Making Meaning: 3 Lessons from the Ongoing Pandemic — By and For Nonprofit Leaders

March 2, 2022


By Elan Joseph, CRE Consultant


On a crisp Fall afternoon last year, I was fortunate enough to attend Making Meaning, a virtual conference co-hosted by TerraLuna Collaborative and Community Resource Exchange. In this current reality where we are inundated with more virtual obligations than the human brain was designed to digest, this event was a much welcome breath of fresh air. The panelists included: Diana DeJesus-Medina, Chief External Affairs and Strategy Officer at LatinoJustice PRLDEF; Renee McConey, Managing Director of Health Services at The Door; Dominique Morgan, Executive Director of Black & Pink National; and Yvette Russell, Chief Program Officer of Read Alliance — all of whom are women of color, and incredibly accomplished leaders within the nonprofit sector. As a Black man, I deeply admired their authenticity and courage to be vulnerable, and I welcomed the opportunity to learn from their experiences. Along with nearly 80 leaders across the nonprofit sector, we gathered that day to hear their reflections on how they are making meaning of the lessons they learned during the pandemic and how the sector might carry these lessons forward. Although we covered many topics, the main themes of the conversation focused largely around re-centering the communities we serve, evaluating the role of DEI in our lives, and reimagining the relationship between philanthropy and nonprofits.  


Re-centering the Communities We Serve

During the early days of the pandemic, access quickly became one of the most salient challenges for nonprofit direct service providers. Nonprofits had to rethink how they served their communities in this new, remote world. In that moment, panelists found that the key to adjusting to this new world lay in centering the inherent power and ability of each community. Yvette Russell was able to lean upon community members, advisors, and school leaders as part of her organization’s transition into a virtual format. Through this system of trust and support, Read Alliance expanded its capacity and was able to serve more kids, distribute more materials, and access families in ways that it never had in the past. As we continue building the new normal, it is critical for us to recognize and center the power within the communities we serve. In doing so, not only will we safeguard against savior complex syndrome, but we will create equitable solutions that are durable and paradigm-shifting.


Evaluating the Role of DEI in our Lives

The shocking news of George Floyd’s murder by the hands of law enforcement led everyone to challenge their preconceived notions of diversity, equity and inclusion. Indeed, at CRE, we received a high influx of DEIA requests that was vastly disproportionate to the pre-pandemic demand. Nonprofits were not just giving lip service to DEIA, they were actively examining how their organizational systems, cultures and norms uphold white supremacy. In speaking about her own organization, Diana DeJesus-Medina asked the powerful questions: “How do we understand the values we espouse? How do we understand race and its expression in our work? What’s the diversity within Latinidad?” One byproduct of asking these questions was that she herself stopped code-switching in order to please grantmakers. Her bold decision to stop code-switching enabled her to be more authentic about the challenges her communities face, deepened the connection her staff had to the work, and even bolstered fundraising. By continuing to ask these powerful questions, recognizing where we abide by white supremacist norms and then challenging them, and by revisiting our previously held assumptions and acting on this newly informed perspective, nonprofits can truly champion the work of building the antiracist future we so desperately need. 


Reimagining the Relationship between Philanthropy and Nonprofits

In the same way that nonprofit organizations adapted to the changing landscape, philanthropy adapted as well, particularly when it came to grantmaking. Foundations gave an unprecedented level of autonomy to nonprofit organizations that received grants during this time. Capacity-consuming stipulations were removed and the sector experienced an influx of general operating support grants to keep organizations afloat. Nonetheless, panelists expressed concern that, as the pandemic continues, philanthropy may revert back to their old norms of grantmaking. As Dominique Morgan noted, “A crisis should not be the only time that philanthropy gives nonprofits freedom to thrive without asking for their permission; community-based nonprofits are the ones on the ground and leading this work.” Shifts in power towards nonprofits in their relationships with philanthropy should be more than just a current trend but the reimagining of a new future since, as Yvette Russell noted, ultimately, the work is not just the final grant report but the actualization of a nonprofit’s mission on the ground.


In addition to the challenges faced and the lessons learned, this pandemic was also a time of incredible solidarity across race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and many other identities. As the world witnessed racial injustice, communities came together to stand up for justice. Growing up in the metro Atlanta area, I was regaled with stories of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black leaders that led countless marches, boycotts, and protests of people from various backgrounds. It was incredibly powerful and moving during the protests of 2020 to find myself in the middle of what felt like a snippet from that time period, surrounded by people from different backgrounds, as we marched for justice and accountability. “Solidarity should not be something we leave behind in 2020,” Monique powerfully stated. Undergirding the lessons uplifted above is self-care, since we will not be able to fully show up as our best selves to carry on this work if we do not take the time to replenish ourselves. Indeed, one of the most powerful learnings for me during this pandemic is that revolutionary acts against a white supremacist system can be something as large as taking part in global protests, or something as small as knowing when to take time away from work to prioritize my own well being. As the sector prepares itself for another year, I hope it carries forward the insights and labor of these incredible women of color concerning re-centering the communities we serve, evaluating the role of DEI in our lives, and reimagining the relationship between philanthropy and nonprofits, forward in our work.

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