Long Island’s helping hands need a hand, and a plan

Get a grip: Long Island nonprofits stand a better chance of surviving the pandemic if they work together, according to Jeffrey Reynolds.
By JEFFREY REYNOLDS //

COVID-19 has driven Long Island’s economy into a deep recession, creating budget gaps of more than $750 million in each county and shuttering – perhaps permanently – thousands of “non-essential” small businesses: stores, iconic restaurants, gyms, hair salons and other enterprises.

Most of our region’s health- and human service-focused nonprofit organizations, on the other hand, were deemed “essential.” They remained open and sprang into action, marshaling volunteers and resources and collaborating in innovative ways.

Dozens of organizations – including Long Island Cares, Island Harvest, the Family Service League and the Family and Children’s Association – fed carloads of families lined up for miles. They provided virtual treatments for teens struggling with anxiety, depression and uncertainty. They counseled petrified seniors trapped in nursing homes, clothed and sheltered the homeless and quietly supported victims of domestic violence, some trapped with their abusers. It hasn’t been easy.

While COVID cases and fatalities have dropped on Long Island, pleas for help with basic needs like food, shelter and healthcare continue to skyrocket. That increased demand – combined with government funding cuts, canceled galas and golf outings and a decline in now-fearful volunteers, who traditionally skew older – has pushed chronically underfunded frontline nonprofits to the brink.

It’s safe to say that many of Long Island’s estimated 880 nonprofit organizations won’t see 2021, and others will be forced to dramatically cut programs and reduce staff.

Jeffrey Reynolds: Island-wide action plan.

It’s happening nationwide. A May 2020 survey by LaPiana Consulting, which serves large national nonprofits, found that 90 percent of organizations had already experienced revenue losses, 91 percent had been forced to curtail or alter their services and 55 percent anticipated further reductions.

The likely result, according to the research group Candid, is that an estimated 11 percent of nonprofits nationwide will slash programs, delay vendor payments, lay off staff and ultimately close their doors because of the COVID crisis. In Candid’s most dire scenario, a whopping 38 percent of nonprofits will disappear.

Maybe the attrition is unavoidable, given state and county budget deficits. Maybe there are too many nonprofits and consolidation of redundant agencies would save money, while giving people in need a more seamless experience.

The notion that only the strongest and best will survive sounds fine until you consider the fundamental mission of nonprofits as extensions of government serving the public good – or you’re the desperate family reeling from boarded-up youth centers, cancelled summer programs, unanswered phones and empty pantries.

Beyond providing services, nonprofits provide jobs – about 153,000 on Long Island, according to a 2019 report by the Office of the New York State Comptroller. Here, too, nationwide trends are troubling: A Johns Hopkins University study released last month found that more than 1.6 million nonprofit staffers nationwide lost their jobs between March and May. Many of those folks are likely headed to unemployment offices and food lines, becoming recipients of social services instead of providers.

The pandemic has turned things upside down and spawned a fiscal crisis that in some ways looks a lot like the Great Depression. Rebuilding will take decades. The sooner that starts, the better off we will be.

And right now, Long Island – not Nassau, not Suffolk – needs a comprehensive, bi-county plan to address health and human service needs that deepened during COVID, and will persist long after we celebrate a new vaccine.

If government has fewer contract dollars, donors are curbing contributions and vital nonprofits are disappearing, how will we tackle immense social challenges? How do we maintain Long Island’s quality of life and finally address the egregious racial and ethnic disparities laid bare by COVID?

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone should convene key stakeholders who can assess neighborhood-by-neighborhood needs, inventory existing community assets and rebuild a stronger, comprehensive health-and-human-service infrastructure that takes into account lessons learned during the pandemic.

We need to know how, for example, how we will get 193,000 currently unemployed Long Islanders back to work. Retraining? Childcare? Senior care?

How will we feed folks who are hungry today and will be again tomorrow, next week and maybe even next year? What about those losing their foreclosure and eviction fights?

How will we deal with the learning loss that’s impacting an entire generation of schoolkids? How will we engage and treat the anxious and depressed, more isolated than ever? How will we reduce drug-overdose rates that have climbed back to record highs since March?

And how will we make our nursing homes safer?

These are daunting questions. And the answers have vast implications not just for our region’s nonprofits, but for the future of Long Island.

Jeffrey Reynolds, Ph.D., is the president/CEO of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association.