Nonprofit experts on how to ease pandemic impacts

Man holding a box of vegetables with a face mask on

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform daily life, the impact on our communities and the nonprofits that serve them is coming into focus.

Pamela Norley, president of Fidelity Charitable, recently sat down with the CEOs of the nonprofits Meals on Wheels America, Partners in Health, the Nonprofit Finance Fund and the American Heart Association to discuss emerging issues that need donor attention. Fidelity Charitable is highlighting three critical areas in its guidance where giving can make the greatest difference during the pandemic: supporting medical needs, protecting vulnerable populations and sustaining all nonprofits.

As donors consider how they can have the greatest impact now, here are highlights from our conversations with nonprofit leaders on the front lines of the response as a part of the Spark Your Impact video series.

Supporting Medical Needs: Addressing Barriers to Stopping the Spread

On the front lines of supporting medical needs, health care workers around the world say they continue to need access to personal protective equipment and a strong medical supply chain, as well as hygiene supplies and clean water for hand-washing.

As the pandemic has continued, it has become clearer that supporting medical needs must take into account differing needs by region and by community access to resources. For example, when nonprofit Partners in Health teamed up with Massachusetts health agencies to conduct intensive COVID-19 contact tracing, about 20 percent of the Massachusetts residents contacted said they were unable to safely isolate, CEO Sheila Davis said—because they didn’t have access to food or medication refills, for example, or because there were many people living in a small space.

Internationally, some countries lack access to crucial equipment—for example, there is not a single ventilator available in the country of Liberia, Davis said. In a global economic and social environment, boosting health resources and disease containment in any country leads to greater safety for all nations. In order for the pandemic to eventually end, Davis said, it’s critical to make sure that all countries are able to fight the virus and stop its spread.

“We need to look at where we need to supplement services with organizations like Partners in Health, food banks and other groups to make sure people have what they need to safely address this,” Davis said.

Impacts to Other Health Conditions

Across all populations, the virus is particularly deadly to those with pre-existing health conditions, including heart disease and stroke. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), COVID-19 is also contributing to new heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, strokes, vascular abnormalities and sudden cardiac death. When word of these issues—sometimes occurring in COVID-19 patients with no pre-existing conditions—reached AHA early in the pandemic, the nonprofit launched a series of rapid-action medical research grants. The $2.9 million in funding fast-tracked key research projects ranging from those investigating blood clotting and infections of the heart in COVID-19 patients, to repurposing drugs for possible treatment, to the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black and Latinx people.

“We’ve been so impressed with how quickly individuals and organizations can rally when the need is extra urgent,” AHA CEO Nancy Brown said. “People’s lives are at stake.”

Protecting Vulnerable Populations: Aiding Seniors

The continued pandemic has uneven impact across the population, with a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations such as seniors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated all 54 million people in the United States over the age of 65 as having increased risk for severe illness due to the virus. Many also lack resources to maintain physical and mental health during a pandemic. Meals on Wheels programs nationwide have been serving an average of 77 percent more meals to 47 percent more seniors since March 2020. Waiting lists for meals are growing longer.

“Suddenly, this new pipeline of seniors is joining the ranks of those who are wondering where their next meal is going to come from and whether they’ll get to see another person in a given day, with no end in sight,” Meals on Wheels America CEO Ellie Hollander said.

The nonprofit has shifted its volunteer meal drop-off model to preserve social distancing guidelines, but maintains its focus on providing seniors with meaningful social connection they can count on, including regular phone check-ins.

“Because the pandemic is no longer new news, philanthropy has slowed,” Hollander said. “Senior hunger and isolation have been growing for years—they’ve been hidden epidemics that are now exacerbated by the pandemic. Frankly, less than 2 percent of all philanthropy has ever been focused on seniors and hunger, so we need some help to meet that curve.”

Sustaining All Nonprofits: Aiding Resilience for the Long Term

The pandemic has also challenged nonprofits with a lack of access to funds right when they’re needed most. For example, organizations have seen revenue delayed or postponed, leaving many without a relied-upon, planned-for source of necessary capital to continue providing services, said Nonprofit Finance Fund CEO Antony Bugg-Levine. Sustaining all nonprofits in the sector—helping all nonprofits make it through the pandemic able to provide a variety of services on the other side, not just nonprofits whose mission is directly tied to fighting COVID-19—is crucial to the long-term well-being of the country, Bugg-Levine said.

Unrestricted gifts, in particular, allow nonprofits to quickly funnel funds where they’re needed most, Bugg-Levine said, but all giving is crucial.

“I’ve been incredibly energized when donors acted with a sense of urgency and trust,” Bugg-Levine said. “It’s not just the willingness to open up your wallet; it’s been the recognition that that had to happen quickly and had to happen with trust in the organizations.”

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3 Expert Tips for Impact

1. Give now. There are a variety of factors that can lead donors to postpone giving—some have found themselves facing “analysis paralysis” in the face of overwhelming needs; others are accustomed to following an existing giving schedule. But nonprofits need support now more than ever to provide crucial services.

2. To maximize your impact, give unrestricted funds to organizations whose mission and leadership you trust. This allows nonprofits to act as experts, allocating funds where they’re needed most in the moment.

3. Find safe ways to volunteer. Even when in-person volunteer work is no longer an option, there are many important ways to contribute. Research skills-based volunteering, for example. Some nonprofits also need volunteers for remote connections like phone check-ins for seniors.

How Fidelity Charitable can help

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