Annual Letter 2020

2020 gave us all many reasons to despair. But 2020 also revealed the strength and resourcefulness of nonprofits to respond to urgent community needs. I am awestruck at the nonprofit responses to the crises of a pandemic, political upheaval, and ongoing racism.

I am even more inspired by the resolve of so many to demand more from ourselves, our funders, and our political leaders. Across the country, nonprofit leaders are organizing unapologetically around community needs and aspirations, speaking more frankly with funders – especially about the imperative of racial equity, and working together in new ways to address root causes.  

For NFF, our touchstone in 2021 and beyond will be living this resolve ourselves, evolving how we work, who we serve, and how effectively we help shift funding systems so that more organizations, especially those led by and serving people of color, can take control of the resources they need to turn their resolve into sustained progress. We believe more than ever this is both imperative and the greatest opportunity to get better results from donations and government funding.

Watch these nonprofit and foundation leaders describe how the crises of 2020 have led them to take bolder action.

Black background with white text that reads Where We Go From Here

What did this responsiveness and resolve look like on the ground?

One of the blessings of my job is to get to know NFF clients around the country and hear what they are doing. By the summer of 2020, underneath the despair and exhaustion, I began to sense a common and largely untold story about how nonprofits and their leaders were pushing harder and raising their visions for what they could make happen:

  • In East Oakland, CA, the Unity Council, an anchor social equity community development corporation serving low-income BIPOC families, entered 2020 with operating reserves and recent surpluses after NFF had supported a financial turnaround. They leveraged partnerships to conduct a massive COVID-19 testing event to reach the most vulnerable residents living in Alameda County’s COVID epicenter. The Unity Council created the Resilient Fruitvale Collaborative, a coalition of 16 community-based organizations (CBOs) that collectively requested $70 million in new funding from the county to help families survive the crisis and begin an equitable recovery. “COVID and the civil unrest of 2020 is killing our community, literally and economically,” said Chris Iglesias, CEO. “There’s no alternative but to push forward and tell our funders what we really need for a true equitable recovery.”

  • In Newark, NJ, Newark Symphony Hall distributed personal protective equipment to frontline workers and food to the families of students in their arts programs, and then recommitted to a transformative plan that NFF’s consulting team is supporting to turn the storied performance space into an anchor of arts-driven community revitalization. After the crises of 2020, CEO Taneshia Nash Laird is pushing funders to make good on their racial equity promises. “We're going to show up and say, ‘Are you going to put your money where your mouth is?’ You've been saying that this is what you'd like to do, now here's your opportunity to do that.”

  • In New York City, the COVID crisis postponed the opening of Children of Promise, NYC’s second site to expand their work supporting children whose parents are incarcerated. Facing delayed state grant reimbursement and unable to fulfill contracts at the new site, the organization was buoyed by a $600,000 no-interest loan from NFF. Instead of retreating, they pivoted their work, offering virtual mental health services as well as programs and resources to make remote learning viable for children and their families. “Despite the disproportionate impact the pandemic imposed on Black and Brown committees, we were able to open our second location in September of 2020,” said Sharon Content, founder and President. “We are committed to providing our youth with increased opportunities and access to virtual one-to-one tutoring to help close the academic gap exasperated by the pandemic.”

These are just a few of the myriad stories of responsiveness and resolve in 2020, a year that revealed the untapped potential of so many nonprofits across the country. Imagine what could happen if more of these leaders were able to access the financial knowledge, loans, and other resources they need to turn this resolve into action?

What did responsiveness mean for NFF?

Within days of the social distancing orders of mid-March, we pivoted NFF’s core services to respond to our clients’, investors’, and funders’ changed needs. We set up new no-interest lending programs and shifted our advisory and advocacy work to help our nonprofit clients respond to this once-in-a-century crisis, working at the speed of mutual trust and urgency with our nonprofit clients, investors, and donors.

We knew that most nonprofits urgently needed flexible capital to cope with program changes and revenue loss due to COVID-19. So when the Ford Foundation asked us in March to set up a loan fund to complement an emergency grant program in New York City, we launched a 0%-interest loan fund in nine days, eventually lending $37 million to 45 New York City nonprofits. By year end we had raised $118 million from a range of philanthropic investors for various no-interest loan funds across the country.

Our consulting team pivoted their work with clients whose financial concerns on March 15 were in many cases radically different from the longer-term transformation we had planned to support. We also shifted how we deliver those services, providing free webinars on issues like accessing federal funding through the Payroll Protection Program and sharing practical tools online. And our website traffic doubled as we focused on providing accessible answers to the financial questions nonprofits and funders were asking, helping them make better sense of how to navigate this and future crises.

What does operating with greater resolve mean for NFF?

Four years into our explicit racial equity journey, we realized in the summer of 2020 that our pace of change was not fast enough. The disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 crisis on communities of color and the national uprisings for racial justice underscored the importance of this work. Building on a range of client initiatives we have undertaken with an explicit racial equity focus over the last few years and the launch of our internal Social Innovation Equity Council in early 2020, we are moving to concentrate our investment and financial advice with community-centered organizations led by and serving people of color.

We are especially grateful to our nonprofit clients, such as the participants in the Mellon Foundation-funded Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative (COHI), who have pushed us to incorporate a much deeper understanding of how racism impacts nonprofit finance in our work. Check out their work: National Performance Network’s LANE and International Association of Blacks in Dance’s MOVE.

To accelerate and solidify our commitment, we launched Plan 50%+, a set of accountable targets for who we are, who we serve as clients, and how we serve them that starts with a pledge that half or more of our nonprofit borrowers and consulting clients in 2021 will be BIPOC-led. To meet these targets, we are building exciting partnerships with inspiring community leaders, exemplified by the launch of the Rising Together initiative to support select member organizations of three networks of leaders of color to thrive in the new economic reality. We also applied principles of trust-based philanthropy in regranting $350,000 to 29 small, community-centered, and primarily BIPOC-led organizations. In the second phase of our New York City emergency lending program, we are working with Trinity Wall Street to target support to more BIPOC-led organizations there, and we have replicated a smaller version of the loan fund in Denver with a similar focus. Beyond our consulting clients and lenders, we also have committed to advancing racial equity through our operations, for example by depositing $17 million with Optus Bank, one of the only remaining Black-owned banks in the country.

Where do we go from here?

After an exhausting but immensely rewarding year professionally, we are excited to go forward instead of nostalgic to go back. While organizations typically trade off between shoring up financial and operational health, expanding services, and shifting toward a new strategy, we have hit high water marks on all three simultaneously.

We are in a strong financial position to be both responsive and to show resolve in serving our clients and transforming ourselves. With an operating surplus for the year and two unrestricted gifts in 2020 totaling $20 million, from the Ford Foundation’s Social Justice Bond fund and MacKenzie Scott, we have substantially increased our net assets and established an internal strategic innovation fund. This will ensure that we channel these resources to the work of transforming NFF and serve our mission without hesitation, fighting against the scarcity mentality that too often leaves nonprofits wary of taking up bold opportunities. This funding also allows us to expand our lending and to commit to strategic partners without having to wait until we secure funding.

But we continue to have many more organizations seeking our support than we have resources to serve. To deepen and sustain our work we are seeking new funders and investors who share our values and excitement to organize our work around supporting communities to realize their aspirations. Please get in touch to learn how to support our work, and please pass along this information to others who might be interested.

To keep up with demand for our services, we are expanding the NFF team, looking to add 40 new positions in 2021 to end the year with a team of 116, while ensuring not only that our team remains diverse overall but also that we have greater parity in who leads and makes decisions on our team and in our governance structures. Please share our job postings with your networks.

We are also shifting how we work and who we work with. We are building partnerships with networks of community-centered organizations led by and serving people of color, committing to work together flexibly over the long haul. If you participate in or fund a network, please get in touch if you think we can help you reach your members’ aspirations with financial knowledge and appropriate investments.

We learned in 2020 what we are capable of when we listen closely to our clients, develop products and services to meet their needs, and partner with aligned investors and funders. I believe our country is poised to advance progress by responding to the truths and bold calls to action from community-centered organizations, especially those led by and serving people of color. I am excited that in 2021 NFF has the resolve, partners, and resources to play our part to make it happen.

How are you looking to respond? And what are you resolved to do now?

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you to meet your aspirations in 2021 and beyond.

Signature for Antony Bugg-Levine in cursive

Antony Bugg-Levine