Non-profit Superheroes in the time of the Pandemic
The word “philanthropy” comes from ancient Greek and means “love of humanity.”
An entire sector of thriving organizations are built around this vital concept. It is a great mystery how these Zeus-like entities came to be called “non-profit” organizations, because the label focuses on what these organizations don’t do, rather than what they actually do – which is to dramatically change the world for the better.
Without hubris or glory, these superheroes improve the quality of our lives, save our planet, educate our children, inspire spiritual meaning, cure disease, engage us in art, rescue animals, and among other herculean feats, feed us when we are hungry. They are not myths. These are fierce, strong organizations that lift civilizations. They are smart, nimble and strategic, with powerful leaders that get things done – even in the face of a global pandemic.
The spirit of service and giving goes back to the beginning of humanity, but in the U.S. it became more prominent during the Civil War, when many new charities sprung up. With the industrial age came a surge of big companies dealing in automobiles, rail, steel and oil. And with that came big philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. During WWI, organizations like the Red Cross grew, and in 1917 legislation was enacted to give Americans tax write-offs for their charitable donations. Philanthropy continued to evolve and grow in response to the second world war, the civil rights movement, environmental concerns and so much more.
In this moment of global crisis…
…cause-driven organizations are on the front lines across the country, and in Benicia, pivoting and adapting to meet the growing needs of our communities. Most are working twice as smart, with half the resources. Here are just a few of the Benicia non-profits that are showing their resilience. (See a more comprehensive list of local non-profits below.)
The long-standing Community Action Council (CAC) is still delivering hundreds of hot meals to local seniors. As an essential human services agency, CAC serves as the county administrator for the Chronicle’s Season of Sharing, a relief fund for families in crisis. In light of Covid-19, the number of families in need are multiplying while the staff is shrinking. “This is not an agency that can do its work remotely,” says Viola Robertson, CAC Executive Director. “At the same time, most of our volunteers are in their 70s, and they need to stay home and be safe.” Viola and her operations manager Roberta Cooper are now running things on their own, with the help of volunteer cooks. They are looking to hire one additional staff person, and say they could use donations of paper towels, toilet paper and cereal during the pandemic. But they can’t manage an onslaught of volunteers now, due to the health risks. “We’ll just keep on keeping on,” says Viola. “Like we always do.”
Arts and culture organizations are hit hard in times of crisis, as funders often divert funds to emergency services. And due to the recent wave of mandated event cancellations, there are even deeper earned revenue losses.
With the social distancing mandates, Arts Benicia’s city-wide programs came to a screeching halt in mid-March, including children’s arts programs and the annual Artists’ Open Studios events, a popular tradition and major source of livelihood for hundreds of local artists.
“We have been extremely financially challenged,” says Celeste Smeland, Executive Director. “We immediately had to cut our budget dramatically, which meant cutting staff time by 50%. And I had to let go of our Youth Art Coordinator.”
Like many non-profit leaders, Smeland is still working with her board and volunteers full-time, but is only taking half of her regular salary.
“We are focused on managing and revising what we have with our small staff,” says Smeland. “Luckily, we have 30 years of archives we can pull from for virtual exhibitions. And we’re excited about offering more artist-led classes online.” The best way to support Arts Benicia, she adds, is to renew your membership, make an online donation or take a virtual class.
Performing arts organizations such as Benicia Old Town Theater Group and VOENA children’s choir have had to postpone their major performances until the fall, but the show must go on. VOENA has created a series of virtual choir pieces and recorded solos that are going viral on social media. Music education programs will continue via Zoom and pre-recorded workshops for K-5 students as part of the VOENA in the Schools programs. The best way to support the ensemble now is to make a donation via their webpage towards the scholarship fund, a need that will be greater than ever as we emerge from this pandemic.
“More than ever with school closures music is especially important to bridge that emotional connection kids so desperately need right now,” says VOENA’s founder Annabelle Marie.
As our community comes away from this pandemic, we can’t wait to see you celebrating at your favorite restaurants again and gathering with your friends and families in our beautiful parks. And when you’re ready, we hope you’ll consider giving your time or resources to your favorite cause-driven charities, because one thing we know for sure is that our economic and cultural vitality depends on them. They are our local heroes.
Heather McLaughlin, email@example.com
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