Even the Highest Performers Are in Triage Mode

Over the holidays, which were snowy and slow in our home towns of Cleveland and Seattle, we had plenty of time for reading. We read one book in common: Voices from the Pandemic by the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Eli Saslow. We’re both fans of Saslow’s writing, based on our admiration for his book Rising Out of Hatred, which we praised in our 2018 post “A True Profile in Courage.”

Voices from the Pandemic isn’t the uplifting book so many of us are craving right now. But it’s an important book, one that illuminates deep truths about what the wealthiest nation on Earth has chosen to prioritize … and neglect.

Saslow says he set out to “see and feel beyond my own living room into the millions of personal pandemics unfolding across America.” He did a great job. He found everyday Americans willing to open up with surprising candor about their lived experiences on the frontlines of the pandemic. In addition to hearing from quite a few nonprofit professionals and volunteers, we hear and learn from a vaccine-trial volunteer and a hospital patient who thought COVID was a “scamdemic”; a mother who can’t afford to pay rent and a landlord who can’t afford to forgive rent; a general store worker who must enforce masking and a shopper who regards masks as an unacceptable incursion on his rights. Saslow shares these perspectives faithfully and respectfully.

Across all these disparate perspectives, we hear two loud echoes that will reverberate throughout society for decades to come.

First, America’s safety net isn’t just threadbare; it has gaping holes. We’ll take our cues from Saslow and offer verbatim accounts of some of the deficiencies that COVID exposed:

  • Food-bank volunteer: “The safety net has been obliterated. Anyone who was vulnerable before this is now in a place where they are just hanging onto existence.”
  • County health director: “A lot of the things we’ve needed to fight the spread of COVID are things we should have had in place ten years ago. We don’t [even] have an emergency manager in our county.”
  • Paramedic: “The system we have is broken, and as a result this seven-year-old is seeing her dad get CPR, and it makes me so mad.”

Second, America puts nonprofits in the impossible position of trying to plug the hole in the dike. Even in good times, there’s simply no way that America’s nonprofits can provide basic services at the scale that our communities need. In crisis times, even the highest-performing nonprofits have no choice but to operate in triage mode. In the words of one of the nonprofit workers Saslow interviewed, “We were the only place left serving meals downtown at the beginning of all this. We had five or six hundred people lining up to eat, and what am I going to do?”

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The simple truth is that our local, state, and federal governments do far too little to meet the Maslovian needs of those who are struggling in our winner-take-all society, especially urban, rural, and Native Americans. That would be fine if private-sector action and neighbor-to-neighbor support filled the gap—or if we funded our wonderful nonprofits adequately. But we don’t. We have a patchwork of idiosyncratic public and private funders, most of which provide grants with immodest strings attached.

To make matters worse, when governments fail to be there for constituents in their moments of need, that sets off new waves of anxiety and anger—as many of Saslow’s interviewees express in heartbreaking terms. Then the vicious cycle gets churning. Anxiety and anger further undermine faith in government. And the diminished faith in government undercuts governments’ ability to mobilize public will and votes for new efforts to strengthen the social safety net. We’re seeing this play out in real time as Democrats flail in their attempts to pass the most sweeping safety-net legislation in the past half century.

The overarching conclusion we took away from Voices from the Pandemic is that our social, economic, and health systems just aren’t built or funded to do what Americans clearly need them to do, and no measure of heroics from exhausted nonprofit leaders and frontline workers can compensate. Saslow did a great job of documenting this conclusion for posterity. And we hope that this ground-level view of the pandemic’s hardships provokes more empathy and willingness for engaging in the hard work of pivoting to a healthier, more equitable future.

Wishing you health and resilience,

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap Ambassadors Community.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

Given that we composed the essay above in minor chords, we offer some upbeat major chords here, courtesy of the longtime nonprofit and foundation executive Amy Low. In her latest post, “Always Pack Your Instrument,” Low gives us remarkable—and musical—ways of finding beauty in the dark. Her blog started as an efficient way of keeping her loved ones up to date on her David vs. Goliath battle with colon cancer. During pandemic times, it’s a must-read blog for all of us trying to find the strength to cope with the unimaginable all around us. Low is a great teacher, not just a great writer.

The new year feels like a good time to give a big shout out to Vu Le for his always witty and wise posts about the value of nonprofits. In his recent Nonprofit AF post “Reports of the Nonprofit Sector’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated,” we loved this dramatization of the way many people look down on nonprofits: “Yes, let’s inadequately fund nonprofits and burden them with restrictions—’here’s some cans of beets and $83 that you can only spend on paperclips on Tuesdays, go end hunger’—then whine that they don’t work.”

Kudos to Exponent Philanthropy on its new Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders. Given the racial-justice, economic, health, and environmental challenges we face, it’s never been more important for funders to educate themselves about the ways they and their grantees can engage, legally and ethically, in public policy debates.

After six years of remarkable service, Dan Cardinali is stepping down from the CEO role at Independent Sector at the end of this year. We’re huge Cardinali fans, dating back to his years at the helm of Communities in Schools. We know he’ll continue to provide high-integrity leadership in our sector from whatever perch he lands on next.

We end this post with a note of sadness that the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies is closing, following the passing of the brilliant Lester Salamon last August. Salamon established the center in 1987 and made a huge impact on America’s understanding of the size, scope, and needs of our social sector. With his impressive team and nearly 800 different researchers around the world, he then expanded the center’s scope to encompass social-sector studies in 50 countries. We know that Salamon’s pioneering, rigorous methodologies and his passion for our sector will live on through his many grateful protégés.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Feb 2–Online
How the Social Sector Can Develop the Next Generation of BIPOC Leaders” webinar; SSIR

Feb 9-10–Online
Philanthropy 101” virtual course; Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy

Feb 10–Online
Future of Philanthropy” virtual global conversation; Alliance

Feb 17–Online
Hate-Free Family Philanthropy” virtual salon; NCFP

Mar 14-16–San Diego
Seize the Moment” annual conference; The Funders Network

Mar 22-24–Online
Frontiers of Social Innovation” virtual conference; SSIR

Apr 26-28–Online
2022 Collective Impact Virtual Action Summit” virtual summit; Collective Impact Forum, FSG

May 16-18–Chicago
2022 National Conference” conference; GEO, Forefront