Philanthropy Should Support Frontline Workers During Pandemic and Beyond - from Arabella Advisors
By Gwen Walden and Eric Kessler
Every disaster brings stories of everyday heroes: first responders, service providers, victim advocates, relief workers, and other frontline workers who chose to take the risks necessary to save lives during a catastrophic event.
Many of the everyday heroes emerging in this pandemic are different from those we typically think of. They are small-business employees, educators, food-system workers, and others.
Few of these people signed up for jobs considered high risk, and none of them ever realized they would be asked to give up daily wages, time with friends and family, and even the simple reassurance of a human hug. Many are working through the pandemic at great personal risk to themselves and their families in a situation filled with uncertainty. Their health, income, social networks, and communities all are under threat. They need urgent as well as long-term support from government, business, and philanthropy if they are going to weather this crisis and support our nation’s recovery.
These frontline workers are standing up for us today. We need to stand up for them. How can we help?
Those of us who have slept on gurneys beside sick loved ones already knew how heroic health care workers can be, but this crisis puts an even brighter spotlight on their service. Not only nurses and doctors, but the full range of health care workers, including hospital custodians and radiology technicians, are stepping forward in potentially life-threatening circumstances. Some have no postsecondary education; others have graduate degrees or certifications. Some are union members; others are contracted labor. They work in different roles and diverse settings, including university hospitals and small community clinics. But they share a common commitment to safeguarding the health of all people, whether they are homeless veterans or corporate executives.
To support them now, donors can take a variety of steps: Contribute to the regional funds created to ensure they have the protective equipment they need; pay for extra hours of child care; and support efforts to forestall evictions, foreclosures, and housing insecurity during the crisis. To continue to support them later, donors should also support debt relief, build educational ladders that help workers advance into more highly skilled health care careers, support better professional development in the health care setting, and endorse efforts to close the wage gap between “nonprofessional” health care jobs and management and medical personnel.
For many of us, the only direct human contact we may have for the next few weeks will be with the checkout people at the grocery store. They, and everyone in the food supply chain behind them, are increasingly exhausted and scared, just like the rest of us. But they are also patriotic and proud, knowing that they are providing one of our society’s most vital functions.
To support these often-unsung heroes, donors can contribute now to relief funds supporting the workers and small-business owners that provide our food, from farm to fork. We should also all consider local growers and local businesses in our own food purchasing and thinking. In the longer term, grant makers should put philanthropic resources toward bolstering regional supply chains that support family-owned farms, local distribution networks, and other decentralized building blocks critical at a time like this when centralized solutions struggle.
Day Care Workers and Educators
Anyone who has school kids locked down at home now understands that there isn’t a salary big enough to show appreciation for the faculty, administrators, and support staff that normally care for and teach our children. Starting with nanny care and moving through prekindergarten to high school, children of all ages and their parents rely on an informal and formal system of care administered by hundreds of professionals and paraprofessionals. These workers, at all levels, are undercompensated, are forced to buy their own teaching materials and supplies, and often work in substandard facilities. Now many have been asked to adapt curricula to virtual and distance-learning environments in a matter of weeks, and to help the children they care about continue to learn in spite of the disruptions we are all undergoing.
Donors can help now by supporting the school fund that pays for what’s not in the normal school budget, or by paying for supplies and equipment required to teach from a non-school setting. Alternatively, send food delivery to your school leaders so they can take a break from cooking on top of everything else they are working on. Crucially, think about supporting not just your own school, but districts in your region that are perhaps overlooked and that lack the resources they deserve. Looking further ahead: Support efforts to compensate educators on par with other “high value” professions such as law and finance, and prioritize financing capital improvements in schools, including technology upgrades, in districts where students have low achievement levels.
Safety-Net Service Providers
America’s nonprofits are the backbone of our social safety net, providing basic needs like food, shelter, and health care to millions of Americans at a time when citizens and residents can count less and less on government support. Right now, fundraising events are being canceled, cash reserves are being depleted, and services are being disrupted. Even though most nonprofits squeeze more out of a dollar than a lot of businesses, the pandemic is devastating for their budget, their work force, and their ability to fill the gaps that governments inevitably leave behind.
As many across philanthropy have noted, there are straightforward ways to support them now: Trust the organizations you have supported the most. Foundations should consider doubling or even tripling grant making to them. Give general operating support, and remove all strings that might have been attached. People who have resources unallocated in a donor-advised fund or foundations that have historically limited grant making to the federal minimum of 5 percent of assets should put more of their resources to work now. Thinking longer term, they should invest in the mission of nonprofits but avoid trying to direct their activities and programs. Instead, they should minimize use-of-fund restrictions throughout the recovery, and be prepared to provide financial resources for nonprofit collaborations and mergers that emerge as a result of the crisis.
Just as nonprofits are the backbone of our social safety net, small-business owners are the backbone of our economy. Day care centers, florists, nail salons, restaurants, gyms, and many other neighborhood businesses that operate on thin margins have shuttered. Such businesses are community assets that contribute crucially to the economic, social, and cultural lifeblood of neighborhoods everywhere. They are often started by immigrants following a dream. They are owned by generations of families who build the dream over decades of hard work and dedication.
Right now, all of us who care about advancing the common good should make a point of supporting any small business still allowed to operate and doing so safely, and contribute to the relief funds sprouting up to support individual businesses and their furloughed employees. Later, grant makers can support advocacy efforts to ensure small-business access to stimulus funds, remove inequitable barriers for business financing (see “An Economy for All”), and support the end of predatory lending.
To be sure, everyone is affected by the pandemic, but those with fewer resources and those who already face an uphill battle to succeed in our society will feel its effects the most. All too often, there’s no Plan B for these workers. Donors’ approaches to the acute needs above should ensure that equity is a central focus of their response to the pandemic and, indeed, their everyday philanthropy.
Over the years, philanthropy has risen to the occasion time and time again to find cures, help those in need, and chart a path toward a more equitable future. This moment calls on us to do all these things faster and at an unprecedented scale than ever before. Now is the time to prove our commitment to both immediate and long-term impact.
Eric Kessler is founder and principal at Arabella Advisors, where Gwen Walden is senior managing director.