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June 14, 2021
Mass. Nonprofit Leaders See Positive Post-Pandemic Future

April 29, 2021 —Ways in which Massachusetts nonprofits responded to the coronavirus pandemic—including confronting racial injustice, employing technology, and engaging donors more openly—will likely lead to permanent operational changes that emphasize collaboration, flexibility, and inclusion, according to sector leaders.

“Nonprofits will rethink their business models and ways [they can be] more responsive, more equitable, more inclusive to the communities and the people that they serve,” said Bob Giannino, president and CEO, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, a leading, Boston-based grant maker focused on helping families out of poverty, speaking yesterday at a virtual forum on the future of nonprofits hosted by the Boston Business Journal.

“We have to think through partnership differently. This is not about chasing the dollar, but chasing the solution. And when we chase the solution, it changes the way that we think about funding…and it changes the way that we think about agility,” said Bithiah Carter, president and CEO of New England Blacks in Philanthropy in Boston, which works to enhance philanthropy’s ability to address the needs of Black communities.

Social justice issues, highlighted during the last year by racial and health inequities, will continue to shape a broad range of practices among nearly all nonprofits, the panelists agreed.

Jo Ann Simons, CEO of Northeast Arc, a Danvers-based nonprofit that supports people with developmental disabilities, said while discussions about diversity and inclusion were held across her organization, including some she described as painful, “that wasn't going to change anything unless we began to think about how we do things differently.”

Illustrating how social justice is tied to a host of other issues, Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn in Boston, which provides shelter, outreach, and job training to help homeless and formerly homeless people, said a discussion about social justice and racial equity also requires a frank discussion about zoning laws as well as education policy.

Noting that “social justice has again become part of the epicenter of our work,” Carter said, “I think the whole game has changed. This has been really a catalyst for us to think through not just what is the world we want to have in the future, but how are we actually going to get there.”

While the pandemic disrupted operations for nearly all nonprofits—“We were all in the same storm, but we all were in different boats,” said Simons—technology provided critical support, paving the way for expected greater use of technology in the post-pandemic world.

Simons said her organization held 43,000 Zoom meetings since the pandemic erupted in Massachusetts, compared to none during the 12 months before. In addition, technology allowed it to deliver services to people in their homes.

Before the pandemic, funders thought technology “was nice for nonprofits,” but have come to realize that it is at the center of their work, Carter said.

Technology proved a silver lining for the Pine Street Inn in Boston, which provides shelter, outreach, and job training for homeless and formerly homeless people. According to Lyndia Downie, its president and executive director, technology enabled Pine Street Inn to achieve better engagement rates vs. face-to-face approaches with a number of tenants.

Greater collaboration between nonprofits during the pandemic led many of those organizations to better articulate what they’re especially good at, and shy away from merging for the sake of merging.

Noting that the Pine Street Inn’s catering company helped other home provider agencies during the last year, Downie said it’s important that nonprofits collaborate “in a way where we're all bringing the best that we have to the table.” If that means ceasing some activities because others do them better, nonprofits should recognize that, too, she said.

The pandemic hit the pause button on merger conversations, which, Carter said, was good for nonprofits.

“Organizations could actually breathe and think through ‘Why am I here? What is it that I do? What do I do well and then how do I take what I do well and not lose myself or my mission, and actually do it with someone else?’” she said.

“I think it also opened up our eyes that we need organizations of all sizes. I think for a long time we thought big was good, but we know now we need grassroots, we need grass top, we need mainstream organizations, and we need also experts. And I think having that diversity of organizations will help to serve the diversity of our community.”

As much as anything else, the pandemic increased public awareness of nonprofits like Northeast Arc, which Simons said was “invisible” to much of the general population, and “shed a bright light” on the nonprofit workforce crisis, particularly issues of low pay.

Looking ahead, the panelists agreed that potential tax law changes, which could increase the federal tax rate on wealthy individuals, likely won’t have much, if any, effect on major donors. They also agreed that regulations surrounding donor-advised funds need to change to encourage greater distributions from those accounts.

“There are billions of dollars that are not being put to use right now,” said Giannino.

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