A Message from Building Movement Project: Sustaining Non-Profits in a Time of Crisis


Like all of you, here at Building Movement Project, we are grappling with the sudden changes affecting our workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities. These are times of uncertainty and confusion. At Building Movement Project, we are centering ourselves in our communities, networks, and partnerships. For 20 years, BMP has been deepening our understanding of non-profit leadership, service and social change, and movement building. From that vantage point, we offer the following ideas and resources:

Non-Profit Safety Nets

It is important to remember that while many non-profits have transitioned to work-from-home policies for their staff, there are service providers who are on the frontlines of responding to the pandemic — including community clinics, hospitals, food banks, and elder care centers. These organizations are ensuring that the social service safety net remains accessible for the most vulnerable. Our co-director, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, spoke with Moira Bowman, the Director of Advocacy at the Oregon Food Bank, about the increased pressures to deliver emergency food in the state during this crisis. Rather than shift to more restrictive models of food distribution – like pre-packed boxes – the Oregon Food Bank is maintaining their commitment to supporting client choice  by leaning into models of free, open-air food markets where people can line up and take as much as they need of food items they choose for themselves.

Like the Oregon Food Bank, many non-profits are pivoting to address the ongoing demands of the crisis, while others are planning to address long-term financial and mental health consequences. Many non-profits are focused on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, as immigrant workers including nannies and taxi drivers lose wages, as the likelihood of domestic violence increases, and as access to social services becomes difficult to navigate for those who are limited English proficient or undocumented. Now and over time, non-profits on the frontlines will require increased resources and support from philanthropy, the government, and community partners. 

Resource: Why Non-Profits Must Be Part of the Stimulus Package from the National Council of Non-Profits (National Human Services Assembly)

Equity Matters

Your non-profit likely has a diversity, equity, and inclusion policy for the workplace. In moments of crisis, equity matters even more. How can virtual and remote working environments continue to center equity and inclusion? How are organizations demonstrating their commitment to equity in teams where senior staff have more flexibility to do their work from home while the work of line staff necessitates direct contact with communities who need services more than ever? Digital privilege is a possibility for a certain set of non-profits but not all. For example, transitioning to Zoom and Slack are not simple solutions for many non-profits, especially those with staff who are members of vulnerable populations.  Additionally, non-profits are also dealing with staff with a variety of increased demands. How can supervisors and senior staff be responsive to the added challenges of parents and caregivers? How can expectations of productivity and performance, often the hallmarks of success, be better managed during this time? How are organizations planning to provide care for staff who may be traumatized, anxious, or caring for sick individuals? We can use this moment to continue learning from one another on how to center equity and care in times of crisis.

Resources: 5 Tips for Managing Remotely During COVID-19 (The Management Center) and Digital Resilience in the Time of Coronavirus (Equality Labs)

Best Practice: Assess the needs of your staff at this time using this survey from The Management Center.

Movement Building From A Distance

Physical distancing and social isolation are becoming features of our daily lives. At the same time, the work of social change relies on and requires social connection. How can we build together if we have to maintain social distance? How do we organize when we can’t conduct know your rights sessions, knock on doors, and hold community meetings? For now, many organizations are moving to online strategies including holding meetings and events online, making phone calls and sending texts, letters and emails.

Best practices: The Highlander Research and Education Center’s Spiritual Soiree, a digital gathering space for collective healing and community building, and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance’s online support group to find social spaciousness.

Resource: Social Justice in a Time of Social Distancing (The Design Studio for Social Intervention)

Supporting Sustainability and Visioning

Funders are looking at how to sustain non-profits during this crisis, especially as they too face the prospects of an economic recession. For example, funders are considering various approaches including: developing rapid relief funds for safety-net services, redirecting program-specific grants to general support, extending grants beyond their original time frames with additional funds, enabling non-profits to provide paid sick leave and mental health care to employees, and resourcing digital organizing efforts. Funders around the country are also taking a pledge to commit unrestricted resources, reduce what they ask of grantees, and be in a listening mode.

In addition, philanthropy could create spaces and opportunities for organizations to envision what is possible even in the midst of a crisis. COVID-19 is exposing the inequities in our society’s infrastructure and priorities while also making it plain that it is possible for policymakers to make decisions that protect the most vulnerable communities including stopping water shut-offs, halting evictions, and providing paid sick leave. How can we re-align with the values that are emerging as critical ones in this moment – mutual aid and compassion, access to basic benefits, and support for the most vulnerable in our communities, from the incarcerated and undocumented to the elderly and the working poor – and how can we make them permanent?

Resources: My Favorite Funder Responses So Far to COVID-19 (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy) and Now Is The Time for Philanthropy to Give More, Not Less (The Chronicle of Philanthropy)

Best Practices: The Emergent Fund’s People’s Bailout, Hispanics in Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Migration Fund, and NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund.  

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