“History Will Judge Us Harshly If We Remain Complacent”

“History will judge us harshly—not if we are too bold and ambitious, but rather, if we remain complacent or think too small… We have a unique window – and an opportunity – to act. We urge you to invest deeply and sustainably in nonprofits that power the City’s workforce and economy.”

More than two years into the pandemic, Boston’s nonprofit sector is still feeling the longstanding economic impacts of COVID-19. Local human services nonprofit organizations, which predominantly serve communities of color, are experiencing challenges around staffing, overhead and transportation costs, and recovering lost income.

That was the message delivered by United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley President and CEO Bob Giannino when he testified as part of a panel of local, state, and national nonprofit leaders at the May 3 hearing of the Boston City Council’s Committee on Boston’s COVID-19 Recovery.

The committee offers general oversight and recommendations on the City’s implementation and use of the City’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding towards critical investments that support the city’s recovery from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

The hearing was called by District 9 City Councilor Liz Breadon to recognize the contributions of community-based organizations throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Breadon raised the importance of viewing local community-based nonprofits as the City’s natural partners, serving the same constituents and working to address shared challenges.

“Locally-based nonprofit organizations provide direct services across Boston while harnessing deep knowledge of community needs with a high-impact reach and an established presence as trusted messengers,” said District 9 City Councilor Liz Breadon. “The social sector has really stepped up to meet the needs of our residents throughout the past two years of the pandemic, and we must especially prioritize the sustainability of smaller nonprofits as essential toward charting our City’s recovery.”

The hearing drew attention to the impacts of the pandemic on nonprofits and included testimony from Jim Klocke of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, Michael Weekes of the Providers Council, Amanda Hartigan of The Boston Foundation, Elaine Ng of Third Sector New England, and David Thompson of the National Council of Nonprofits. Councilor Breadon noted the hearing was timely due to increased national scrutiny of the so-called “Great Resignation” and its pronounced impacts on the nonprofit social sector’s workforce recruitment and retention.

“Nonprofit organizations have shown tremendous resilience and adaptability in light of the crisis, rapidly evolving to address and prioritize the most pressing needs facing residents and communities,” Giannino said. “However, as the City’s nonprofits have faced their own challenges associated with the pandemic, the threads of the critical safety net that nonprofits provide to the City and its residents are beginning to fray.”

During the hearing, Giannino urged the City Council to prioritize the nonprofit sector as part of the City’s equitable recovery, noting that United Way provides over $5 million in funding to 85 nonprofit organizations delivering essential human services to the residents of Boston, and is attuned to the challenges the sector is facing. These challenges include rising real estate costs, increased demand to offer competitive salaries and employee benefits, and surging technology costs. Less quantifiable is the emotional toll felt by these front-line staff.

Human service professionals like early childhood educators, mental health providers, and caseworkers worked tirelessly, particularly in the first year of the pandemic, to provide emergency and crisis support to others, all while they struggled to meet their own needs and those of their families. For example, as Giannino noted during the hearing, the poverty rate for early educators in Massachusetts in 2019 was 15.3 percent, much higher than the 8.7% for Massachusetts workers in general.

Compounding all these issues is the general instability of the economy, which has led to significantly diminished charitable contributions and other sources of revenue that keep nonprofits functioning and able to deliver high-quality human services.

ARPA stabilization funds present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address and dismantle inequities by prioritizing support for an essential but frequently overlooked and underpaid sector. The City of Boston, along with communities throughout our region, must prioritize this workforce as we emerge from the pandemic.