Leader to Leader: Responding to race and COVID-19

Ashwin Vasan of Fountain House
Ashwin Vasan of Fountain House
Fountain House
Ashwin Vasan of Fountain House

Leader to Leader: Responding to race and COVID-19

Nonprofit leaders on confronting the twin challenges.
June 18, 2020

Running a nonprofit has always been a challenge, but it is likely to get even harder in the days ahead. COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement are fundamentally changing the trajectory of the nonprofit sector, introducing a host of new challenges and opportunities.

As we inch closer to the end of lockdown, I reached out to a range of nonprofit leaders to get their sense of how life will be different for nonprofits in the days to come. In particular, I asked them to think about questions of race and management. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, seemingly every nonprofit in New York has issued a statement pledging to combat racism. What impact, if any, will these pledges have on the world? And what impact will they have on the internal functioning of nonprofits as staff advocate for changing the culture and racial demographics of their workplaces?

This is the first of a two-part column looking at the future of the nonprofit sector. A future column will look at operational and fundraising issues in the wake of the coronavirus. 

I reached out to a dozen nonprofit executives across a variety of fields – health, workforce development, arts, youth development and others. What follows are excerpts from their email responses, edited for length, consistency and clarity.

Jocelynne Rainey, GOSO: The momentum growing from the Black Lives Matter movement – and the desire of funders to support work that directly addresses racism – presents an important opportunity for nonprofits to examine the work we are doing. Nonprofit leaders – whether in the arts, education or social services – must understand that the work they do can contribute to racial equity. We must tell our stories and do our work through that lens. Nonprofit leaders and boards must reevaluate how they are serving their communities and use this time to talk candidly about their impact and how they can fight against systemic racism. It is important that nonprofits do more than make statements – we must also continue to communicate and show the results of any new efforts we are doing on this front.

If a nonprofit is unable to speak to how they will address racial equity issues, then they need to revisit their mission. If a publicly or privately funded nonprofit does not believe that undoing systemic racism – the most significant issue of our time – is part of their responsibility, their donors and fellow nonprofits must hold them accountable. 

Anne Pasternak, Brooklyn Museum: We are dealing with great social unrest and anger directed at all institutions, including museums which historically have upheld systems of white supremacy. People know that it’s culture that leads to the social change that leads to political, policy and economic change. The arts matter. Museums matter. But museums largely have ignored or silenced the difficult and painful truths of our past. People rightly are demanding change. 

More than 15,000 people recently showed up to the Brooklyn Museum in a breathtaking show of support for #BlackTransLivesMatter and in protest against President Trump’s threats to federal LGBTQ protections. I doubt it was an accident the Brooklyn Museum was seen as a safe gathering place, as just last year we celebrated Black and brown LGBTQ stories in our Stonewall history exhibition. 

Though we are known for our inclusive and diverse exhibitions, public programs, collections and educational pedagogy, even the Brooklyn Museum has a lot further to go in supporting true equity. So, we are listening. We are designing solutions and priorities together with the staff and board. And we are putting our values into action. Now we just have to do it a hell of a lot faster.

Jill Eisenhard, Red Hook Initiative: I believe we will see more and more senior-level positions in grassroots organizations being held by people of color and people with backgrounds and experiences that are closely aligned with the work of the organizations. Statistics also tell us that because of systems of white supremacy and racial bias, executive directors who are people of color have an uphill battle to secure funding, to prove the effectiveness of the work, and to gain trust from the philanthropic sector. We will need to raise awareness of these issues and offer support to break down those systems that set leaders of color up to fail before they even begin. 

Rehana Farrell, Youth INC: The continued violence against black people by police officers and citizens over the past few weeks on top of COVID-19 has rightly focused our national attention on systemic racism. It has led many to face for the first time the foundational role racism has played in American history and consider how it shapes every aspect of our society. One notable local result of this reckoning was the New York City Council calling for a $1 billion reduction in NYPD funding, which could then be redirected to community-based, local youth programs as well as other critical needs. There is still much unknown about public funding, but developments like this offer glimmers of optimism.

For those of us in the nonprofit sector, we now need to take a much more honest look at our sector and work even more intentionally to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. Our sector is led by boards that are over 80% white. Executive positions have become increasingly white dominated as well. We must do better and create intentional pipelines to advance leaders of color in our field and continue to diversify our boards. Younger members of our teams are clamoring for change and they are right to do so. Change takes time and it’s their job to be impatient and hold those of us in leadership accountable.

George McDonald, Doe Fund: We cannot address racism without simultaneously addressing economic inequity. Corporate America can take the lead in partnering with organizations working to eliminate racial barriers to employment. Through job training and investment in human capital, we can provide access to industries that will not only endure the pandemic, but also allow people to break generational cycles of poverty and gain solid footing in the middle class.

Just as Americans are contemplating whether we have lived up to our premise as a land of equal opportunity, nonprofit leaders must ask whether they are living up to the mission and values of their own organizations. They must look inward at their staff, management, programs, and hiring systems – and move forward with direct action, not just “difficult conversations.”

For any organization devoted to providing job training, reentry programming, or social services to communities impacted by racism, this means making sure people of color don't just have a seat at the table, but are actively driving decisions at the topmost level. Cultivating diversity within leadership and governance should be seen not only as a moral obligation, but as something essentialto any organization's long-term success.

Christine McMahon, The Fedcap Group: Recent events create an opportunity to prioritize outcome data on black Americans and target our investments accordingly. Each of us in the nonprofit sector can have real impact by collectively shifting our attention to those outcomes that bring about economic wellbeing. We must significantly improve early education opportunities, designed to drive the number of children entering and completing college, perhaps the single most reliable predictor of long-term success. Lending institutions must re-think their risk profiles and success factors, adjusting their lending to enhance the economic development results of poor neighborhoods.

Kathryn Haslanger, JASA: COVID-19’s devastating impact on communities of color should not come as a surprise. We have seen that people of color and low-income New Yorkers lack access to health insurance coverage and face obstacles to getting needed health care. Our society’s underinvestment in affordable housing, quality educational opportunities and reliable access to good food, along with the stress of income uncertainty and inequality, all contribute to – and amplify the consequences of – poor health. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been shining a light on work that is truly essential – and on the issues facing minimum-wage workers, who are predominantly people of color, doing that essential work. These New Yorkers deserve recognition, respect and fair compensation. We can’t let this moment pass without making the systemic changes that society has avoided for too long. 

Our staff are holding us accountable to living up to our mission and to serving the cause of justice. We all have a lot of work to do, as individuals and with the organizations that we lead. We need to begin by truly listening and then being steadfast in leading the work that is required to make real and lasting change.

Justine Zinkin, Neighborhood Trust: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced several problems to the forefront of public consciousness, particularly the fragile financial situation in which many people live. For the last few months, many more people and institutions than ever before agreed that workers need more cash, as quickly as it can be delivered. We believe financial security is going to remain a major priority, and that the influx of cash relief efforts will transform into more intentional policies that get more money into the hands of those who need it most.

What we have learned, however, is that any expansion of assistance, whether private or public-sponsored, will need to anticipate many fine-grained details about how poor people actually access money, and has to solve a number of barriers to access that will make the difference between, say, a home health care aide without regular access to wi-fi getting help or not. Our role as nonprofits with experience serving hard-to-reach populations will become crucial, not just as service providers but as advisors on design and implementation for any expansion of worker support. Our new normal must involve ensuring that any new assistance for workers is universal in practice, not just in name.

Ashwin Vasan, Fountain House: I think of the new normal for nonprofits both as the CEO of Fountain House but also as a public health doc and epidemiologist. In public health, we are always balancing competing risks in terms of offering actionable guidance to people – that’s why many of my colleagues and I supported the protests in the midst of the pandemic.

Black Americans represent nearly a quarter of all COVID-related deaths, despite only comprising 14% of the total U.S. population. This stat alone should tell us that we’re getting exactly the outcomes we’ve designed for in terms of people of color bearing the disproportionate burden of the pandemic. So, it will be incumbent upon nonprofits to weigh these deep structural inequities in all aspects of their work, in order to have the impact they seek.

The “new normal” is a moving target, as the pandemic is not going away anytime soon, and so business models will be forced to adapt permanently. This presents some important opportunities because it makes inequities and disparities, which so may nonprofits tackle, more broadly apparent and unavoidable, no matter what kind of work is being done.

Many, if not most, nonprofits are traditionally white liberal institutions. Wanting to do good, though, is not sufficient and is too often paternalistic. Internally, organizations will need to make investments in leadership and support at all levels. The mental health arena, for example, has been almost exclusively led by well-intentioned white people. Dan Gillison, the recently appointed Black CEO of NAMI, and myself, a brown person, are exceptions. The protests are fuel for that, and staff – particularly, younger staff – are demanding it. We must invest in supporting staff and board to embrace and achieve racial equity and dismantle white supremacy culture.

Lisa David, Public Health Solutions: Alongside the pandemic, nonprofits are responding to another public health crisis that has captured national attention: racism. Nonprofits of all kinds – whether they work directly with communities of color or not – must determine their role in fighting for racial equality and make good on promises to advance this cause. It is easy to understand the outrage manifesting itself in protests throughout the country, especially as Black Americans are disproportionately dying from COVID-19. At Public Health Solutions, racial equity is at the core of what we do as it directly impacts a person’s health. We work every day to ensure New Yorkers of color get services like health insurance, food assistance, and maternal and child health. We are also moving towards putting the client in the center of our work and looking more holistically to refer to a variety of services that can help them and their families. We join a chorus of activists and other nonprofits fighting for racial justice and share in our collective responsibility to create real change.

Alan Mucatel, Rising Ground: For human service organizations, dismantling institutional or structural racism has two dimensions. One is within the organization itself – how it operates as an employer. The other is its role in the broader community in which it provides service. Change requires that we make an effort, including supporting dialogue and education, as we change policies, practices, and norms. Rising Ground’s anti-racism work over the past six years has been an honest effort toward very direct and concrete changes. But it’s also imperfect, incomplete, and evolving. We have evaluated and altered policies such as hiring practices, but the work continues. The communities we serve are primarily communities of color and the systems with which we operate and that impact their lives are inequitable. We must continue to call out that inequity, and examine our role in it, as our work itself evolves to meet the needs of individuals and families.

Racism and inequity are cancers that eat at our collective well-being. It’s not surprising that this pandemic has taken an uneven toll on communities of color. It’s not particularly surprising that essential workers (including the employees of Rising Ground) have borne the brunt of keeping society going, or to find that they are predominantly people of color, often making the lowest wages. That human services work is underfunded reflects the value placed by our society on the work we do and the communities we serve. But I think people who choose our line of work – work that is rooted in a belief in the possibility of positive change – can have hope. Nonprofit leaders can fight racism by advocating for funding for organizations that support the complex needs of marginalized populations and help them overcome challenges.

Donald C. Notice, West Harlem Group Assistance: Our organization was built on activism and advocacy since our inception in 1971. Access to decent housing was highly influenced by racial and socio-economic narratives in America and as a result we have always taken an intersectional approach. We continue to uphold our value for fairness and inclusiveness. What we anticipate from other organizations in our industry (community development) is a more concerted effort to yield better outcomes, whether it is through changes in policies or through changes in how their existing policies were implemented.

Nonprofit leaders, especially those with small human resource capacities, have to pay particular attention to the needs of the staff. Sound communication and adjustments in policies and practices that impact the experience of the staff are needed. This is not only to prioritize the welfare of the staff, but also to preserve the output of the organization and by extension, the welfare of those affected by the organization’s work.

Myung J. Lee, Volunteers of America-Greater New York: George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor and too many others should be alive today. Their deaths have fomented a movement that cannot be ignored. Americans are waking up. We are getting louder. People who might otherwise be content to sit back and do nothing are taking action. And, action is power. The swell of emotion that’s sweeping the country is forcing people in power to look at themselves in a different way – through the prism of racism that our black and brown communities have lived with for centuries. I am very hopeful that real change is coming.

At VOA-Greater New York, this is also our moment and our opportunity. Raising voices and raising awareness is great, but we need to get to work. As an organization, we will really look hard at who we are and determine what we can do differently to ensure that we really are a safe place for our black and brown colleagues and the clients we serve. 

Greg Berman
is a senior fellow at the Center for Court Innovation. He is the co-author, with Julian Adler, of “Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration.”
20200929