COVID-19: How Philadelphia Nonprofits are Adjusting Operations to Offer Services Safely

As food insecurity and financial precarity increase, demand for services are needed now more than ever. Several nonprofit organizations have changed their operations so that clients, volunteers, and staff can operate safely and, when it matters, in person.

North Light Community Center assembling pre-bagged food (Chloe Elmer/JPG Photo and Video)

North Light Community Center, located at 175 Green Lane in Manayunk, has long run emergency services programs in the community, though it has had to alter or expand a number of programs to adapt to coronavirus, said executive director Krista Wieder. 

For instance, North Light’s food pantry, open Mondays and Fridays from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. for the summer, has had to adopt a number of emergency protocols. Typically, individuals would grocery shop for what they needed, staff proud to preserve their dignity of choice, Wieder said. 

However, because of COVID-19, the center is unable to provide the shopping experience. Instead, the center pre-bags food but does what it can to provide individuals choices. 

“We are able to offer menu options for people so they can download that, or we can give it to them in person and they can mark off what they need,” Wieder said. 

Boxed food donations assembled for food distribution (Chloe Elmer/JPG Photo & Video)

With increased demand at food banks and donation services across Philadelphia, nonprofit organizations like North Light have had to find ways to not only serve increasing demand but to also safely adapt operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also keeping an eye on its financial stability. 

“Typically, Philabundance serves about 90,000 people a week, this was prior to COVID-19,” said Philabundance public relations associate Samantha Retamar. “Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a 60% increase in need across our nine county service area.”

In May, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that one out of every four families in the United States have skipped meals or relied on charity or government food programs since the coronavirus outbreak began. In Philadelphia, Feeding America reports that rates of food insecurity are set to increase from 16.3% to 21.2% this year due to the ongoing pandemic. 

Recently unemployed individuals and families are the most vulnerable to food insecurity, Retamar said. Parents who may have lost their jobs do not have the means to supplement their children’s school meals, especially now that students are home for the summer, she said. 

Free food distribution sites, sponsored by the City government as well as local nonprofits, have been opening across the city to help meet an increased need. To accommodate social distancing, Philabundance opened a free drive-thru style food pickup site between May 29 and June 26 at Citizens Bank Park. 

“We had about 1,600 food boxes every Friday, and clients could just drive up, open their trunks, get the food put into their trunk and they drove away,” said Retamar. “It was that simple and that easy.”

North Light has also started to deliver food, something the center hadn’t done pre-pandemic, delivering an estimated 60 food boxes to individuals with disabilities or medical conditions that make them high-risk, Wieder said. 

For other organizations, especially those that handle a high volume of donations, like Goodwill of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia, finding ways to continue accepting donations safely have been crucial to keeping their operations going. 

“We created and instituted something called ‘stop, drop, and go,’ where we have as much minimal contact between donors and our employees as possible and we then put all of those donations into storage,” said CEO Mark Boyd.

Donors dropping off at any of Goodwill’s four stores or two donation sites in Philadelphia can pop their trunk and Goodwill employees will collect donations using gloves and wearing masks at all times. Donations then go into storage facilities where they are held for longer than usual so any coronavirus particles will degrade and dissipate. According to Goodwill’s website, donations are quarantined for 72 hours under a Centers for Disease Control mandate.

For in-store shopping, Goodwill stores have implemented multiple precautionary measures including limiting store occupancy and installing plexiglass at all cash registers. Protective plastic now covers all credit card and kiosk touchpads, and staff disinfect shopping carts after each use and offer shoppers waterless hand sanitizer. 

“We are following all of the various protocols necessary to maintain social distancing inside of our stores,” Boyd said. 

Coronavirus has also meant an economic crunch for organizations. As COVID-19 cases began to rise in Pennsylvania, Goodwill shut down its stores under the state’s stay-at-home orders, leading the organization to furlough many employees. 

At the start of the pandemic Goodwill had about 900 employees, Boyd said. After applying for a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government, it was able to keep about 250 of those employees on payroll. 

Goodwill relies heavily on revenue from donors and people shopping in its stores. Figuring out how to take donations and safely reopen retail stores has helped the organization rehire the employees furloughed in the early days of the pandemic.

“Since we have been able to reopen, we have brought back 75-80% of our employees,” Boyd said.

Aside from the food pantry, North Light had to suspend all of its other programs, depleting the center of its key funding streams: fundraising events and child care. 

“Unfortunately, our child care program shut down,” Wieder said. “All the fees that we bring in from our child care went away because we clearly stopped charging our families.”

Many fundraising events were also canceled, including a gala scheduled for April. 

“That’s been a significant loss,” Wieder said. “I would say $70,000 just from those events alone.”

Wieder also estimates North Light lost another $15,000-$20,000 in revenue from child care during the shut down. 

North Light is now operating its summer camp, but only at half-capacity due to social distancing guidelines.

“I think it’s a lot of wait and see and coming up with potential plans and possibilities in the meantime,” Wieder said. 

Organizations also have had to develop new policies to keep their professional and office staff safe. 

“Everybody in the office must wear a mask,” Retamar said. “There are temperature checks at the door. All of that has been very much like a new way of life when it comes to the Philabundance way.” 

Similarly, North Light requires staff and children at its summer camps to wear masks while in the building. 

“Children are required to wear masks at certain times but not on the playground when they are playing, and various other times, depending on the activities,” Wieder said. 

Despite concerns around COVID-19, there are still safe ways Philadelphians can get involved in donation efforts.

North Light accepts either one-time or monthly recurring monetary donations online.

“We were able to move some things online, and we were able to raise about 30% of what we typically do for one event,” Wieder said.  

At Philabundance, interested donors can safely host their own virtual food drive on their website. Much like online shopping, shoppers can pick the most needed items Philabundance clients and agencies have requested. 

Goodwill also plans to try soliciting digital donations, as well as piloting a buy online, pick up in-person shopping feature this winter. 

“We really think we have to reconsider business in order to make ourselves relevant and safety conscious in a post-COVID retail environment,” Boyd said. 

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