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Nonprofits meet virus challenge – Arkansas Online

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Hundreds of nonprofit organizations in Arkansas have experienced financial distress and service disruptions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but have continued to adapt months into a new normal, according to a recently released report.

The study, conducted by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Public Affairs and the Arkansas Community Foundation, surveyed 316 nonprofit organizations that collectively serve all 75 counties in Arkansas and cover a range of program areas.

The report showed that 82% of the organizations surveyed reported having complete program cancellations, and 40% were not confident they would achieve their budgeted revenue. It also showed that 64% had experienced revenue loss as a result of event or program cancellations, and the same proportion had experienced a decline in individual donations.

“Nonprofits are in the middle of a perfect storm right now,” said Sarah Kinser, chief program officer for the Arkansas Community Foundation. “So on the one hand, they’ve had to cancel a lot of their major fundraiser events and other activities that can generate revenue, and at the same time, donors are having to reevaluate their personal budgets.”

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The survey was administered between June 22 and July 10.

A smaller proportion of organizations, 33%, had to reduce hours for paid employees, 17% have had to furlough employees, and 15% have had to lay off employees.

In addition to funding difficulties, organizations surveyed also faced challenges including a lack of volunteers, moving programs online, adjusting to shifting client needs, lack of personal protective equipment, general health and safety concerns, and planning through uncertainty.

Nichola Driver, faculty director for the Office of Community Engagement at the Clinton School, said the study’s findings weren’t surprising, but the organizations still must plan through uncertainty.

She said the survey’s open-ended questions drew many “what if?” statements, wondering whether they would be able to achieve their projected revenue or what would happen if staff members or clients got sick.

“It’s really difficult to even picture ahead of time. That was one of, I think, the biggest challenges for them, is planning through that uncertainty, financially, and in all aspects of their planning,” Driver said. “I think while most of them have probably learned to adapt over time, it still seems like funding is the big stress in the future.”

For Union Rescue Mission, the financial challenge comes as the need for services has risen, according to the organization’s director of development, Michelle Harper.

The nonprofit provides housing and counseling services for people recovering from substance abuse and domestic violence at its two shelters in Little Rock.

“Domestic violence numbers are on the rise,” Harper said. “Addiction can be stress-driven, so we’re seeing numbers climb and a bigger need. More clients want to get in and utilize our program.”

She said the nonprofit has seen a decline in financial support but also in in-kind donations. The shelters used to receive leftover food from restaurants at the end of the night or after events that would help feed clients.

“It’s costing us more to care for the clients because we don’t have the donations we were getting,” Harper said.

The Arkansas Foodbank is also experiencing an increased level of need but has gotten more financial support, chief development officer Sarah Riffle said.

“Interestingly enough, during times where the economy isn’t doing as well, the community tends to support basic human needs,” Riffle said.

However, supply chain issues have made it more difficult to obtain shelf-stable food, she said.

The study showed the organizations with the most significant disruptions were in the areas of arts, culture and humanities, health and education.

“With arts and culture, they are vital to the health and well-being of our communities in the long run,” Kinser said. “So although they may not be providing the food that people need in that exact moment, we’ve got to protect those institutions because we will need them in the future.”

For the Urban League of Arkansas, an organization that seeks to advance economic and social prosperity for all, the pandemic coincided with a growing interest in social justice after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in May while in police custody in Minneapolis, CEO Scott Hamilton said.

The organization saw an increase in individual memberships of more than 35%, Hamilton said.

The vast majority of organizations surveyed, 87%, reported delays in programs or events, and 78% reported some disruption in services.

Harper said the pandemic meant a complete lockdown in mid-March.

“We had to be really careful with how we were bringing people into the program and protecting the current ones,” Harper said.

She said shelters reopened their doors in June with coronavirus-related restrictions in place.

Hamilton said the Urban League also experienced some disruption. They weren’t able to hold a program for youth that they’d planned for the summer, and had planned to hold in-person education efforts about voting and the census.

He said the organization has moved much of its programming to virtual means, an adaptation that has been challenging but one that could get resources to more people — for instance, by creating a digital tool to educate people about financial literacy.

“We see ourselves going almost exclusively virtual,” Hamilton said.

Riffle said one-third of the Arkansas Foodbank’s 33 pantries across the state had to shut down temporarily, and now all but 10 percent have their doors open. She said the majority of the pantries’ regular volunteers were senior citizens, and they have since adapted their processes to keep volunteers safe by moving things outdoors and shifting to drive-up distribution events.

“The way they’re having to distribute looks completely different,” Riffle said.

Driver said it had been heartening to see many organizations report that they had improved how they collaborated and shared resources.

“I was really surprised by the resiliency of a lot of the nonprofit organizations. Some reported that they were working hard so that they had no breaks in service, she said. “No one was really planning for this, but some of them have really shined during this time of crisis.”

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