Shuttered but Still Serving: How Nonprofits are Navigating the New Frontier
Before COVID-19 caused businesses to close their doors and residents to stay at home, Project Pneuma, a nonprofit serving Baltimore City boys with emotional challenges, would meet for three hours a day, four days a week.
In addition to academic enrichment, students at Project Pneuma learned about honor, forgiveness, self-control and discipline through martial arts, learning foreign languages such as German or common Greek, practicing public speaking, and taking yoga classes.
Started in 2014, the program has grown from 23 boys to 500, who are being taught across 23 schools in six locations. Project Pneuma is the only organization recognized as a national reform program for youth of color and law enforcement. In collaboration with the Baltimore City Police Department, Project Pneuma students and new recruits of the Baltimore City Police Academy learn together at a facility in Northwest Baltimore.
As COVID-19 shut down the globe in mid-March, many nonprofits, including Project Pneuma, were forced to face closing temporarily or finding some way to continue its mentoring and training programs. So it went 100 percent online.
“We knew we had to change our model from meeting in-person to online,” said Damion Cooper, founder and executive director of Project Pneuma. “Luckily for us, a lot of the work we do can be done via phone calls and online training. We’re providing yoga mats and blankets to all the boys in our program and leading classes online. We have a full curriculum where the boys sign on at a certain time to complete programs like mindfulness, sound therapy, academic enrichment, and breathing techniques. The only thing we can’t do is martial arts and self-defense training.”
Other hands-on organizations don’t have the ability to revamp and have closed their doors until the pandemic loosens its grip on public health and the economy.
The Johnson STEM Activity Center, founded by Dr. Lonnie Johnson, is a 20,000-square-foot “STEM gym” in downtown Atlanta that is currently closed. Many award-winning student robotics teams call JSAC home.
“The core programs we offer at JSAC are socially dependent,” said Timothy Richardson, executive director of JSAC. "It’s very hard to run this program online because the problems being solved are then applied to building a machine.” The core staff of the facility is now focused on making sure their students and their families are O.K.
On top of the burden of revamping programming, many nonprofits are doing so while navigating layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts. Habitat for Humanity laid off 10 percent of its staff. And YMCAs across the country are going through sharp pay cuts and mass layoffs due to COVID-19. The Greater Philadelphia YMCA cut 4,000 jobs, and the YMCA of Greater Seattle laid off more than 2,000 employees.
According to CNN, “COVID-19 is poised to become an extinction-level event for America’s nonprofits. … Unless government, funders and nonprofit leaders take immediate and decisive action, many nonprofits around the nation may just disappear over the next few months, leaving those they serve and employ in disastrous circumstances.”
Collectively, nonprofit organizations employ an estimated 12.3 million people in the United States.
The CARES Act’s $2 trillion relief package includes the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — a loan offered through the Small Business Administration to help small businesses, nonprofits, self-employed individuals, or contractors meet payroll, rent, and utility costs. PPP received $350 billion under the CARES Act. The money was gone in less than two weeks.
For those able to pivot to an online model, many nonprofits are discovering a new set of challenges associated with learning from home.
“A lot of our boys are emotionally illiterate, and some of our students are socially isolated in the very place that brings them the most trauma,” Project Pneuma’s Cooper said. “They are reclusive, reserved — going back to playing games and that’s it. We worry about their emotional regression. We stay in touch with parents to make sure the boys have their learning packets, and we’re working with partners to see how we can help homes that don’t have the necessary technology available.”
“I spent nine years in City Hall as a senior director, so I know how the government works. I knew once banks were told loan processing is on a ‘first-come, first-served basis’, they would start shuffling the deck,” said Cooper. “The bank gets a larger kickback if they go with a publicly traded company worth millions versus a smaller organization worth a few hundred thousand.”
Though Project Pneuma has a sizable contract with Baltimore City Public Schools, when the school systems closed, so did the financial contracts. With some money set aside, Cooper applied for a PPP loan to retain all staff members at their full salaries. Cooper states one of the saving graces is the fact the organization doesn’t use a larger bank.
“We bank with one of the few black-owned banks in the nation — Harbor Bank of Maryland. Through them, we applied for our PPP loan and got approved the same week.”
Whether moving online, or even with doors closed, innovation continues.
Richardson, of JSAC, had some good news on that front.
“In the process of checking in with people, we learned some of our high school teams are applying what they learned to join the fight against COVID,” he said. “One team is 3D printing face shields and distributing them to local pediatricians. It made us feel very proud that they are being creative and solving this problem. They’re taking the knowledge we’ve given them to use it for the greater good.”
JSAC is also a part of Johnson Research and Development. The larger entity is working on a new design for a ventilator and is working with Grady Hospital to become a drive-through test site.
Cooper, who has kept his door open via the internet and government assistance with the payroll protection program, insists on holding on to hope through the current storm.
“We have to remain positive in the face of adversity,” he said. “If we don’t, we can begin to poison the people we are charged to serve. With the number of things we’ve gone through as a people and culture, I refuse to have a woe-is-me moment when so many people died for us. It is our job to continue to push forward, shine light and positivity, and show love — even while we’re going through this.”