April 8, 2020
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Apart but together: How nonprofits are adapting to meet the needs of the community

The founder of Florida nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated people adjust to life on the outside shares how that work has changed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Nonprofits have an important role to play as service providers, social justice advocates, avenues for people to contribute, and trusted community builders, writes nonprofit founder Kevin Gay of Operation New Hope. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique combination of emotional and economic stressors. It’s as if we are facing the shock and fear felt during the Sept. 11 attacks combined with the worry and uncertainty experienced during the Great Depression. A lot is at stake, but we’re not all affected equally. Our society’s most vulnerable–the elderly, sick, poor, under-educated, and unemployed–are struggling more now than ever before.

The swift arrival of a global pandemic is challenging all of us to quickly adapt to a new way of being, including nonprofits. After talking with key stakeholders, other nonprofit leaders, as well as local, state, and federal representatives, it’s become abundantly clear that our community is working tirelessly to overcome challenges, so that we can continue to serve.

Nonprofits are the third largest workforce in the U. S., following retail and manufacturing. The industry not only provides services necessary to maintain healthy, functioning communities, but also employs millions of Americans. Even in the best of times, nonprofits are under-resourced. Now they’re facing steep financial losses due to event cancellations and restrictions to performance-based funding contracts. Without any new resources, nonprofits are being called to comply with shifting health advisories as they create new operating strategies to serve vulnerable community members during this crisis.

Nonprofits have an important role to play as service providers, social justice advocates, avenues for people to contribute, and trusted community builders. But to be able to do so, adaptation is crucial. Nonprofits must figure out how to operate under new restrictions, including remote working and physical distancing, with increased hygiene requirements, all while navigating a shifting economy. To do this, we must develop new ways of thinking. We must adjust our employment policies and embrace technology. We need to meet contractual obligations and create new funding solutions. We have to develop contingency planning to ensure program continuity.

At Operation New Hope, we serve the community by providing job training and assistance to people returning from incarceration. We help them find employment that provides living-wage employment so they will be less at-risk of returning to prison. We build stronger, safer communities, by breaking the cycle of incarceration and poverty. For 20 years we have served the community, but now our mission is more critical than ever.

Prisons are struggling to protect their populations. Inmates cannot participate in social distancing and lack the hygiene and medical resources necessary to battle a pandemic. As a result, many prisons are considering releasing prisoners as a strategy to protect the greatest number of people. According to a recent Forbes article, “Prosecutors are proposing immediate actions like releasing people solely held because they can’t pay cash bail, compassionate release, for instance, for those with terminal illnesses, and adopting cite-and-release policies for minor drug offenses to help reduce the jail and prison population in the midst of this pandemic.”

With increasing numbers of people returning from incarceration to our communities, Operation New Hope and other nonprofits that help this population are being challenged to help more and more people secure the housing, food, transportation, training, and job placement they need. Providing these resources not only helps these people individually, but also serves as a safety measure for the community, helping to prevent crime. In order to answer the call, we must find ways to serve this vulnerable population with limited funding and stringent social distancing restrictions.

The good news is that at Operation New Hope we have a team of dedicated staff who are committed to serving our community. Like most nonprofits, when the pandemic struck, our employees began looking for new ways to help. We proved to our clients and to the community that we will continue to be of assistance, however necessary. With this level of compassion and commitment, nonprofits are proving just how necessary they are in communities, and as an industry.

What more can be done to help nonprofits meet these challenges? Federal, state and local governments should include nonprofits in relief and recovery funding. They must also be flexible on how nonprofits use government funding, recognizing that our service models are shifting. Lastly, governments and communities should invite nonprofit leaders to help make decisions, as they can gain incredible insights from their work on the frontlines.

Thankfully, humans are resilient. Just like after Sept. 11 and the Great Depression, we will adapt, cooperate, and collaborate. During this time of isolation, we will find new ways to come together, shifting from notions of individualism to recognition of our interdependence.

Kevin Gay

Kevin Gay

Operation New Hope

Kevin Gay left corporate America in 1999 and founded Operation New Hope to create a new model for community development. He felt that while there were many houses in many urban communities in need of major restoration there were also many people broken and in need of Hope once again. Thus, Operation New Hope was born to bring Hope in the form of new housing, new skills leading to new jobs and a revitalized community. In June of 2002, Kevin was invited to meet with President George W. Bush and Secretary of labor Elaine Chao. This meeting led to ONH being selected by the White House to develop the first national model for Prisoner Re­ entry called Ready4Work®. This employment-based re-entry model was then introduced in 16 other cities around the country. Ready4Work® Jacksonville has gained national attention because of its impact in reducing recidivism.

Kevin served on President Elect Barack-Obama’s Advisory Council for the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during the transition in 2009 and 2010. Kevin also served on the transition teams for Jacksonville Mayor’s Alvin Brown in 2011 and on Mayor Lenny Curry’s in 2015.

In 2018, Kevin was invited to the White House on two occasions to discuss his work in re-entry and criminal justice reform. The last visit being the White House Summit on Prisoner re-entry held on May 18, 2018. In addition, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson visited Operation New Hope and called it “the best re-entry program he has seen in all of his travels around the country.”