Nonprofits carried us through the pandemic

Organizations maintained vital services while strengthening the economy

PANDEMIC RESTRICTIONS have been lifted in Massachusetts. The crisis isn’t entirely over, but we can take stock of what has enabled us to come so far. And among the countless contributions, those of Massachusetts nonprofits stand out. Nonprofits leapt into action at the start of the pandemic. They served as early responders, took on new challenges, and innovated every step of the way. Their resilience helped make Massachusetts a true Commonwealth throughout the pandemic.

In order to achieve a more equitable, sustainable long-term recovery, we must continue to support our nonprofits and their invaluable contributions to our communities. The wave of support for nonprofits’ work throughout 2020 — individual donations, volunteerism, corporate giving, philanthropic and government relief — was critical. We hope it can continue at all levels in 2021 and beyond.

COVID-19 made nonprofits re-evaluate every aspect of what they do. Organizations pivoted their work to best support people in the face of huge challenges, often relating to basic needs such as food and health care. Funders stepped up too, awarding unrestricted grants and streamlining application processes to help nonprofits move quickly.

The stories from those on the front lines and in the field are inspiring. They include reapplying technology from cancer to COVID to create dashboards for researchers and doctors, building 400+ community gardens to feed 4,000+ individuals, achieving a housing and shelter program retention rate of 94 percent and surpassing a target of 85 percent, and helping homeless women with valuable linguistic talents gain work experience by providing high quality, life-saving interpreter services to clients at health care centers.

The Massachusetts Nonprofit Network (MNN) and Citizens recently honored four organizations and two individuals with the 2021 Nonprofit Excellence Awards in a virtual event commemorating the sector’s contributions to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Webster’s defines excellence as a particular virtue. In a year turned upside down, finding virtue among MNN’s member organizations, their leaders, and staff was not difficult. What was hard was narrowing 180 nominations down to 29 finalists in six categories (including a new one for Resilience) and then having to choose the winners.

This year’s awards introduced a new category for resilience. Resilience — the ability to recover strength and spirit and to do so quickly — has never been more needed. No one could have predicted the scope of the pandemic, nor what the best responses to it might be. But the Massachusetts nonprofit sector’s response has been characterized by resilience every step of the way. It builds on traditions of service and innovation that go back over 100 years.

One Springfield nonprofit, for example, was founded in 1883 to address the unmet needs of the city’s working families. Today, it continues to provide care and early learning programs for 500 children and support to 1,500 families. A Boston nonprofit that was founded in 1906 and survived the 1918 influenza has served continuously since then; during the COVID-19 pandemic it assisted 893 people between the ages of 8 and 24 from first-generation families.

We need nonprofits for our communities to function. At the local, state, and federal levels, government relies on nonprofits to fill the gaps that it cannot reach. In addition, the nonprofit sector is an economic engine. It employs one out of every seven workers in Massachusetts.

Those two contributions — providing vital services and strengthening the economy — mean that the nonprofit sector’s resilience has widespread benefits. It advances the journey towards critical goals such as equity and justice for everyone in Massachusetts, universal availability of high-quality educational and health care services, and wise stewardship of our state’s environmental, cultural, and historic treasures. The people served by nonprofits, which at the end of the day are all of us, deserve no less.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
 Jim Klocke is CEO of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. Lisa Murray is senior vice president and head of not-for-profit banking at Citizens, Massachusetts.