Why a strong nonprofit safety net is key to our region’s health

Why a strong nonprofit safety net is key to our region’s health

The following blog post originally ran in the St. Louis American.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought extreme changes to our daily lives. Suddenly, an unprecedented number of neighbors are confronted with unimaginable circumstances stemming from job and wage loss to lack of access to food, shelter, childcare and healthcare. Though new challenges for many, these challenges are further exacerbated for others.    

Maintaining a strong nonprofit safety net system helps to fuel services and programs that assist people facing poverty, hardship, or adversity in accessing needed resources to survive and thrive. The unique stresses of COVID-19 have further revealed gaps and clear opportunities for us to better resource community efforts.

For nearly 100 years, the United Way of Greater St. Louis and our supporters have worked intentionally to maintain a focus on keeping our regional nonprofit safety net strong and resourced.  We have led efforts that provide ongoing safety net assistance to our neighbors while helping to ready our community to respond to unexpected challenges. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any other challenge most of us have faced in our lifetime. The assistance of every member of our community will be key to weathering these challenges. We must continue to come together like never before to strengthen and maintain the overall health of our community through volunteer efforts, donations, and system-level impacts that build our nonprofit resources even stronger.     

Even during the best of times, nonprofits play a critical role in providing services that help people meet their basic needs and achieve their potential. Across the nation, they feed, shelter, educate, inspire and engage 1 in 5 Americans each year.

The St. Louis region is multifaceted, so we face diverse, complex needs. No one agency or program can do it alone. It takes a united effort – nonprofit agency efforts coupled with multisector collaborations to improve outcomes and impacts across our community.

Our local nonprofits are responding to our current crisis while continuing to provide necessary services to address ongoing issues and unforeseen challenges ahead. They are helping to build a strong foundation for families throughout our region to help them stay healthy, access education, meet basic needs and become financially stable.

Imagine what our region would look like without our nonprofit safety net. Without access to healthcare services through nonprofits, there would be a greater demand on the healthcare system. Without places to turn for emergency help, more families would face devastating impacts because of a single crisis. Without nonprofit summer and afterschool programs, our community would see lower educational achievement and less skilled workers.

The nonprofit sector also makes up a substantial part of our local economy. In Missouri, nonprofits employ more than 11% of the workforce and generate more than $40 billion in revenue. Illinois nonprofits employ nearly 1 in 10 people and build more than $100 billion in revenue. Without our safety net nonprofits, our region would not only lose valuable services, but also jobs and revenue.

Assistance through our nonprofit safety net was already in great demand and, as the COVID-19 crisis continues, it’s under unprecedented stress.

United Way’s 211 Call Center and texting serves as the intersection between people in need and vital resources available. In March, we received more than 22,000 calls for help through our hotline. This was a huge jump compared to this time last year, typically our slow season, when we normally receive an average of 485 calls a week.

The demands on the safety net are increasing exponentially. People who were already vulnerable are now at an even greater risk, and many people are turning to the nonprofit safety net for help for the first time.

We don’t expect to see the increased demand on the system subside anytime soon. Needs will change over the lifecycle of this crisis, and more and more people will continue to look to safety-net nonprofits for help, including long-term help, like mental health support and job placement and training.

Collectively, we must support the nonprofit safety net system to help build a strong foundation now and into our future. Nonprofits need champions to support their missions and empower them to continue their work. They need a region coming together to hold them up, resource them, and move them forward. The challenges we face are mighty, but when we all unite together, the outcomes we will produce will be tremendous.  

Michelle Tucker is president and CEO of United Way of Greater St. Louis.

James Taylor
James Taylor