LGBT nonprofits struggle and adapt to new realities

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 13, 2020
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The San Francisco LGBT Community Center is one of many queer nonprofits that have closed offices and moved programs online during the shelter-in-place order. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The San Francisco LGBT Community Center is one of many queer nonprofits that have closed offices and moved programs online during the shelter-in-place order. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The heads of LGBT nonprofits are certainly not sanguine about the likely impact of the novel coronavirus and its attendant recession on their organizations.

"There is an imminent financial threat," said Denise Spivak, a lesbian who is the CEO of CenterLink, which connects hundreds of LGBT community centers around the globe. "This hit right when so many of our centers planned galas, big fundraisers, and Pride sponsorships."

LGBT nonprofits face many challenges not encountered by nonprofits with other areas of expertise — as some have noted, while everyone is in the same coronavirus storm, they are not all in the same boat. That said, some nonprofits are adapting to the new reality with old resilience.

Funding dries up

As Spivak hinted at, the shutting down of much of America and other countries happened at a particularly precarious time as nonprofits were planning events for the second quarter. Due to June Pride events, this is the most lucrative time of year for many organizations to raise money that will sustain them throughout the year.

"For many centers, Pride is the big income driver," Spivak said.

LGBT nonprofits are more reliant upon in-person events to raise money than many nonprofits with other focuses, according to Rick Chavez Zbur, a gay man who is the executive director of Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ rights group.

"Nonprofits rely heavily on events, especially in the LGBTQ community. For us it's almost half of our funding," Zbur said.

Zbur told the Bay Area Reporter by phone recently that EQCA had six in-person fundraising events scheduled this year (three before the summer and three afterward). Five were postponed to the fall, but it is unclear even if these will be able to happen.

"Obviously the uncertainty is affecting fundraising and the postponement has led to uncertainty about the later events," Zbur said.

Another issue LGBT nonprofits face more potently is that the economic downturn is more likely to affect their donor base, Zbur explained.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, LGBT people are at greater risk of economic problems from the coronavirus because they are sometimes twice as likely to work in industries that have ground to a screeching halt.

According to a Human Rights Campaign report, 40% of all LGBTQ workers are employed in food service, hospitals, K-12 education, colleges, and retail, compared with 22% of non-LGBTs who work in those industries when combined.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) addressed the fact that many LGBT nonprofits are not employment agencies for the affluent, as some are accused of being.

"We built these structures to take care of our own community," Wiener said. "We built these ourselves, to support our community, and I'm worried we are going to see a huge number of LGBT nonprofits — who don't have large endowments, who don't have angel donors, who are reliant on events — close their doors."

Zbur said that even large donors are pulling out of nonprofits. Indeed, according to a joint Reuters News-Charity Navigator survey April 17, 83% of nonprofits nationwide reported feeling the financial pressure.

"The economy is hurting everyone," Zbur said. "Affluent donors are seeing their portfolios dropping."

CenterLink CEO Denise Spivak. Photo: Courtesy CenterLink  

New techniques to reach people in need
But even with their existence threatened, these organizations still have as much work to do as before coronavirus.

"As far as CenterLink goes, we're here to work with and support community centers," Spivak said. "So our work is the same, just amplified as they change the whole way they operate."

David Heitstuman, a gay man who is the executive director of the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, told the B.A.R. in a Zoom call that while the state capital's in-person Pride events, which the center puts on, were "postponed indefinitely," the center will be pushing forward as best it can.

"We remain committed to providing direct services and are considering how to raise funds through alternative methods," Heitstuman said. "We're doing what we can to minimize the impact."

With the staff working remotely, the center is adapting to virtual life though it is considered an "essential business."

"We've also adapted our youth drop-in center to offer seven-day-a-week online support through a chat platform called Discord and youth experiencing homelessness who need food, clothing, or other critical supplies can stop by the center to pick up a to-go pack," Heitstuman wrote in an email to the B.A.R. "We've moved our support groups online using Zoom and are working on calling all our clients and community members in our database to check in on them and see what special support they might need during this time. Community members continue to call the center to get help navigating resources available right now as well as just to have someone to talk to.

"Social isolation is difficult for everyone, but something LGBTQ folks struggle with in particular," he added. "Especially if you're older, living with HIV, or worked in an environment where you're used to being very social with folks in the service or entertainment industries and are now in total isolation living at home and out of work."

Daphnee Valdez of the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County in Concord told the B.A.R. via phone that there's been "a lot of collaboration and community outreach" as that center adapts.

"This is the first time Rainbow is doing online platforms, online training," Valdez said. "It's quite a balance to meet primary needs and introduce new platforms."

Valdez said that an HIV men's support group, for example, used to meet once a month, but has had so much new participation online that it has expanded to twice a week.

Dana Van Gorder, a gay man who is the executive director of the Spahr Center, wrote that the Marin County LGBT community center is doing deliveries to people who'd normally be stopping by the physical location in Corte Madera. (The Spahr Center was founded by the Reverend Jane Spahr, a lesbian and retired Presbyterian minister who is one of this year's San Francisco Pride community grand marshals.)

"We are delivering food and documents and other things to clients where they would have come to our offices. But we still feel that people are well taken care of," Van Gorder said. "We did cancel a spring fundraiser, but our sponsors were very happy to let us keep their donations, and so the non-event will actually do well financially. And a number of emergency sources of funding have helped us to maintain our services.

"And I know the big question on my mind is what kind of services will be needed in six months, a year, three years? We were already starting a strategic planning process and I am glad, because this is the time to prepare for the work we will need to do to recover from COVID and prepare for the next emergency, which will surely come in some form," he continued.

The San Francisco LGBT Community Center moved its employment services online.

According to Roberto OrdeƱana, a gay man who serves as the center's deputy executive director, the center is providing case management services to young adults and hosts in its host homes program remotely. The center has three previously homeless young adults residing in three separate San Francisco host homes, he stated last month.

But community centers are, of course, not the only nonprofits being affected.

On April 30, Pets Are Wonderful Support, a program of the Shanti Project, announced it was canceling its Petchitecture benefit, which had been scheduled for June 4.

In a sign of the times, the email PAWS sent out solicited donations and made people aware of additional services: a COVID-19 Emergency Response Volunteer Program, or CERV, set up in conjunction with the city government, free pet food for the homeless, and pet food deliveries for people in higher-risk groups for the coronavirus.

"CERV is a program created in partnership between the city of San Francisco's Department of Disability and Aging Services and Shanti," Kaushik Roy, a straight ally who is the executive director of Shanti, wrote in an email. "CERV volunteers provide one time or occasional practical support to older and vulnerable adults who are strongly advised to limit outdoor exposure during the coronavirus pandemic." [For more on CERV, see this week's Guest Opinion.]

Roy told the B.A.R. that Shanti is also "taking the lead on the COVID-19 response" with the Peer Advocate Care Team, which helps Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex public housing residents.

Shanti's annual budget of over $7 million is closely divided between public and private sector funding, Roy said, echoing the concern of other nonprofit heads that historic government budget deficits will impact the nonprofit sector hard in the coming years.

"Like with all safety-net nonprofits, it is too soon to tell how COVID-19 will impact organizational funding for the long term. All of us are facing the same shorter-term challenges including potential lost revenues from signature events, as well as the overall impact of the economic downturn on both private philanthropy and the San Francisco city budget." Roy said. "Still, Shanti has been blessed with loyal and generous donors who have supported us for decades in many instances. We are actively talking to these long-term supporters presently and are buoyed by their desire to step up financially in light of our expanded services in such a difficult time."

Karyn Skultety, Ph.D., a bi woman who is the executive director of Openhouse, thanked supporters of an online fundraiser last week that raised over $100,000 for the LGBT senior housing agency.

"I never could have imagined living through a pandemic. There was no vision for the Openhouse future that included LGBTQ seniors sheltering in place for months. And as much as I know our community to be one that rallies and fights for each other in crisis, I could have never imagined how you showed up," she wrote in a May 8 email to supporters. "I cannot thank you enough. Our community has come together to let LGBTQ seniors know we are here for them. We have hope that on the other side of this crisis, our community will never again return to letting the needs of LGBTQ seniors become invisible."

EQCA Executive Director Rick Chavez Zbur. Photo: Courtesy Rick Chavez Zbur  

Grant and lobbying efforts
Horizons Foundation threw a lifeline to some nonprofits late last month when it announced over $440,000 in grants awarded to 53 Bay Area LGBT groups.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, the funds came from Horizons' COVID-19 Response Emergency Fund.

Beneficiaries included EQCA; Folsom Street Events, which puts on the eponymous street fair in September and the Up Your Alley fair in July; the San Francisco Community Health Center (referred to by its former name, the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center, in the release); the aforementioned Rainbow Community Center; the San Francisco LGBT Community Center; and the Spahr Center.

"The community is going into the same crisis as the rest of society and in all my years in the movement — 30 years — I've never seen so much of an explosion of need, combined with economic damage," Roger Doughty, a gay man who is the longtime president of Horizons, told the B.A.R. in recent phone call. "The velocity of the change has been absolutely astonishing and it's hurting organizations very, very hard.

"Our community has resilience running through our blood. We are a famously compassionate community that knows how to care for one another, as we have had to do before. What I have seen so far makes me feel more strongly than ever," he added.

Doughty told the B.A.R. in a May 12 phone call that the April grants were just the beginning and he expects more will be awarded by May 22, though he said how much depends on the donations Horizons receives between now and then.

"We want to get the money into people's hands," Doughty said. "We got a lot of responses from organizations that were very, very glad and in so many cases relieved to get that grant. The level of need is extraordinary and organizations are doing so much to be creative.

"We've been able to fund everything from front line health care to LGBT folks in prison to survivors of domestic violence, nightlife workers, so many populations," he added.

Doughty said that the amounts from individuals have ranged from $5 to $30,000, and that the Blue Shield Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation have partnered with Horizons because of the latter's knowledge of the LGBT community.

Last month, Zbur's EQCA led some 137 LGBT or LGBT-serving nonprofits in sending a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom (D) asking that he use funds made available by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act to help them financially.

"We know you share this goal. Growing up in San Francisco, and later serving as the city and county's mayor, you've witnessed firsthand the devastation of the HIV/AIDS crisis, as well as the long term impacts of discrimination, violence and injustice experienced by our community," the letter states.

Nonprofits are eligible to receive these funds, made available by the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program, by applying individually, as well. The PPP program, however, has been plagued by problems as thousands of small businesses are also seeking relief.

CenterLink held a virtual benefit April 26 that raised over $200,000. The event included Barbra Streisand and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana who came to national attention last year as the first serious gay candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Even if Zbur has to move EQCA's fall benefits online, he said he wants to remain optimistic.

"We don't want to do anything to put public health at risk," he said. "We can come up with exciting alternatives. I was — and still am — concerned about the events, about our ability to keep doors open. But I'm optimistic we can put something together."

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