Joseph Gitler
Joseph Gitler

Struggling with my own advice: Pandemic’s unprecedented problem for nonprofits

Image: Jim Lavorato
Image: Jim Lavorato

Exactly a year ago, I presented nonprofits with a call to action. Wake up to how COVID will change everything, I urged. And start crisis planning now.

It’s eerie to read my glib predictions from then, and see how they have panned out. Mass quarantines, check. Elderly Israelis facing the “loneliness of self-isolation,” check. And widespread poverty.

“We’ll get through this by constantly and endlessly planning and adapting,” I wrote. And we have. Nonprofits have delivered. My sector has been at the forefront of keeping people sane, solvent, fed, and stimulated during this crisis.

But now, I’m struggling to take my own advice. It was pitch-perfect a year ago, when the world was shutting down, we were headed into an unprecedented crisis. Donors, not yet hit by the economic impact of the pandemic, dug deep.

There is a phenomenon called hysterical strength. It’s an extreme crisis response that allows the most unimaginable of feats, like mothers lifting vehicles to free a trapped child. I believe that nonprofits and their donors, together, have been through the equivalent of this in the last year: adapting business models and finding ways to pay for them. 

Take my charity Leket Israel, the National Food Bank, for example. Our mission has always been to rescue unwanted food and distribute it to the needy. When the pandemic struck, people were furloughed, and demand skyrocketed precisely as a large part of our supply of donated food dried up. We made plans to do the unimaginable: buy meals at market rates for distribution. Funders footed the bill.

They mostly made short-term commitments to get us through the eye of the storm, raising the dilemma of what we do now. 

Should our 2021 budget assume that life moves back towards normality and that our regular sources of food, like donated excess from restaurants, event halls and corporate cafeterias will return? Or should we assume the worst, and conclude that we’ll need to continue purchasing food for distribution?

If we decide to carry on buying food, should we ask funders to push themselves to their limits, risking a feeling of donor fatigue a few months or a year down the line? Or would it be best to become more selective regarding who receives our food? Is it ethical to do this knowing that, in a few months, crisis unemployment payments will end, and we will receive new requests for meals?

The truth is that while it was easy to declare a year ago that extreme planning and good-hearted donors would get us through the crisis, it’s not so simple now. Every time I’m asked about budget plans for 2021, my head whirs with all the complexities which means it’s such a hard question to answer. What I’m discovering is that we need a new language for talking to donors about what the coming months hold. 

It’s a discourse that highlights the fact that nonprofits are planning to the best of their ability but discovering that the power of planning has limits, and there are many things that we just don’t know. 

It’s a discourse that admits that so many variables are beyond our control: in the case of Leket, the extent of both supply (of food) and demand (which is tied to unemployment and poverty levels). 

It’s about the overall feeling of the unknown, of what might not end up being just a temporary impact on available food to rescue but rather a more permanent one – the prospect of a new reality post-crisis. For example, if most corporate environments keep employees working remotely then this will have a significant and long-term effect on Leket’s ability to collect tens of thousands of surplus meals annually.

The new discourse needs to empathize better with donors, the difficult experiences they have faced and the uncertainty in their life, and sometimes find ways to maximize their impact without having them give more. Spoken to in this vein, several people have told me they can’t increase their donations for 2021, but instead of waiting until December, want to give earlier to help the organization now, which means a lot to us. 

Today’s discourse needs to move away from the old certainty of stating exactly what the charity can deliver for $10,000, and what proportion of the annual need is covered by this, towards a language of joint endeavour, which sounds something like this. “We hope things will improve, but they are still precarious, and we hope you’ll accompany us through the upcoming challenges.”

I don’t know where the next year will take us. But I do know that while the pandemic has shaken my confidence that the right planning can get us through anything, it has given me new faith in partnership. 

It has shown me anew that a social contract between haves and have-nots is alive and well, inspiring stories like the good people who raced to care for the hungry opera singer I profiled at Thanksgiving. It has shown me the power of those who unite to help people during this crisis. 

My hope is that donors are as inspired by this spirit of partnership as I am. Because when they ask about the coming year I know that even if we put out our normal glossy reports, the spending projections we normally offer won’t appear with their usual detail and precision. All I can do, whether face-to-face or chatting by Zoom, is to look them in the eye, admit all the uncertainties, and say I hope we can step together into the unknown. 

About the Author
Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket Israel -- The National Food Bank, the leading food rescue non-profit organization that rescues fresh, perishable food, working with 195 non-profits throughout the country to distribute nutritious food to over 175,000 Israelis weekly.
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