Giving Beyond the Federal Shutdown Emergency

Monday, January 28, 2019

By Tamara Lucas Copeland

Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

This piece was originally published in the Daily WRAG.

It’s over. After 35 days, the federal government is reopening, for at least three weeks. Furloughed government employees will receive backpay. To the extent possible, as the saying goes, they will be “made whole.” That is good.

There is an unacknowledged group that won’t go back to normal without help. It’s not the federal contractors, or the restaurants and shops that serve them. I am not minimizing the impact of the shutdown on those communities; it’s just that the ripple effect on them has been widely acknowledged by the media. The unacknowledged are the nonprofit organizations that have rallied to respond.

They are the heroes in this story. Whether the emergency is a natural disaster or a manmade one, the nonprofit community is always the go-to resource. You immediately heard about food banks working to meet the most basic of needs, and then programs helping renters to negotiate with their landlords or mortgage holders to negotiate with banks. Most of those wanting to help furloughed workers didn’t do so without the intervention of a nonprofit. Businesses made contributions to nonprofits, local governments too – all wanting to help those suffering from the shutdown. They saw working with nonprofit organizations – those that regularly serve people in need – as the most effective way to help.

Many of the foundations and corporate giving programs in the WRAG membership immediately jumped in to provide quick and increased financial help to their nonprofit grantees. There’s a challenge, however. Now that the shutdown is over, the news coverage will stop. Our focus will shift as we breathe a collective sigh of relief. Perhaps without consciously thinking about it, we will return to “normal” until the next disaster occurs. But, that’s not what will happen to all of those nonprofits that rallied to support our neighbors. There is no built-in mechanism for them to get back the resources expended supporting federal employees. That is the problem.

While it is best practice for a nonprofit to have six months of operating capital in reserve, a report from the Nonprofit Finance Fund discovered that most of their survey respondents had less than three months of capital in reserve and about 10 percent had less than 30 days – that’s less time than the shutdown lasted. The role that the nonprofit sector has played in helping to keep furloughed employees’ families fed, housed, and clothed – just the basics – cannot be minimized. Now those organizations are likely to be financially depleted, or close to it. And the reality for our region is that there are many families who require these safety net services throughout the year.

This is a call to all of those who have helped during the crisis to help now that it is over as well. It may not be as emotionally compelling to give when the situation is not dire, but we must. We know that another emergency will come. They always do. We have to do all we can to keep the nonprofit sector strong and ready. Nonprofits are the true safety net – always there, even when the government fails to support its citizens.