JP Observer: Click on that DONATE button! Local nonprofits hit by pandemic, too

When assessing the damage the covid-19 pandemic is doing to Jamaica Plain and looking at possible remedies, it’s important to keep local nonprofits, as well as businesses, in mind. There are 306 nonprofits registered in ZIP Code 02130, according to Guidestar, which gives information online about nonprofits around the country.

Although some of them are small with few employees and tiny budgets, all together our nonprofits employ and serve lots of people. And nonprofits of all kinds here attract and circulate significant money in the JP community.

Yet many of the local organizations and their clients have been thrown into chaos and financial jeopardy by the shuttering of their operations and activities in the face of the covid-19 virus, just like local businesses.

Some of JP’s nonprofits typically deliver services to local residents and businesses. Now the recipients are also threatened by the disease and economic fall-out from the novel virus. Some provide services, especially in the arts and humanities, for which they charge fees that keep them afloat. And some do some of both.

The local “charities” or 501(c)(3)s, as they are often called in official circles, work here in a variety of arenas, including education, religion, housing, senior and youth services, animal protection, child protection and services, hunger and food, environment, arts, community development, business support, violence prevention, anti-poverty and more. 

Each unique organization is dealing with the pandemic in its own way but with the goals of aiding the community in a time of crisis while preserving their organization and mission. Creativity and flexibility, as well as lots of quick work, are required.

How to support our JP nonprofits is a dilemma our community needs to face, along with supporting businesses and individuals and families.

Many ways to bolster businesses also work to boost nonprofits. People can make two lists: one list of local businesses they want to help survive and another list of nonprofits they want to stick around. People who can afford it may want to donate or spend all or part of the $1,200 stimulus money they receive to them.

If a nonprofit offers anything like tickets or classes for a fee, people can buy gift cards they may use later or never—or a membership, as Loring-Greenough House is suggesting. Cancel and Pay is the motto for people who paid for something from a non-profit or business.

Almost all of the local charities have a website, and many have a “Donate” or “Support” button there. Now’s the time to click on it. Or else mail a check.

Crowdfunding campaigns are useful. Some groups send solicitations to their extensive email lists. People would be wise to watch for and give when they see these. 

It’s important that people in the community donate to local entities right away. Official funding takes a while to research, apply for and then, even if approved, to arrive, as local restauranteur David Doyle pointed out at the JP Business and Professional Association board video conference meeting on April 15.

Funds from everyday people can tide recipients over until other funding comes through combined with the beginning of public health and economic recovery.

The federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which became law on March 27, says people who don’t itemize expenses on their federal taxes—so usually cannot write off their contributions to charities—will be able to deduct up to $300 in donations on their 2020 taxes. And there’s no limit to the amount people can give compared to their income as there is in other years.

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and the Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts are two of hundreds of examples of JP nonprofits wrestling with impacts of covid-19.

Fundraising and Communications Director Sally Swenson of the JPNDC and Executive Director Abigail Norman of the Eliot School, working remotely, like so many, because their buildings are closed, answered my questions mid-April about the effects of the pandemic on their operations and organizations so far during the constantly changing crisis.

The 344-year-old Eliot School had to suspend its regular programs in March with the exception of some online communications. Spring Term was cancelled. Classes ranging from woodworking to drawing to sewing to photography all shut down for now. Summer classes, a popular time for classes for young people, is up in the air along with almost everything else these days.

To get an idea of the impact, the Eliot School, headquartered on Eliot Street, offered 1,562 art classes to more than 2,600 students—youths and adults— in the 2018-2019 school year, according to Norman. 

In addition, working with the Boston Public Schools, Boston Public Libraries and other community sites, the Eliot School usually provides art education during the school day and in after-school programs to about 2,500 students a year. An intensive program for teens from 8th grade through high school called “Teen Bridge” focuses on both life skills and arts training for about 14 teens on Saturdays. An Artist-in Residence works with the teens. That and some other programming has moved online.

In March, the Eliot School board cancelled classes and decided to borrow money to pay its employees through the end of April, even though the school was closed, Norman said.

At the end of this month, the entire teaching staff, which numbers 40-50 mostly part-time teachers at any given time, will be furloughed. “We hope to bring all back once we are able to resume programming,” Norman said.

The ten staff members, some of whom also teach, are mostly full time. Norman said their payroll will need to be cut by 50 percent by the end of this month, details of which haven’t been figured out. Total Eliot School wages paid ran about $90,000 a month before the shut-down changed classroom education drastically.

Eliot School staff members are volunteering to pick up and deliver supplies for the Boston Area Mask Initiative, a group making surgical masks for medical workers. According to their website, they distributed more than 5,000 masks as of mid-April, with more than 15,000 having been requested.

The 40-year-old Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), located in The Brewery in the Brookside neighborhood, is a community development corporation (CDC) that provides a range of services in the area, including: affordable, including for seniors, housing development and management; Brewery complex management; a family-based early education system, small business assistance; and community organizing.

“Offices closed. Services open.” is the message on its website home page.

The Brewery, which is home to its office and many businesses and nonprofits, is closed except for Ula Café doing take-out. The local CDC is not pressing tenants strained by the virus crisis for rent money, according to Swenson.

Areas of financial risk right now for the JPNDC include less income from development and commercial rents. 

The 45 family day care/early education sites that the JPNDC supports are closed. Fortunately, the providers continue to be paid because of state rules regarding subsidized day care, Swenson said.

Construction has been ordered stopped in Boston, halting work on three JPNDC developments. 

A complicated task that the staff members, who are working remotely, have taken on is to call every client—including small business owners; tenants in their 700 units of housing (including 114 seniors); and the parents of children in their early education program —to see how they’re doing and what they might need. Sometimes they call them more than once..

“The staff of the small business program has been busier than ever,” Swenson said, mentioning small business owners’ need for advice as they seek financial help and try to deal with their own unusual working situations.

The staff of 34 was not laid off immediately and frequently meet via video conferencing. They have been helping clients deal with applying for unemployment, and many clients they have talked to on the phone, Swenson added, say they need food and, especially, diapers.

Bigger funders have pitched in to help with that. United Way and Liberty Mutual donated $20,000 so far so JPNDC could create a “Client Emergency Fund.”

Another provision of the CARES Act applies to nonprofits as well as businesses that employ fewer than 500 people. It is the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). JPNDC and the Eliot School, through banks, applied for PPP loans from the $449 billion pool to pay staff salaries for eight weeks. If they do that, the loan turns into a grant and doesn’t need to be repaid.

JPNDC applied the first day and heard their loan was approved last week. The Eliot School had not heard yet at that time. As the PPP ran out of funds very quickly last week, Congress and the administration were discussing funding another round of loans.

An Eliot School “Spring Social” fundraiser and salute to long-time teachers scheduled for April 26 at an Eliot Street private home was saved by Eliot School staff after distancing rules made it impossible to hold. Now called “Spring Social at Home,” the program and socializing will take place, like so many events, remotely, via Zoom and Facebook Live at 4 p.m. that day. Preregistration at the Eliot School website is required to attend.

Although times are very tough and the situation mercurial right now, both Norman and Swenson are trying to see good outcomes in the future. Both used the word “hope” when talking about the current crisis.

“It’s a mess,” Swenson said when asked how she would describe the situation. But she immediately went on: “I hope some good things come about. For example, we are realizing the value of many low wage workers…”

With the same look at the future, Norman said, “When your house burns down, if you have a chance to rebuild, you won’t build the same house, you’ll build a house not necessarily bigger but maybe with different colors and rooms—and get all new wiring. This is what gives me hope.”

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