The Great “Reveal” of Critical Third Sector Questions in the COVID19 Era

Mary Beth Collins, J.D. M.S., Executive Director of the UW-Madison Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies.

Even at this relatively early moment in what I have come to think of as the “COVID19 Era”, it seems safe, and not at all hyperbolic, to say that we have not yet lived through a moment quite like this before. From my vantage point and position as a practitioner and instructor focused on the nonprofit sector, community organizations, and civil society, I have also come to think of this moment as representing a “Great Reveal” of so many of the underlying issues that I, along with other colleagues dedicated to work in and critique of the “third sector”, debate, contemplate, observe, teach about, and strategize around. Here’s my summary (as of today, anyway) of some of these undercurrents and themes that have been laid bare by COVID19. (Quick style and terminology note: I work at a Center that focuses on community and nonprofit studies, and civil society; but I have grown fond of the term “third sector” to encompass all of those things, and all mission-based things that do not fit within the governmental sector nor the profit-driven sector; this term is more popular outside the U.S. and the hyperlinked definition above is a useful description.)

—> The COVID19 pandemic has elevated our awareness of our codependence as a global society. Coordination across national borders and governments, and by organizations that can fill in where governments are not stable or resourced, has never seemed more important. Global nongovernmental work is sure to shift based on this experience.


—> Many nonprofit organizations locally, in Wisconsin, nationally, and globally have taken major hits, just like other industries, to their operations and sustainability due to COVID19. And, due to the perennial resource challenges these organizations face, this is a grim, existential reality for many. Organizations that rely on major events for fundraising, those that rely on travel and activities in the community to conduct their work, programs that provide enrichment and resources to families and children, arts organizations which do live programming – the range of disruption and the need for modification to plans, budgets, programs, and approaches is extremely broad.

—> That said, nonprofit, community, and civil society organizations and efforts have already “showed up” in a profound way to meet the moment and meet the needs of people suffering and at risk during this time. Sewing groups are making homemade medical masks where government and health care institution supplies are falling short, mutual aid networks are mobilizing to ensure that vulnerable and isolated community members have what they need, relief funds have been raised and distributed by philanthropists and regular community members, volunteer scientists and engineers are activating to solve technology and equipment challenges in real time, a range of nonprofit organizations have quickly re-structured their approaches to serve people even when in-person convenings are not possible and kids and families are distanced from their traditional community supports, artists and creatives are finding ways to increase quality of life for those sequestered to their living rooms and screens, activists are finding ways to ensure people can vote remotely, and the list goes on. It is already apparent that over the years, third sector organizations have heeded the needs and calls to collaborate and non-duplicate, now allowing them in a critical moment to dial in existing relationships for the many cross-organizational collaborations, efforts, and innovations they have birthed in a matter of days and weeks as the crisis reached its full pitch. The inventiveness, nimbleness, willingness, and benevolence of nonprofit, community, and civil society actors during this time have been nothing short of remarkable and profound, and have arguably sustained and created supports that the government and the business sector, at least in current form, simply could not.

—> On the other hand, this moment has underscored systemic shortcomings and highlighted questions related to how we take care of our people and how much we rely on a patchwork of community organizations to meet basic needs. Never before has it been so obvious how tenuous so many Americans’ lives and financial security are, and how much is left to be desired in the way of consistent social safety net supports. We have relied for decades on nonprofit and community organizations to be the “last stop” for taking care of our people, and once again, those organizations are stepping up in this time of extreme need. However, we rarely overtly recognize or discuss whether the nonprofit sector has actually been designated as the platform for meeting these needs; this reality has developed over time and various policy shifts, and the patchwork of nonprofit supports that has developed is now relied upon heavily. And, in this extremely diverse sector, the one common factor seems to be that all organizations are battling for sustainable budgets and having to prove themselves to funders to do this work. We have treated so many things as “optional” under “pre-COVID19” circumstances, leaving it to motivated grassroots actors to cover, and vulnerable individuals and groups to suffer. Now, in the COVID19 Era, these same things seem essential to our collective survival. A favorite example of this is the way that city governments are suddenly springing to action and dedicating resources to house the homeless, something advocacy and nonprofit groups have been left to lead, with insufficient support, for years.

—> Thus, we should urgently confront the question of whether we really believe that a multi-sector “patchwork” for meeting basic needs, depending heavily on the nonprofit sector, is what we actually think is best, structurally, for the challenges we face as a society. In the COVID19 era, we have seen both the nimbleness and creativity of the “third sector”, but we have also seen the shortcomings of the “patchwork” which lacks widespread coordination, accepted authority, shared priorities, and clear roles, in addressing the challenges of a pandemic. Meanwhile, we see a highlighting of the overlap and codependence of the three sectors – government, business, and the “third sector” — in American society. We debate whether business and manufacturing should be mobilized by the government to meet the needs of the moment, while in the meantime nonprofit maker spaces make and distribute high-quality protective masks; we see private broadband companies offering free WiFi to families in need; we see philanthropy kicking in to support service industry workers who are out of work; we see local governments working with nonprofit coalitions to ensure that basic needs of residents are met; we rely upon private sector actors for critical things — social media companies to thwart misinformation; and our corner grocer and Amazon to develop and follow wise protocols so we can safely obtain food. We see that, contrary to a common critique that the business sector’s tactics and methods are superior and more stable and sustainable than those of the nonprofit sector, businesses too are dangerously fragile in the face of this challenge.

—> Funders and supporters of nonprofit organizations have risen, and should continue to rise, to the moment as well, and take into account lessons learned from the past. We see that funders have extended grant applications, offered flexibility and support to nonprofits having to scramble to adjust their programming and budgets, made additional funds available to front lines organizations. More broadly, funders are more seriously discussing the need to ensure that nonprofit organizations are actually granted stable operating budgets and are supported in their need for reserves for the unexpected. Funders are contemplating their aims to address entrenched societal inequities with their giving — a focus that had gained traction in the philanthropic community in recent years — under COVID19 circumstances, which will both complicate these efforts, and make them more urgent and necessary than ever. Meanwhile, though, with the free fall of the stock market, we know that the organizations and individuals whose resources and wealth are relied upon to fund this work will also be facing challenges in their ability to provide support as before. This dynamic once again begs the question of whether “opt-in” philanthropy and a patchwork of third sector organizations should really be the bedrock of support for basic needs, healthy communities, and quality of life in our society. Even as these big-picture questions lurk, funders should uphold best standards based on lessons learned from the history of philanthropy and disaster responses. Depending on how it’s done, philanthropy can mitigate or perpetuate the dark tendency for disaster to be leveraged for profit and other opportunism, including the lesser evil of ineffective giving that satisfies the donor more than the need at hand. Support can and should address the deeply entrenched inequities in our society, which disaster historically exacerbates. Early evidence makes it clear that COVID19 is no exception. Efforts informed and led by those most impacted, accompanied by generous and creative opportunities for capacity-building, are likely to be most effective.

—> Across ideologies, and for different reasons, many Americans would agree that systemic failures and policy shortcomings have led us to suffer the blow of COVID19 more harshly than would have been necessary. And, those who know this best, after the community members who suffer the most direct consequences from such failures and shortcomings, are the nonprofit, community organization, and civil society organizations and change agents which often simultaneously meet the needs created by these gaps and structural inequalities, and try to raise awareness about, and advocate to address the root causes and systemic failures that led to them. In the wake of COVID19, their inventive and dogged advocacy work to push for systemic change will be paramount. They know the issues and impacts. Yet, in addition to the resource challenges they historically face, as well as often having to fight to be heard by policy-makers, they will for the foreseeable future also have to do this work without the ability to convene in person, and may have to compete in their urging for more broad-based systemic change with efforts and attention focused on emergency measures and acute health care related needs.

—> Ultimately, this COVID19 era is bound to continue to reveal our extreme dependence on, and the profound commitment and abilities of, our third sector. It’s already revealed the way that we simply do not overtly and systemically recognize the way that the health and well-being of our society implicitly depends on this sector, even as we arguably rely on it as much or more than we do on business and government. And, it’s shed light back on the essential question of whether we should. We have an unprecedented opportunity to critique and rewrite the recipe of the — distinctly American — bitter cocktail of dependence upon this sector for our very survival, blended with our unwillingness to properly support and fund it so that it can do what it does best, and our inability to recognize that certain functions of society simply should not be left to an ad hoc patchwork of willing, creative, benevolent voluntary actors. We should take this opportunity. And along the way, starting immediately, we should support, elevate, and recognize the incredible contributions, strength, creativity, and excellence of those individuals and organizations who have been doing the work of the third sector all the while, even as we as a society cannot seem to see exactly how fundamental they are. Finally, we must find ways for these revelations to help the next generation of change agents and leaders to be successful in the post COVID-19 Era, whatever that looks like.