At one point in 2020, there were more than 730 nonprofit organizations operating in the Coachella Valley area, according to Desert Charities News.
Due to the pandemic and the related restrictions, many of those organizations are struggling to stay afloat—and some are losing that battle.
Leticia De Lara is the chief executive officer of the Palm Desert-based Regional Access Project Foundation, which operates the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, “a community resource center focused on strengthening and increasing the capacity of nonprofits in Riverside County.”
“We’re already seeing some very difficult conditions starting to force organizations to shut down,” De Lara said. “Others are evaluating how long they can go on. Some were able to benefit from some funding that was made available by the county and that came from the CARES Act, so they were able to hang in there, hoping that it might be a short term disruption. But it’s turned out to be a lot longer.”
One of the higher-visibility nonprofits that fit De Lara’s description is the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert in Rancho Mirage. On Nov. 30, the museum’s board of directors announced it had laid off all remaining staff members and discontinued all programming.
“My last day was Oct. 31, and right now, I’m not working anywhere,” said Gregoria Rodriguez, the former chief programs and exhibits officer at the museum. “Officially, I was not furloughed. I was let go. … We were getting ready to re-open the museum, working on grants for the next year, and things like that.”
The museum had been one of the fortunate valley nonprofits to receive a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. That helped the museum continue online operations, providing the kind of educational and recreational opportunities that many families in our community relied upon and enjoyed. The museum was preparing to reopen its doors—for the first time since the March shutdown—on a limited basis in November. However, the COVID-19 spike and the resulting government restrictions made that impossible.
“We did receive a round of PPP funding which was wonderful,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what helped us provide so much virtual programming. That’s what helped us bring back a little bit of staffing to do (virtual) camps and to provide kits for the kids to join us virtually from home to do activities. But, unfortunately, we just never got enough donations to keep it all going.”
Rodriguez said the museum had always prided itself on its revenue model; the museum was not as dependent on grants and donations as many other nonprofits.
“In the past, we always saw it as a blessing that the museum ran on 80 percent earned revenue, which included admission fees, membership fees, camp fees and field trips,” Rodriguez said. “But with the museum being closed to the public for about seven months, it became really hard.”
The nonprofit industry statewide employed a million people as of 2014, according to a report by the California Association of Nonprofits. That number has almost certainly risen since—before definitely falling in 2020.
At the Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs, executive director Wes Winter had to eliminate some positions to keep Mizell’s service programs—including the critically important Meals on Wheels delivery service for the homebound elderly—functioning.
“In March, our revenue just disappeared overnight, with the exception of the Meals on Wheels funding, which has been pretty stable, and donors have really stepped up to help out. We had to consolidate a couple of positions,” Winter said. “We had to have some people go from full-time to part-time, all the usual stuff. We had a couple of folks take pay cuts.”
While Mizell’s doors remain closed, Winter reported that the staffing situation at Mizell has been improving, although the future is still uncertain.
“For the positions that we had to dissolve, I don’t know what’s going to happen there,” he said. “It’s going to take some reorganizing to figure out how to do that. But, for the most part, we’ve been able to bring everybody back part-time, if not full-time. When our income goes up, their hours will go up, and they’ll go back to full-time positions.”
Some local nonprofits have found an ally in De Lara’s Regional Access Project Foundation, which supports other local nonprofits focused on health, mental health and juvenile-intervention services. RAP provides partner nonprofits with grants and other financial support, as well capacity-building services. It also offers low, affordable office space to 25 nonprofits at RAP’s headquarters in Palm Desert. As a result, CEO De Lara has a singularly well-informed perspective on the state of the nonprofit sector in the valley. She said some nonprofits (aka NPOs) that address similar issues have merged to survive.
“That (merger option) is not going to work for a lot of organizations, because they have very distinct missions and approaches,” De Lara said. “And usually, it takes months to even explore a merger. Sometimes they don’t work out, and the plans are dropped before the end, so that is not going to be a solution for a lot of NPOs. But I would like to think that (NPO boards and staff) would at least consider that before they make a decision to close.
“Organizations which are a bit more established have been able to pivot to offering more online programming, and develop a greater social-media presence. It’s very important to make sure that you’re communicating effectively what services the organization is providing, and what needs you are meeting in the community. You have to make sure that you’re reaching previous clients and friends, as well as new and younger givers. So, the No. 1 (tool for NPOs) has become social media and the ability to market your brand a lot more effectively, and over a wider range.”
However, for some smaller nonprofits, developing a better online presence is easier said than done.
“When you have a smaller organization, and you have a person already handling accounting and technology, and then another staffer doing programming, it’s really hard to add one more responsibility to the existing responsibilities of any individual staff member,” De Lara said. “The challenge is that you have to have a person who is up to date with the new social-media platforms and who is able to effectively do the marketing and the branding. Normally, it will take several months to train somebody to handle all this work—but right now, the NPOs have to train somebody within a matter of weeks, rather than months, to take on new responsibility and learn new skill sets.”
Often times, that training itself can cost money.
“Financial restraints due to depleted budgets make the option to add positions almost impossible,” De Lara said. “Another issue is that technology is not always available in certain areas, especially in the eastern Coachella Valley and Desert Hot Springs. We have a lot of organizations who have difficulty reaching their clients because of the technology issues, including a lack of broadband access, which causes a disconnect in operations, fundraising and revenue.”
While it may not be possible for some struggling nonprofits to merge, there is nothing stopping them from working together.
“We had a consultant who has been very successful staging some big events,” De Lara said. “He proposed having joint fundraising opportunities which would allow (participating organizations) to divvy up the net profits at the end. I haven’t heard of anyone following up on that. There are pros and cons to it. I think everyone would need to be very clear about their expectations, and the resources that each NPO is able to contribute. They would need 100 percent buy-in from everybody involved. So I have heard the idea being discussed, and I would hope that some would try it and see how it works out.”
Rodriguez, formerly with the Children’s Museum, said she wishes local nonprofits worked together more often.
“The really unfortunate thing to me is that the nonprofits in the valley see (attracting donations and grants) as a competition when it’s not,” she said. “We should be working in partnership together to help each other out. That way, during times like this, we aren’t standing alone, and we can talk to somebody else and work together to create a program or get a grant, or create a Coachella Valley-wide fund for nonprofits to help during such times. It’s just an idea to think about for the future.”
Some nonprofits are facing yet another challenge during these troubled times: An increase in demand for their much needed services.
“We did see our participant numbers increase for both the Meals on Wheels takeout and delivery customers from a total of about 450, to just under 800 every day,” Winter said. “Especially the home delivery increased, because folks were asked to shelter at home. But the community has been incredibly generous. Donors have stepped up in a way that I didn’t even think was possible to help us keep our head above water.
“But one of the things I worry about is donor fatigue. Donors have been wonderful in stepping up and helping us get through this time, but we’re worried that they’re going to get exhausted in their giving.”
That means nonprofits have to work harder than ever before to show their importance to the community.
“What we want people to know is that we’re still here,” Winter said. “The front door may be locked, but we’re in here and still providing services. They may be online, or they may be through home delivery, or takeout from our parking lot, but we’re still here.
“And we are going to re-open our doors. We just don’t know when.”