are the things we’re carrying forward?” asks Allandra Bulger, executive director at Co.act Detroit, a hub launched in 2019 to accelerate collaborative action in Southeast Michigan’s nonprofit community.

“Out of necessity, folks have had to try new things, and I’m curious to see what will stick and begin to chart—not just a moment-in-time response, but a different way of doing and being in this sector, of helping us meet our missions and serve our communities.”

New ways of doing business

Nonprofits have adopted innovative ways to connect with their communities and provide services during the pandemic. And while a lack of in-person contact has limited their capacity for vital community-building, earned revenue and fundraising, the shift to a virtual platform has been silver-lined for some.

Groups are seeing greater participation in their programs because of technology, says Advancing Macomb executive director Diane Banks. Her community development and support organization hosts a semi-monthly roundtable with local nonprofits to explore ideas of collaboration, volunteerism, pathways to funding, virtual events, etc.

Some of the larger nonprofits she engages with, focused on youth mentorship, substance abuse and cancer support, say they’re reaching a greater pool of mentors and/or clients since going online.

As the region returns at varied capacities to in-person engagement, organizations with an educational component like these, she says, want to continue nurturing those virtual relationships.

Collaboration and partnerships have also loomed large in the sector over the last 18 months.

Organizations are sharing creative ideas with one another and working collectively on things like programming and grants requests.

In Macomb county groups have come together to create more youth access to sports, and partnerships over the arts, says Banks.

“As a small nonprofit, it’s difficult to be visible, but easier when you’re working in partnership on bigger projects. Also, the pendulum for philanthropy is swinging that way," she says, "where funders like to see collaboration.”

Not that partnerships are new to the sector, says Kelley Kuhn, vice president and chief strategy officer for the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA), but they’re looking and feeling very different now. Nonprofits who kept going when the pandemic hit to provide services to their communities, were "partnering like crazy,” she says.

“I think we’ll continue to see this happen, and that it’ll be less about going it alone, and more about who you’re partnering with,” she says, “and if you’re not, why aren’t you?”

Amid trying to help nonprofits navigate collaboration, public policy updates, funding opportunities and more, nonprofit support groups like MNA, Co.act and others are also seeing an increased need to lean on one another. Since last spring, Bulger’s been coordinating a weekly call between nonprofit support leaders in the region to provide space for sharing and learning as a group.

One thing she's been hearing about from others, and seeing among the nonprofits she works with in Wayne County, is an evolution from DEI to anti-racism.

“Though it’s not as outwardly recognizable to me when I look across the landscape as it was at the height of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor incidents," she says, "to some extent, there’s a consciousness in the sector around racial injustice and anti-racist approaches."

“Some groups are really owning that notion of becoming an anti-racist organization, which also comes with wanting to know how to do that, and looking for help.” Co.Act is in the process of designing programming for nonprofits around this, she says.

How will that rising consciousness affect the transition of leadership happening among the region’s nonprofits, wonders Kuhn.

Growing diverse leadership

MNA recently announced the resignation of their own CEO, Donna Murray-Brown, who is leaving the organization at year’s end due to a spousal job change out of state.

As the first woman, and woman of color, to lead the organization, Brown is credited with “significant restructuring and engagement efforts among the organization’s programming and leadership,” with cultivating critical relationships with state and national organizations, and driving diversity, equity and inclusion in the nonprofit sector.

Besides Brown, the sector will also this year, see the retirement of Mariam Noland, veteran director of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

“These are people who have been in the sector for a long period of time,” Kuhn says, “and we're seeing others. So what will be the decisions that lead to changes in leadership, and will this influx bring more diverse candidates?"

There’s been some of that over the past year, she says, but it's not clear whether a significant shift will happen to the demographics of nonprofit boards and leaders, to create better representation of communities being served.

“It’s still skewed, but there’s a wave of change happening, and in that process,” Kuhn says, “it's not just the leadership. Organizations are going deep with their teams, and we may not necessarily be seeing things across the landscape because there's a whole lot of self-reflection happening.”

Investment in that type of deep, organizational change is on the rise, says Yodit Mesfin Johnson, president & CEO of Nonprofit Enterprises at Work (NEW), but there needs to be even more. The Washtenaw-based nonprofit support organization connects leaders and organizations with the resources they need to advance their mission-minded work.

Many more nonprofits, she says, are going beyond diversity training to work extensively with her organization and others in the field, with the goal to shift their organizational culture.

NEW's program Champions for Change works to build communities that support and nurture leaders of color engaged in social change, while guiding white leaders who are committed to allyship on ways to leverage their power and privilege for justice. The program’s third cohort is poised to begin this fall.

“We are largely a sector led by and governed by white people, and yet, the majority of people we serve come from poor and Black and brown communities," says Mesfin Johnson. "The nonprofit sector as a whole is reckoning with its existence, and its complicity in upholding systems of oppression, systems we've had revealed."

Less than 20 percent of nonprofit executive directors are people of color — a number that’s not moved for more than a decade, according to the Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap report.

Mesfin Johnson and others are wrestling with the idea that the sector itself may exist because of broken systems, she says, and that nearly 11 percent of the state’s workforce are employed because of human suffering.

“There is a distinct role that philanthropy plays, and a great deal more investment is needed, not enough is given out of endowments," she says. But, nonprofits need to shift from “working at the downstream of that suffering” to a more “ecosystem level response," she says, and that requires more investing in and understanding of equity and justice.

“We need to look to those who have been impacted, Black and brown folk, queer folk, disabled folk, to guide us, myself included," she says, "towards the future we need now."

Prioritizing staff well-being

Commitment to deep change over performative actions can be demonstrated in return to work policies. There's an opportunity here, to restructure organizations so they're rooted in trust, says Mesfin Johnson, rather than transactional relationships.

Centering organizations around people should mean there aren't hard lines about when employees need to be back in the office, she says, regardless of how they’re feeling about health and safety, about the rising Delta variant, and unvaccinated co-workers.

“Particularly black and brown folks are still dealing with post-traumatic stress from watching our loved ones fall like bricks from the impacts of COVID," she says. "We can apply the lessons we’re starting to learn from our racial justice work, to our return to work.”

At NEW, she and her colleagues are taking measures to “institutionalize rest” through extensive flexible time-off policies and organizational shutdowns.

This is a greater challenge for nonprofits embedded in a culture of response, and on the frontlines of homelessness, hunger and healthcare, she says, and these organizations are having particular trouble retaining staff. The sector is having to look at the “poverty-level wages” many workers are getting, she says, and the burnout people are experiencing.

“It’s been an underinvested sector since its beginning,” says Kuhn. "And yet, federal government, for-profits, and even local governments aren't solving community problems. Who does that leave? The nonprofit sector.”

Rising uncertainty over funding

When COVID-19 hit, these organizations did what they always do, continues Kuhn, “they just went to work,” solving problems and helping in their communities. Some nonprofits were able to take advantage of Paycheck Protection Program loans, but there wasn't relief carved out specifically for them, and there still isn’t, she says.

“We’re still advocating for the fact that nonprofits need resources in order to survive and continue to thrive,” she says.

With an influx of federal funding coming to the state to support things like infrastructure, local government and schools, Kuhn's asking, will nonprofits even be at the table?

In a recent survey that Banks sent to nonprofits across Macomb County, uncertainty over funding came back as the number one challenge. With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Michigan, and the Delta variant causing even vaccinated folks to wear masks and refrain from crowds, nonprofits still can’t count on earned revenue for in-person services, steady volunteerism or the ability to host large fundraising events.

“We knew funding was difficult in the past, especially here in Macomb County where we have challenges with access to philanthropy," Banks says, "but this anxiety is especially high.”

And the numbers of individual donors are dropping in some cases, especially to Black and brown organizations, says Mesfin Johnson. She's seeing far fewer donors give to NEW this year than she did last summer, at the height of social unrest.

“That kind of fickle relationship communities have to nonprofits is what keeps us kind of spinning," she says, "but not able to really make transformational change, which is what we're after. So my appeal is that our communities understand that just like small business main streets prop up America's economy, nonprofits keep our communities strong.”

This story is part of the Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Southeast Michigan to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, vaccinations, a heightened sense of racial justice and equity, issues of climate change and more are impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.