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Feeling the Squeeze: Nonprofits Relying on Gumption, Faith to Survive

Nonprofits, like many other businesses, have felt the heavy financial burden brought on by COVID-19. But, unlike most businesses, charities have faced the unique challenge of balancing a higher demand for services with a decline in revenue.

The financial instability that has created more need for charitable services is the same one that has reduced the number of donors. Many individuals and businesses who have donated regularly in the past are no longer able to give. Compounding the problem, social distancing and lockdown mandates have made it impossible to hold the in-person fundraising events that usually bring in the most money. For the most part, an entire year has passed without galas, auctions, luncheons, dinners or any other social events that attract new donors.

While donations are down, the need for services has gone up. Pandemic-related issues started a chain reaction that caused more people to be dependent on nonprofits. Job loss led to homelessness. Financial instability led to food instability, which became food poverty. Financial stress became emotional stress and (for some) led to domestic abuse. Lockdowns and social distancing meant kids weren’t in school, which meant fewer eyes on kids, and more cases of abuse and neglect went unreported. Nonprofits that support these families are needed now more than ever.    

 The pandemic has squeezed charities into what some might consider an impossible situation, but even with all the challenges in front of them, many of our local nonprofits have surprisingly managed to keep up. Out of sheer passion, downright gumption, pull-up-by-the-bootstraps attitude and unshakable faith, several Arkansas nonprofits have remained financially strong while meeting the growing need.  

How They’re Doing

NW Arkansas Children’s Shelter
NACS is a safe haven that provides 24-hour residential, emergency triage care for children who are victims of abandonment, abuse or neglect. According to Grants and Marketing Manager Kate Lunsford, the children’s shelter first saw a drop in intake while schools were in lockdown, and then saw a rise in children needing placement after schools reopened.

“The isolation of the children has really been the most frightening aspect of the pandemic for us,” she told Arkansas Money & Politics. “When the children weren’t attending school, church or after-school activities, they were not around safe, trusted adults like teachers, youth group leaders, coaches, etc., who are typically the first to notice the signs of potential abuse and neglect.”

To deal with the rising demand, staff members have worked extra hours and made strategic changes inside the building to make it easier to accept more children. In 2020, Arkansans stepped up and increased the funding for the most basic needs of food and shelter.

Ozark Rape Crisis Center
ORCC helps survivors of sexual violence by providing a 24-hour crisis hotline. Victim advocates also are available to accompany victims to area hospitals, law enforcement agencies and court. The center offers information and referral services for follow-up care and offers support groups and community education. In the first month of the pandemic lockdown, ORCC was eerily quiet.

“I can think back on days where the phone didn’t ring at all,” Executive Director Dorinda Edmisten said. “That lasted about a month. Then, in mid-April, the call volume increased almost overnight, and it became hard to meet the need.”

All ORCC staff who had been working remotely jumped back into the office to handle the sudden increase. The center has maintained the 24-hour hotline and phone services and has pivoted from in-person drop-ins to scheduled visits and virtual appointments. Individual donations have decreased significantly. In order to continue the most urgent services, the center made cuts and is continuing to seek other funding sources.

“As a nonprofit, we are getting by and hope we will continue to do so,” Edmisten said.

Union Rescue Mission
The Mission operates the Dorcas House, which serves women who are victims of domestic violence, recovering from addiction or homeless, and the Nehemiah House, a drug and alcohol recovery program for men. 

“This has been a very difficult season for everyone, but especially those who struggle with addiction,” Michelle Harper, director of development, said. “The isolation, impact from job losses, school going online and many other factors have created feelings of despair and hopelessness.”

The organization provides free recovery programs, especially as the number of addiction and abuse cases have risen. Challenges have ranged from having to social distance and reduce the number of people in each house to losing food donations leftover from restaurants and events.

“Lives are at stake, and it’s no exaggeration,” Harper emphasized. The Mission has turned to online fundraising, in addition to its ongoing clothing and household donations. The charity also held an outdoor fundraising event in March.  

Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance
The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance takes on the mission to reduce hunger, improve access to nutritious food and provide tools and education for partners. It works with the state’s six regional Feeding America food banks, helping them purchase food for distribution to local pantries. In partnership with Share Our Strength, the alliance is responsible for launching the Arkansas No Kid Hungry campaign which provides school breakfasts, after-school meals and food for kids throughout the summer.

According to Communications Manager Rebekah Hall Scott, hunger soared in 2020 with Feeding America estimating that by the end of last year an additional 157,000 Arkansans faced hunger, including one in three Arkansas children.

“As more Arkansas children, families and individuals face food insecurity, the future of our state is at stake,” Hall Scott stressed. “Our neighbors in need must have access to food assistance and other critical resources to get through the continuing economic and health crisis.” 

Thanks to a few large grants, the alliance was able to award subgrants to local hunger organizations, distribute truckloads of food to Feeding America food banks and continue No Kid Hungry initiatives.

Family Service Agency
The Family Service Agency focuses on improving the economic health of families, reducing the incidence of domestic violence, treating substance abuse, helping families and individuals resolve conflict, providing affordable housing and helping people and employers solve work performance problems.

According to CEO Victor Werner, the agency was able to adapt in a way that allowed the nonprofit to continue without interruption. Many client appointments switched to virtual, and classes were attended on Zoom.  

“For us, due to our funding sources and the PPP loan, the effect was minimal,” Werner said. “We were able to retain all our staff. So, really not much of a funding change for us, but I’m pretty sure that has not been the case for others.”

In addition to the loan, the nonprofit is exploring new fundraising initiatives.

Saving Grace
Saving Grace provides transitional housing, life skills education and supportive relationships to young women who have aged out of foster care and are facing homelessness. At the start of the pandemic, the organization was about to hold its annual fundraising luncheon and was forced to quickly switch to a digital version.

The number of donors dropped to half the number of the previous year, but those who gave were able to make up for the ones who couldn’t.

“God provided every penny we needed to keep our doors open,” Community Coordinator Kamber Henson shared. “We are learning to lean in and adapt. Though we’ve been forced to make changes to ensure the safety of our girls, staff and volunteers, we are continuing to press on and trust God.”

Throughout the last several months, some residents lost their jobs. Others who had to move back in when their college dorms closed. Social distancing forced housing changes. Despite these challenges, more girls became independent and graduated from Saving Grace than in previous years.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) provide compassionate volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children. The organization works to speak up for the best interests of these children in court.

Director of Development Colleen Smith said practically everything has changed for CASA since courts briefly shut down and then moved online. Staff and advocates have pivoted to virtual visits, Zoom court and online training. Despite the changes, fewer donors and greater demand, the organization has been able to keep up with services thanks to some loyal supporters who stepped up to bridge the gap.

“The community showed up in a huge way in terms of continuing to fund our mission,” Smith said. “People realized the importance of our work and felt a true calling to engage any way they could to support us.”

Where They Go From Here

Though many nonprofits have managed to stay afloat despite the drop in donations, they all agree that much more financial help is needed.

Werner said, “In spite of the challenges that everyone is facing, there are those who can still afford to help support their favorite nonprofits.Every little bit helps. Many nonprofits serve underserved populations. If some of these services end, then the safety net for this population ends as well.”

Time will tell what the long-term repercussions will be, especially on the most vulnerable.

Smith said the effects of this pandemic on families and nonprofits will continue for years to come. “We hope everyone will continue to invest their time and resources to improve the lives of our friends and neighbors.”

Read the full story on the Arkansas Money & Politics website here.