Signs of Strain in Local Social Safety Nets in NC: Observations for CED Professionals

About the Author

Maureen Berner

Maureen Berner is a School of Government faculty member. She teaches evaluation and analysis courses for MPA students, and provides similar training and advising to state and local government officials throughout North Carolina.

Not Normal

CED professionals rely on nonprofits, large and small, for a huge array of services – or work for nonprofits directly. Small businesses value community connections and are frequent supporters in times of community need. After a typical disaster, nonprofits work next to first responders and local governments in addressing immediate community needs. Small and large businesses pitch in with supplies, funding, and volunteers.  It seems almost silly to say it, but COVID-19 is not a normal disaster.The current situation in NC is different from that of a hurricane (as bad as that can be) in that the disaster is not limited to a region. It is not happening at a single point in time, where people can live through the immediate crisis and then move into recovery and clean-up mode. Help is not arriving from neighboring states. How well are our communities responding?

Observations for CED Professionals

The observations listed here come from a variety of briefings for, and from, community organizations, recent state-wide survey data from the NC Center for Nonprofits, data gathered by No Kid Hungry NC from every county on non-profit efforts to feed children who would normally rely on school-based food assistance, and the personal experiences of the author working with community nonprofits over the past month. This is not systematic research, but simply observations on the threats facing this vital support system in our towns and counties.

Human service nonprofits face new and different barriers to providing immediate help. A number of factors are hindering the ability of nonprofits to play the role of community support as they normally would. They are limited by the same social distancing being used to limit the spread of COVID-19. Rather than bringing more volunteers in to run operations, systems must be set up that use fewer in the same space, or have had to stop services. The volunteer base has been told to stay home. Nonprofit volunteers tend to be older, a group at higher risk from COVID-19. This restricts the ability to provide services in a number of nonprofits. On the recipient side, individuals who might normally be served in groups must be served individually or by family.  Sometimes this is at curbside or in a drive-thru, requiring different delivery systems. The civic capital is trapped.

Nonprofits and small businesses themselves will be victims of COVID-19 at the same time that they struggle to help communities. Hundreds of nonprofits (74% of respondents, n=680) report they are experiencing significant negative impact from the crisis, with another 24% reporting moderate impacts. One of the most significant impacts is the inability to hold events which would normally provide operating funds. They are experiencing similar economic fallout to that being felt by small businesses – a frozen revenue stream, leading to additional layoffs or closures. In many of these organizations, they will lose experienced staff.  If a non-profit or small business has incurred debt in the past, taking smart advantage of low interest rates to expand or build, or lack savings, but at the ‘wrong time,’ they are in an incredible bind. The traditional financial capital has disappeared, and emergency financial capital will take time to deploy.

Nonprofits and small businesses who are trying to help are having to be constantly flexible and innovative; as soon as one process is established, a new barrier can emerge. An example is the wonderful partnerships between schools, businesses, and nonprofits working to feed children around the state.  They require coordination, food safety, and virus safety measures for the recipients and the staff and volunteers. Federal policies are changing weekly in response to the special circumstances presented by COVID-19. Unfortunately, processes are also changing in response to spread of the virus in communities or shifting resources. No Kid Hungry NC has a list of current efforts in every county, although individual communities should check with local providers for the most up-to-date information.  Many nonprofits and small businesses are being innovative and adapting.

The scope of the crisis means organizational capacity is critical to providing services. In a Nonprofit Town Hall hosted by Representative David Price on April 7, Self-Help Credit Union reported that last year 60 small business loans were made. In the coming month, they expect to make over 1,000 small business and nonprofit loans. (Small business town halls were also held, and recordings can be found here.) Even with resources, nonprofits large and small will need time to implement programs to help those who help others. This capacity issue exists from the community level up to the federal government. Relief programs may be approved and funded, but technology and personnel infrastructure will take time to set-up to deliver services to CED programs needing help.

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