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Supporting Our Unsung Heroes in a Moment of Crisis: Part 1

Date: March 16, 2020

Phil Buchanan

President, CEP

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As stores, companies, foundations, schools, colleges, and other organizations close up and go remote due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the staff of direct service nonprofit organizations on the front lines — often serving the most vulnerable and marginalized among us — don’t have that option. They can’t go remote and are instead getting up each day and doing their work in a context they never imagined, amid challenges they couldn’t foresee.

“We’re going to go to work because we think of ourselves as first responders,” Cathy Moore, executive director of Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services (ECHOS) in Houston, Texas, told me over the phone this weekend. “I am tired, and all of the staff is tired,” she admitted, only after I pressed her on how everyone was holding up. “It’s like Harvey and the disaster response again.” But, she added, “we won’t shut down unless we really have to.”

Now is the time for foundations and individual donors to step up and support organizations like ECHOS. Or, if they’re already supporting them, to pick up the phone and ask how else they can help.

I first met Moore in the summer of 2018 when I was doing research for my book, Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count. I wrote about ECHOS — which has a budget of about $600,000 dollars (or $1.8 million if you count in-kind contributions), eight staff, and a few dozen volunteers in a typical week — because it exemplifies the heroism of so many small nonprofits throughout the country. ECHOS was formed in 1999 and caters to what Moore describes as “poverty-stricken, vulnerable families.” ECHOS connects “people in need with the health, social, and educational resources that can improve their lives.”

“There are so many changes happening each day” due to COVID-19, Moore told me, explaining that ECHOS had ceased nonessential services like English and computer literacy classes. “But we can’t close essential services,” she said. The Texas Children’s Hospital Mobile Unit that pulls up to the ECHOS driveway to see young patients who have nowhere else to go for healthcare has been as busy as ever. Friday saw a huge increase in new clients for the ECHOS food pantry, as individuals and families in need sought to stock up.

To reduce the potential for spread of the virus, ECHOS has changed the service model for its food pantry so that clients no longer choose their goods off the shelves, but are provided a pre-packed bag instead. Moore feels fortunate that she placed a “huge food order” on Wednesday last week, even as her staff told her they didn’t know where they’d store it all. She knew she might not be able to place the order even a few days later given how people are stocking up. She expects even greater demand as the impact of the economy grinding to a halt is felt by the lowest-paid workers first.

Moore is instituting a new screening process for clients to try to reduce the chances that people possibly carrying COVID-19 (such as those who interacted with people with the virus) don’t enter the ECHOS facility, and are instead sent on their way with a pre-packed bag of food and other essential supplies. She’s staffed the janitor for extra hours — which means extra expense — and is mandating that all staff and volunteers wear gloves. She’s moved the waiting room outside so people aren’t sitting shoulder to shoulder in a room she worried could be a “petri dish.” She’s also seeking to deal with a sudden decline in volunteers, most of whom are over 60 and understandably worried about their health and vulnerability. Moore is seeking to recruit young volunteers but recognizes the challenge of that task in a time of social distancing.

And, like all of us, Moore is adapting to the realities of the new day to day because, while her facility remains open, meetings with others are happening virtually. She’s learning how to use Zoom for video communication (“I disconnected everyone twice” during her board meeting the previous day, she admitted).

But she is not thinking of the risk to herself of interacting with clients and staff. “I just found out I’m elderly,” she joked with me, acknowledging that she’s over 60. She is worried about her staff, one of whom is in her 70s, and contemplating what additional changes she can make to ensure everyone is as safe as possible.

She’s concerned about those in her community and throughout the entire country “who aren’t working, or who can’t,” and how they will be affected by the outbreak and accompanying economic meltdown. But perhaps her biggest worry is what the Trump administration’s interpretation of the “public charge rule” — negatively impacting the path to citizenship for those who could be seen as a “public charge” — will mean for the spread of COVID-19. If those who are sick don’t get tested or treated out of fear, she told me, “we will see community spread in ways we can’t imagine.”

Hearing all her worries, I asked Moore if she’d heard from any foundation funders or individual donors about how they could help ECHOS in this moment.

“Not yet,” she told me.

Perhaps that will happen this week, now that foundations have largely shifted to remote work and are, at least in the conversations I hear, trying to focus on how they can help the vital organizations like ECHOS that exist in every community. And now that people in good-paying jobs with the means to give to an organization like ECHOS are largely working from home, maybe we’ll see individual giving rise in response to the crisis as well.

I have heard lots of talk in the last week — and I agree with it — of the importance of recognizing the privilege some of us have in this moment. Of remembering that not everyone can work from home, and that those in the gig economy are already getting slammed by the economic slowdown. Of all the ways the most vulnerable stand to suffer disproportionately in the coming weeks, months, and possibly longer.

So, what can we do? We can help those who are working most directly with and for those populations.

Now is the time. To give. To volunteer. To ask what can be done to support the organizations like ECHOS that exist in every community and are helping the most vulnerable among us.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, published by PublicAffairs last year. This is the first in a series.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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