This Crisis Must Lead to Change that Benefits Everyone

Our global society is more than six months into the pandemic caused by COVID-19. Some countries have contained the virus better than others. In the United States, case counts and deaths lead the world. Millions of people are out of work while government benefits threaten to lapse. Renters are on the verge of being evicted from their homes, and property owners may follow. We’re seeing long food lines, overwhelmed hospitals, anxious parents and students, and any number of related complications that occur when people cannot meet their basic needs.

It’s a mess – and I feel for anyone wondering how to keep themselves and their loved ones safe and secure.

If we’re able to get COVID-19 under control, count me among those individuals who don’t want society to go back to normal. After all, the virus and ongoing race and equity protests have highlighted our society’s inherent inequalities and shortcomings. We’ve been forced to question decades of underinvestment in schools, hospitals and public health, leaving people and systems unprepared for this fight.

It’s clear that in the U.S. we aren’t going to see a “V-shaped recovery” that will rebound our economy to new heights. Surveys of businesses and the unemployed show that more and more people now realize, regardless of what government interventions occur, that many of their jobs are not coming back. Globally, the situation isn’t any brighter. Studies show COVID-19 and its economic repercussions exacerbating inequality and unemployment in places like South Africa and Brazil.

So how do we re-imagine our society and build back differently? And how can the non-profit sector help lead the way? We’ll need to look at how we work with companies, governments and technology.

First, there are immediate solutions. In May, United Way expanded our Ride United program to bring food to where people live, instead of making them wait in lines for hours on end. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, we partnered with Door Dash to launch a “last mile” delivery program that brings food and supplies to vulnerable populations. The program is supported by 211, a vital service that connects people to resources and assistance. To date, we’ve facilitated more than 400,000 meal deliveries.

The Community Chest of Korea is supporting a similar program in Indonesia, where COVID-19 disrupted the food supply chain. Now, low-income farmers can use an app to connect with local truck and motorbike drivers and have their products delivered to volunteer kitchens and families in-need.

As we move forward, these kinds of programs that bring sectors together to solve collective problems need to be scaled up. Yet while non-profit and civil society organizations around the world are working incredibly hard right now, resources are finite and most non-profits expect to raise less money this year than in 2019. To alleviate the situation in the U.S., United Way and other groups are picking up our advocacy to ensure Paycheck Protection Program loans are available to more non-profits and pushing for the charitable deduction to be increased and available to more tax filers, among other provisions.

This is a critical moment for charities, as non-profits are likely to face a difficult giving environment for the foreseeable future as bank accounts are stretched by the pandemic and resulting economic recession.

For non-profits to help society build back stronger, with new health, economic and social systems that allow everyone a fair shot at a successful life, we must embrace new ideas and ways of working. Just as digital technology is currently helping to connect people with critical resources, so must non-profits use it to connect with new donors and show them the impact we are making in communities. It will also be critical, even as we focus on immediate need, to have a vision for the future and demonstrate that our sector is fighting for better lives for everyone.

When COVID-19 is finally under control, the hard work will just be beginning. As a result of the pandemic, global poverty is expected to increase for the first time since the 1990s. Millions of individuals and families will have ricocheted from one crisis to another, having tried to get by in a socially distant world. Small businesses that survive the crisis will operate differently, and those that don’t make it will be disproportionately minority owned. People’s trust in traditional institutions will be lower than ever.

There will be no better time to think differently. Governments have struggled to meet people’s needs. The Black Lives Matter protests are shining bright lights on society’s racial and ethnic inequalities. If we, as individuals, non-profits and society, aren’t prepared to listen and honestly debate big ideas and big solutions, we’ll return right back to square one.

All of us must look in the mirror and learn from the tumult of 2020 in order to re-build as a stronger, more inclusive and more sustainable world. The work starts now.


Brian Gallagher
President & CEO of United Way Worldwide

Picture: Ignacio Hildebrandt