Nonprofits hit by pandemic, survey shows

12/02/2020

West Marin nonprofits are managing to stay afloat despite the plethora of difficulties caused by the pandemic. Larger groups are faring better than smaller groups, though over half of the local organizations who participated in a recent survey reported that Covid-19 has reduced their effectiveness and impact. 

The survey was conducted by the West Marin Fund in August at the request of Supervisor Dennis Rodoni. Intended to provide insight into how Covid-19 has affected the coast’s nonprofit sector and the vital services it provides, the survey spotlighted the needs of the organizations moving forward. Adequate fiscal support and recognition from the county are paramount, the supervisor emphasized. 

“The survey was part of a bigger effort, reflecting my feelings and the feeling from nonprofits that West Marin is not always recognized and served as well from the county,” Supervisor Rodoni said. “It is part of telling the nonprofit story, educating the county decisionmakers.”

The survey’s key findings include that the groups’ total workforce, including volunteers and employees, dropped by a third during the first half of 2020. Sixty-eight percent of the groups said they had to reconfigure existing programs, and 36 percent had to cut existing programs. Forty percent have closed a facility. While information on the groups’ bottom lines is incomplete, those that responded showed a large discrepancy between actual and budgeted income this year. 

Of the 100 groups that were invited to participate in the survey, half responded, including ones based in West Marin and others that conduct work locally. The West Marin Fund contracted Mission Met, a nonprofit consultant, to analyze the survey results.

Smaller groups have struggled the most. Groups with at least 10 employees have for the most part avoided large changes in their employee numbers. For organizations with nine employees or fewer, employee numbers went down by 32 percent. The number of volunteers working across all of the groups fell from 1,462 to 886 between Jan. 1 and July 1. 

Daphne Cummings, the director of Shoreline Acres Preschool in Tomales, opened for in-person instruction this fall, but three out of her four teachers elected not to return. One had to help her own child with distance learning and two didn’t feel safe working in childcare during the pandemic. She struggled to find anyone willing to take their places, and she kept the operation running by stepping in to teach, pushing her workdays to 12 hours.  

Ms. Cummings added that in the past, parent volunteers were a key part of the nonprofit; now, they are barred from the school by the state’s Covid-19 restrictions. The internship program created last year has been paused.  

Shoreline Acres did not receive a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, aligning with the survey’s findings that the smaller groups had a harder time accessing the federal financial assistance. Organizations with four or more employees were two-and-a-half times as likely to have received the federal monies. 

Although only 20 percent of respondents provided budgeted versus actual income, eight out of those 10 groups showed a significant gap. Two of the groups enjoyed an increase in income, in part to fund work related to Covid-19. Mission Met analyst Eric Ryan said those numbers reflect nationwide trends for nonprofits: Around 20 percent are receiving extra funds to address Covid-19 and social injustice right now. The other 80 percent are losing income.

The federal monies were essential to the San Geronimo Valley Community Center retaining its 22 employees, according to executive director Dave Cort. The center remains closed, but many programs have moved online. 

The community center is one of several organizations that have helped meet the new needs of residents during the pandemic, including by providing a drive-through food bank and rental and financial assistance. The county and the Marin Community Foundation have funneled more than $300,000 through the community center to residents since March.  

The Point Reyes National Seashore Association is a larger nonprofit that did receive a federal loan, but nevertheless made significant downsizing. After closing its bookstores and shuttering its education programs, the organization laid off 11 of its 19 staff members dedicated to education and administration. The group has built new online programs and field work has continued, but park closures caused by the Woodward Fire and the pandemic blocked plans to resume most in-person activities. The association’s $2.3 million budget has shrunk by 25 percent. 

“From our perspective, it’s been a combination of balancing disappointment with opportunity. We’ve had to make some really hard decisions,” said executive director Donna Faure. 

She added, “The biggest challenge right now is doing long-term planning, because no one knows what the virus will look like in six months. Some of our programs, like our summer camps, require really intensive preparation time, and that costs money. We are trying to plan, and to reduce our financial risks.”

Looking forward four to six months, nonprofits large and small reported that the two biggest challenges they face in response to the pandemic are adapting programs and raising funds. 

“Honestly, I think this will all last into 2022. If that’s the case and we can’t open the building, then our biggest challenge is to make sure we are here and able to serve the community when it’s all over,” said Bonnie Guttman, the executive director of the Dance Palace Community Center. 

The executive director of the West Marin Fund, Sarah Hobson, said the group plans to conduct another survey in February and is hoping for a higher response rate. The next survey will gather more financial data to assess the value of volunteers, the impact of facility closures, and the overall viability of the organizations going forward. 

At the recommendation of the Marin Community Foundation, which was also briefed on the recent results, the next survey will also attempt to quantify the contribution that West Marin nonprofits make to the local economy, including employment and the value of their services. 

County representatives have also asked for additional questions pertaining to the impact of the pandemic on nonprofit employees’ mental health, as well as the impact of climate change and wildfire on the sector.

“The hardest part, which everyone is experiencing on every level, is not having that in-person contact,” Mr. Cort said. “Everything counts right now. Even when people pull up once or twice a week for our food distribution, it’s great to make contact. They pull up and even with the window rolled up and in masks, there is a wave and familiar faces. Those two to three minutes are meaningful for everyone.”