Finding Purpose in Place

Reinvesting In + Re-imagining the Role of Community

From the strains on our health, social and economic systems to the pains of physical distancing, COVID-19 is re-shaping our relationships to people and places.

As the virus sweeps towns and cities across America, our worlds are becoming locally concentrated — challenging us to rethink the role and responsibilities of our communities and need for on-the-ground, close-to-home strategies, services and supports.

As we’ve begun to see, local organizations and activations — from community development nonprofits to Black Lives Matters — are gaining the most, as people look to strengthen their communities from within. Even with many jobless and facing economic uncertainty, people are being even more generous with their giving than expected—and they’re focused on investing and getting involved in their communities.

According to the Wall Street Journal, during the virus’ April peak in NYC, donor-advised giving to local nonprofits through the New York Community Trust nearly tripled, compared with last year. Meanwhile, the Trust’s NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund raised nearly $110 million. In fact, food programs such as City Harvest and social-service organizations like UJA-Federation of New York occupied the top spots in a list of 10 most popular causes for NYC donors in April and May, bumping down favorites like Planned Parenthood, the National Audubon Society and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Even as we face fear and uncertainty around the COVID-19 crises and its consequences, here are three key trends that are inspiring hope for a brighter future:

Restoring a Commitment to Public Health

Although basic public health measures such as physical distancing and use of face coverings have been politicized, and even divisive to date, we’re seeing much of this fall away as more people and places are directly affected.

From local government guidelines and regional alliances to branded campaigns and community and celebrity action, organizations and individuals are increasingly carrying forward a shared commitment to public health that is inspiring collective action. People are giving up conveniences, donating plasma, doing errands for each other and distributing masks at dense gatherings like protests and parks to ensure everyone does their part to stop the spread and save lives. There’s an increased relevance around working together to care for each other’s health and safety, and organizations that can connect and harness this energy will be able to grow and serve even more people.

Reckoning with Racial Injustice

As data has shown time and time again, systemic barriers to health access and opportunities for social and economic mobility, means that communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. This is leading to a national awakening and reckoning around the urgent and long overdue need for racial justice.

From the early fear of discontinued free school lunch programs to the digital divide to the necessity of bail bond organizations, advocates and activists across the nation are raising flags around the band-aids set up to maintain inequitable systems without addressing the root causes.

While “Defund the Police” may be a challenging frame, it strikes at a growing desire to re-imagine how we address the underlying conditions that lead to inequality and poverty. At its core, people are looking to re-invest in community programs and resources, from education to employment, housing to health access, ensuring that no one has to be at greater risk because of their background or their zip code. Trusted local organizations that are rooted in communities and dedicated to addressing these interconnected issues are well-positioned to turn this moment into a sustained movement.

Revitalizing Local Economy

With many retail, restaurant and other hospitality establishments shut down or with limited hours or capacity due to local mandates or guidelines, many interactions have shifted to online. But even with the convenience of powerful online platforms and apps, like Amazon or Instacart, many consumers have prioritized their spending with local establishments and black-owned businesses, using their purchases as a proxy for purpose. According to a survey between April 9th to April 14th, sixty-eight percent of people who recently shopped local, tipped more than they normally do. And, black-owned businesses have seen an uptick in business. And although these businesses aren’t nonprofits, people are recognizing that supporting local economies is an important way to close opportunity gaps in their neighborhoods and communities.

As the pandemic response continues to be relegated to regions, and as people turn to local leadership for direction and action, cities and towns across the nation face a moment to restore trust in community, reshape priorities and reimagine opportunities for social and economic mobility. From the simple behavioral courtesy of wearing masks to donating to social justice organizations to patronizing businesses owned by BIPOC, people are making decisions that pair purpose with pragmatism. As COVID-19 cases look to accelerate during the summer and potentially resurge in the fall, this community-based reorientation may have a lasting impact for philanthropy and purpose-led work in our new decade.

Right now, to make impact, organizations must reflect on how they can remain relevant in local and community contexts.