By Pia Eisenberg
By definition, nonprofit organizations exist for public good and philanthropists support that good through acts of charity. Together, nonprofits and philanthropists form dynamic partnerships that propel the most critical of missions, seeking to transform lives in truly profound ways. In the Jewish community, that partnership is framed by the Jewish values of tzedakah (righteousness), gemilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness), and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
As a Jewish communal professional for more than 30 years, I have had the privilege of bearing witness to the selflessness of colleagues who stop at nothing to serve the community and to the incredible altruism that makes it all possible. But I have never seen anything like the instantaneous and nimble response by nonprofits everywhere and the outpouring of support by countless donors and foundations to address the emergency needs prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus is a devastating global health crisis that has thrown our world into chaos. While that is a frighteningly accurate depiction of current conditions, the crisis has also illustrated the unparalleled magnitude of the partnership between nonprofits and philanthropists – igniting the greatest aspects of that shared relationship. Indeed, amid tremendous urgency and distress, our world crisis has also allowed for possibility – making space for the proverbial silver lining that we crave in adversity.
Like a myriad of human service organizations, my agency, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia (JFCS), immediately pivoted at the start of the shelter-in-place orders to work remotely. Despite 165+ years of in-person service delivery, we quickly adapted our operations without utilizing physical spaces. We addressed hunger relief and other basic needs for our most vulnerable neighbors, converted our mental health services to tele-mental health capability, initiated virtual social opportunities for our isolated clients, identified careful practices for facilitating adoptions, and mobilized our volunteers to safely assist our agency on the front lines. The positivity in this, as many nonprofits have expressed, is learning our organization is equally impactful functioning remotely. Likewise, technology has enabled us to reach even more people than pre-COVID, including those who are contacting JFCS for the very first time.
Other by-products of the pandemic have also emerged that point to a brighter side of our collective hardship. The standouts for me are a renewed appreciation for the efficacy of unrestricted giving, a readiness and aptitude for innovation, a catalyst for increased collaboration with community partners, and empathy for one another.
Unrestricted Giving – for years, this optimal type of funding has been trending downward as donors seek greater input on the use of their gifts. But in the wake of the coronavirus, individual donors and foundations have loosened constraints so that nonprofits have the freedom, staff, and speed to respond to the continuously-mounting and changing needs of those we serve. This has demonstrated a deeper sense of trust from donors and has spurred candid dialogues about the best use of philanthropic dollars. This shift is encouraging for fundraising post-COVID, as it will hopefully empower nonprofits to cogently express our multitude of challenges and motivate funders to embrace the importance and flexibility in unrestricted giving. For organizations with Jewish roots, it also expands our ability to assist the broader community, reflected in tikkun olam. Having a greater capacity to support all cultures is vital to achieving social justice in our work.
Innovation – needing to reimagine seasoned practices because those previous methods are no longer safe or do not yield maximum results has inspired nonprofits to think creatively about our services and development tactics. And, as all nonprofits are envisioning how to replace annual events that raise significant dollars, our staff, Boards, and philanthropy committees are exercising different muscles in conceiving alternative fundraising approaches. The gift in that is a more robust toolbox of fundraising techniques to employ in the future.
Collaboration – qualitative and quantitative studies and real-life examples of collaboration have shown that no one organization can solve systemic societal issues in a silo. This pandemic has placed an exclamation point on the potency of community partnerships and the collective impact they deliver. We are hearing so many stories of organizations meaningfully intersecting their lanes of expertise to attack the fallout from the pandemic at all angles. Nurturing existing partnerships and establishing new associations because of COVID-19 can lead to an even greater propensity for sharing resources and skills. This is a positive outcome all nonprofits can strive to perpetuate.
And Empathy – COVID-19 has presented nonprofits with a rare opportunity to provide support to our donors – to care for them as they have so generously cared for our organizations. Given that all of us are touched by this pandemic and its emotional consequences, we can feel the same empathy for our donors that we foster in them, and act on that empathy through increased contact, and if feasible, offering our services to them. Within the brightness we conjure during our shared crisis, this moment for genuine reciprocation of support is truly powerful.
Crisis is never a welcomed guest in our lives, but there is something to be gained by the lessons learned in challenging times. And in this specific crisis, grabbing hold of the silver linings as they appear, and knowing we are all in this together, makes it all a bit more bearable.
Pia Eisenberg is Sr. Vice President of Community Engagement at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia.