Greater Good Blog

Philanthropy Should Step Up to Support Frontline Workers, During the Pandemic and Beyond

Gwen Walden and Eric Kessler
Philanthropy Should Step Up to Support Frontline Workers, During the Pandemic and Beyond

Every disaster brings stories of everyday heroes: first responders, service providers, victim advocates, relief workers, and other frontline workers who choose to take the risks necessary to save lives during a catastrophic event. Many of the everyday heroes emerging in this pandemic are different from those we typically think of. Few signed up for jobs considered high-risk, and none realized they would be asked to give up daily wages, time with friends and family, and even the simple reassurance of a human hug. Many are working at great personal risk, to themselves and their families, in a situation filled with uncertainty. Their health, income, social networks, and communities all are under threat. They need urgent as well as long-term support from the government, business, and philanthropy communities if they are going to weather this crisis and support our nation’s recovery.

These frontline workers are standing up for us today. We need to stand up for them. So how can we help?

Health Care Workers

Those of us who have slept on gurneys beside sick loved ones already knew how heroic health care workers can be, but this crisis puts an even brighter spotlight on their service. Not only nurses and doctors, but the full range of health care workers, from hospital custodians to radiology technicians, are stepping forward in potentially life-threatening circumstances. Some have no postsecondary education; others have graduate degrees or certifications. Some are union members; others are contracted labor. They work in different roles and diverse settings, from university hospitals to small, community clinics. But they share a common commitment to safeguarding the health of all people, from the homeless veteran to the corporate executive.

Here’s how we can support them:    

Now: Contribute to the regional funds created to ensure they have the protective equipment they need; pay for extra hours of child care; support efforts to forestall evictions, foreclosures, and housing insecurity during the crisis

Later: Support debt relief; build educational ladders to allied health care careers; support better professional development in the health care setting; endorse efforts to close the wage gap between “non-professional” health care jobs and management and medical personnel.

Food System Workers

For many of us, the only direct human contact we may have is with the checkout person at the grocery store. They, and everyone in the food supply chain behind them, are increasingly exhausted and scared, just like the rest of us. But they are also patriotic and proud, knowing they are providing one of our society’s most vital functions.

Here’s how we can support them:

Now: Contribute to relief funds supporting the workers and small business owners who provide our food, from farm to fork. Consider local growers and local businesses in your own food purchasing.

Later: Put philanthropic resources toward bolstering regional supply chains that support family-owned farms, local distribution networks, and other decentralized building blocks that are critical at a time like this when centralized solutions struggle.

Day Care Workers and Educators

Anyone who has school kids locked down at home now understands that there isn’t a salary big enough to show appreciation for the faculty, administrators, and support staff who normally care for and teach our children. Starting with nanny care and moving through pre-K to high school, students of all ages and their parents rely on an informal and formal system of care administered by hundreds of professionals and paraprofessionals. These workers, at all levels, are under-compensated, forced to buy their own teaching materials and supplies, and often work in sub-standard facilities. Now many have been asked to adapt curricula to virtual and distance learning environments in a matter of weeks, and to help the children they care about continue to learn in very challenging circumstances.

Here’s how we can support them:

Now: Support the school fund that pays for what’s not in the normal school budget. Send food delivery to your school leaders so they can take a break from cooking on top of everything else they are working on. Pay for supplies and equipment required to teach from a non-school setting. Support not just your own school, but districts in your region that are perhaps overlooked and under-resourced.

Later: Support efforts to compensate educators on par with other “high-value” professions such as law and finance; prioritize financing capital improvements in schools, including technology upgrades, in the most under-performing districts.

Safety-Net Service Providers

America’s nonprofit sector is the backbone of our social safety net, providing basic needs like food, shelter, and health care to vast numbers of Americans at a time when citizens and residents can count less and less on government support. Fundraisers are cancelled, cash reserves are depleted, and services are disrupted. Even though most nonprofits squeeze more out of a dollar than a lot of businesses, the pandemic is devastating for their budgets, their workforce, and their ability to fill the gaps that governments leave behind.

Here’s how we can support them:

Now: Trust the organizations you have supported the most. Double or triple your grant making to them. Give core support and remove all strings that might have been attached. If you have resources unallocated in a donor-advised fund or have historically limited your foundation grant making to the 5 percent of assets required by the IRS in 1969, put more of your resources to work now.

Later: Invest in the mission of nonprofits but avoid trying to direct their activities and programs. Minimize your use-of-funds restrictions throughout the recovery. Provide financial resources to support nonprofit mergers and collaborations that emerge as a result of the crisis.

Small Business Owners

Just as nonprofits are the backbone of our social safety net, small business owners are the backbone of our economy.  Daycare centers, florists, nail salons, restaurants, gyms, and many other neighborhood businesses that operate on thin margins have shuttered. Such businesses are community assets that contribute crucially to the economic, social, and cultural lifeblood of neighborhoods everywhere. They are often started by immigrants following a dream. They are owned by generations of families, who build the dream over decades of hard work and dedication.

Here’s how we can support them:   

Now: Support any small business still allowed to operate that is doing so safely. Contribute to the relief funds sprouting up to support individual businesses and their furloughed employees.

Later: Support efforts to ensure small businesses can access stimulus funds, remove inequitable barriers for business financing (see “An Economy for All”), and support the end of predatory lending.

While anyone could be affected by the pandemic, those with fewer resources and those who already face an uphill battle to succeed in our society will feel its effects far more than others who have these assets. There’s no Plan B for these workers. Donors’ approaches to the acute needs above should ensure that equity is a central focus of their response to the pandemic and, indeed, their everyday philanthropy.

In recent years, some journalists and philanthropy watchers have made a career out of painting philanthropy as ineffective at best, and self-serving at worst. We believe, to the contrary, that because we are a generous nation, philanthropy has risen to the occasion time and time again to find cures, help those in need, and chart a path toward a more equitable future. This moment calls on us to do all of these things faster and at an unprecedented scale. Now is the time to prove our commitment to immediate and long-term impact.

About the Authors:

Gwen Walden is a senior managing director in Arabella’s San Francisco office, where she leads the firm’s West Coast practice. In this capacity, she engages with a range of clients on strategy, evaluation, and impact investing work, implementing programs and projects and managing donor collaboratives.

Eric Kessler is Arabella’s founder, principal, and a senior managing director.

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