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Facing coronavirus uncertainties, Washington-area nonprofits consider difficult decisions

Kim Ross, left, a volunteer teacher, helps Sophia Hawkins, 32, write an essay as Kenneth Tolson, right, 50, sits nearby at the Academy of Hope adult charter school in 2014.
Kim Ross, left, a volunteer teacher, helps Sophia Hawkins, 32, write an essay as Kenneth Tolson, right, 50, sits nearby at the Academy of Hope adult charter school in 2014. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Sara Gibson stood in a room filled with nonprofit leaders from the Washington region and let them know they needed a plan.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Right then and there.

Every moment matters, she explained to the people in that room on Tuesday and then again to me when we talked afterward.

“Every moment we’re not moving toward financial resilience, especially in this third sector, is putting our safety net, our economy and frankly, the District at risk,” she said. “There is not a part of our lives that keeps the District whole that is somehow not touched by a nonprofit.”

Gibson is not an alarmist. She is a consultant who has heard from many area organizations in recent days and understands the unique, precarious position they are in because of the economic uncertainties around the coronavirus outbreak. Depending on what happens with the local economy and broader market, the organizations that serve the region’s most vulnerable could find more people needing assistance, even as they lose critical funding and staffing.

Put another way: The individuals who keep in place that safety net we have come to count on could feel more people falling on it and fewer hands holding on to it.

It has also left them hoping — more than usual — that the rest of us will fight that urge to look inward, to focus only on self-preservation and those 401(k)s we’re not supposed to look at.

In on- and off-the-record conversations I’ve had with the leaders of organizations across the region in recent days, they describe holding difficult closed-door discussions, putting together plans for bad- to worst-case scenarios and thinking about what a few weeks ago seemed unthinkable: what staff positions and public services they might lose.

“When I took this gig as executive director, I imagined a lot of things I might be challenged to deal with, but I have to say a global pandemic was not on my mind,” Leigh Tivol, the executive director of the Potter’s House, said.

The nonprofit, which consists of a cafe, bookstore and event space in Adams Morgan, stayed open during the 1968 riots that saw other buildings burn. Tivol has found herself thinking lately about how the organization withstood the unrest and uncertainty of that time.

“There is a part of me that is saying, ‘All right, we stayed open during the riots, the coronavirus ain’t going to bring us down,’ ” she said. But then there is that other part of her. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t lie awake worrying about this right now.”

Her main concern: how to make sure the organization’s 20 staff members continue to get paid no matter what happens.

The organization operates on a “razor-thin margin,” and what resources it has put aside are not intended to go toward wages, Tivol said. Even so, she said, she is prepared to ask the board to consider committing funds to that end “to make sure my people don’t fall off a cliff.”

“One missed paycheck means the rent doesn’t get paid,” she said. “One missed paycheck means there is no money for a bus pass to get to work, if work is even open.”

She said the organization is trying to prepare for different scenarios because there is no predicting what will happen in the coming weeks and months. One thing she has had to consider is what will happen to those customers who come to the cafe for free meals if it has to close. She described one person who comes daily as “someone who is so smart, has an enormous heart and has grappled with demons.”

“What does that person do?” she asked.

Other organizations have grappled with equally challenging questions. Staff members at Academy of Hope, an adult public charter school that serves more than 500 D.C. residents a year, have found themselves discussing how to keep students, who could easily get derailed by a temporary shutdown, on track toward getting their high school diploma.

Many of the students they serve don’t have electronic devices or WiFi at home that would allow them to work remotely, so the staff is looking into the possibility of teachers using text messages and phone calls to communicate with students. They also are printing lessons on paper that can be sent home.

And they are doing all that while trying to plan a fundraising gala for April, not knowing what the virus’s presence will look like in the region at that time.

Brooke Kidd, the executive director of Joe’s Movement Emporium in Prince George’s County, which runs an after-school program and offers job training, classes and performances for the public, started a staff meeting this week by telling those in the room that she was using her dance improvisational training and needed them to also.

In the past, when schools and the government have shut down for snow days, the organization has opened its studio and let people frolic for free. But in anticipation of the virus causing closures, Kidd said the staff has been forced to consider scenarios that range from having to shut the doors for a few days to an “Italy-level shutdown” that could cause the organization to shutter for a longer period of time.

“It’s just a kind of wait and see and pivot every day,” she said.

What that pivoting looks like is this: planning and doing and planning some more. In a recent newsletter, the organization let families know that if they lose their wages, they don’t have to pull their children from the program. The staff would continue to support them. The staff is also working on creating more online content. And on Saturday, Kidd and other staff members met with Gibson to discuss how to prepare going forward.

Gibson co-founded the consulting firm 20 Degrees to help nonprofits. But before that, she used to do fundraising for them, and she recalls what the atmosphere was like after other times of crisis.

In a survival guide of sorts she published this week for area organizations, she referenced two.

“While different in some ways, moments after 9/11 and the anthrax scare were not so dissimilar,” she wrote. “Many things then remind me of what is happening now. We were scared, travel halted, the markets fluctuated and gatherings felt fraught. Fall mailings failed. Major donors pulled back. Foundations shifted priorities overnight (and for the next three years). And yet. Our communities still needed us. We faced hard choices.”

On Tuesday when Gibson met with nonprofit leaders, she worked with them to come up with a quick plan of action they could take with them from that room.

She also asked them to consider what they hope the headline for the story about their organizations would read once the outbreak had passed.

Her pick: “We roared back.”

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

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A Smithsonian team discovered a new coronavirus. The story behind that effort shows what it takes to get ahead of potential pandemics.