One after another, affordable housing nonprofits have had to cancel their planned fundraising events because of the COVID-19 crisis this year.

It’s a big blow to the organizations, which depend on the galas, dinners, and other campaigns to raise critical dollars to support their operations or special projects. The coronavirus has been indiscriminating in its wreckage.

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“The pain that we are seeing is equal across the country, whether they’ve hit the peak or been identified as a hot spot or not,” says Susan M. Ifill, executive vice president and COO of NeighborWorks America, an organization with a network of about 240 nonprofits across the country.

Both small and large nonprofits are feeling the pain. At the same time, these organizations are having to rethink their fundraising efforts and they are seeing increased expenses.

One NeighborWorks member recently had to spend $60,000 for additional cleaning supplies to keep residents safe from the coronavirus, reports Ifill.

Recalling when she was CEO of a New York City-based housing nonprofit, Ifill estimates that about 40% of the organization’s resource development budget came from its annual event.

Susan Ifill
Susan Ifill

Some organizations have pivoted to raise funds online, host virtual events, or reschedule activities for later in the year.

Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) in New York City was set to host 800 to 1,000 people at its annual Lunar New Year banquet March 19 but had to cancel the event when the city put a ban on large public gatherings. Normally, the funds raised help support some of the unrestricted operating capital that AAFE needs across its many program lines.

This year, AAFE decided to create an emergency fund to help the many small businesses at risk of closing because of COVID-19. Organizers contacted the people who had donated and bought tickets to their banquet to ask if they would be willing to dedicate their contributions to the new fund, says Thomas Yu, co-executive director.

A large number of small businesses were struggling even before the city ordered their doors closed and called on residents to shelter in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, he says.

“In all the neighborhoods we serve around New York City, the mom-and-pop shops are already experiencing severe declines in clientele, as much as 75%,” he says “This is before they were all shut down. A lot of it had to do with fear. A lot were Asian-owned businesses. People thought they might get infected going into them.”AAFE said if these restaurants, stores, and other small businesses collapse then their neighborhoods would no longer be the same.

The nonprofit affordable housing developer and community development financial organization and its supporters have put approximately $5 million into the fund, with hopes of raising more as 1,600 applicants have sought help from the fund.

It’s in the DNA of NeighborWorks’ organizations and other nonprofits to be creative. “We’re the problem solvers,” Ifill says.

Looking Ahead

The disruption of chief fundraising events is one issue, but a larger question is how are the nonprofits faring in the face of COVID-19, according to Ifill.

There’s the operational side—how quickly have they been able to pivot, what was the cost of their actions, and what was the impact on clients.

“The other piece is what is happening in the world post-COVID that you need to think about now,” she says.For example, housing counseling was critical in helping people who went through foreclosure back in 2008. “Now, you have to think about that because it’s going to happen again,” Ifill says.

Now, years after the housing crash, foreclosure programs have been scaled back and counselors have moved on to other activities, but they’ll have to gear up again.

“Those are some of the conversations we are having,” Ifill says.

Fortunately, nonprofits were able to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program created under the recent CARES Act, which also provided additional funding for Community Development Block Grants and other programs.But, even so, more help is likely needed, and many people are looking for ways to help.

For many NeighborWorks network members and nonprofits, flexible funding focused on operations is the most critical money, says Ifill.

“You have to help them shore up their operations,” she says. “Give them flexible funding so they’ll be there for programs later.”

Rent will also be a big issue for NeighborWorks’ members that manage approximately 175,000 homes. Whether they forbear or forgive the rent, that income isn’t going to be available.

“It’s not coming back because people in those units, typically low- to moderate-income households or those on fixed incomes, are not going to have the ability to save,” Ifill says. “What you need to do is make it go away for everybody, and there’s no harm on either side.”