Q&A: The role of faith-based organizations amid COVID-19

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Misha Galperin, president of ZANDAFI Philanthropy Advisors. Photo by: Shira Yudkoff

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on people’s mental health, faith-based organizations have a specific role to play, according to Misha Galperin, president of ZANDAFI Philanthropy Advisors and interim CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Psychiatrists and psychologists recently highlighted the urgent need for research to determine the extent to which social isolation, health worries, and the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus are impacting mental health. The 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak is thought to have contributed to a 30% increase in suicide among those over 65 in Hong Kong, while half of recovered patients remained anxious.

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“There’s an anticipation of a significant increase in all kinds of mental health problems and issues,” said the former president and CEO of international development at the Jewish Agency for Israel. “That's an area that needs to be attended to, and faith is a good source of support, providing hope to people who are in very difficult circumstances and have been psychologically affected.”

Yet funding streams for faith-based organizations, as for all nongovernmental organizations, are under strain, which could jeopardize their ability to provide mental health support. Galperin said philanthropies and not-for-profits will have to make enormous changes to adapt to the current climate.

One way of doing this is pivoting in-person support and group solidarity into online support groups. Another option is offering consultations via the phone — for example, by using StrongMinds, a social enterprise working with African women experiencing depression.

Sitting down with Devex, Galperin discussed the role of faith-based entities in the pandemic, the challenges they are facing, and the advice he is offering.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What challenges do you see philanthropists, foundations, and nonprofits facing right now?

First, it's a global emergency and quite unprecedented. It's also a disaster that’s not time-limited and focused. With the usual disasters, there’s an event that takes place, tremendous damage, loss of life, and the world responds — although the response often wanes as the events leave the front pages of the news cycle.

[With COVID-19] it’s not only worldwide but also sustained over a long period of time. In fact, it’s not clear when, and if, this will be over. So that's No. 1: Philanthropic response to something like this is new. It really hasn't been able to do that in the past — although in some way, it might be easier because it’s still in the news cycle and in front of people's eyes all the time.

The second set of issues here is that — in addition to the immediate impact in terms of lives, health, etc. — you also have the economic devastation at an unprecedented level. This, again, is something that's likely to be a long-term situation. While the governments will try to help, in many places it's limited to how much they can do and for how long.

During the last serious economic recession, philanthropy took a big hit and didn't really recover until almost a decade later. The thing for nonprofits is it's usually countercyclical; the greatest needs arise when the least resources are available, and here you have that situation for a sustained period of time.

Also, the kinds of alternative resources that nonprofits rely on, in addition to philanthropy, are revenue — usually through participation fees or a fee for service — and because of the closures and the inability of some organizations to continue operating, that's gone significantly down.

Governments, which often are the supporters of non-for-profits and development enterprises, are trying to do things locally, certainly in the United States. In some places — like in Philadelphia, for instance — the local government has proposed budgets that cut funding to all cultural and arts institutions, and so it's additional devastation for faith-based organizations, like synagogues in the Jewish world.

I'm sure churches, mosques, and other places are built on the concept of community, of people coming together and working together, supporting each other, inspiring each other. When you can't do that on a regular basis, your ability to collect funds and to direct them to the needed uses is very much impacted, as are things like religious schooling. Philanthropies and not-for-profits will have to make some enormous changes to deal with what's happened and what is still to come.

Do you think there are unique challenges that Jewish or faith-based nonprofits and organizations in general might be facing right now, as opposed to other entities?

Part of the issue is that a lot of what Jewish and non-for-profit organizations of other faiths have is the foundation of their work in the community, in bringing people together. That is particularly difficult [right now].

We're understanding that philanthropy is most likely going to be responding specifically to COVID-19-related issues. Some of the more prominent Jewish organizations, funders, and philanthropists responded to that, but organizations that are concerned with education, culture, and the arts are likely to be in trouble because resources are likely to be diverted specifically to COVID. Some people have set up funds and are attending specifically to those kinds of organizations in the Jewish community and beyond that are specifically COVID-related but that are in danger of being devastated by the economic consequences of the epidemic.

“There’s an anticipation of a significant increase in all kinds of mental health problems and issues … and faith is a good source of support.”

— Misha Galperin, president, ZANDAFI Philanthropy Advisors

Part of the overall Jewish ethos is to help repair the world and help the communities that they're living in. There is significant poverty in Jewish communities, which is a lot less known and seen, and people don't don't always appreciate just how much help is needed within the Jewish community.

Also, obviously, whenever there are significant force majeure events, faith is always challenged — “How can God allow this?” or “What does this mean?” And so, people who are in the positions of advice and authority, the clerics, are challenged even more to deal with the most important questions people usually ask.

What key pieces of advice would you be giving nonprofits right now to overcome these?

It's very hard to generalize. There are different circumstances with different organizations. One of the things that is clear to me is that nonprofits need to turn to the people and sources that they’re most connected with. What I've seen is that philanthropists and foundations are doubling up on supporting the institutions they are engaged with and are invested in, and I think that's where a lot of the help will come from.

What the nonprofits need to do is to tap their emails, the loyal supporters, and do that en masse — not just individuals who are likely to provide major gifts, but also the constituencies that are wider.

Probably my most important piece of advice would be to really think about how to support and maintain the key staff in an organization, because they are the most important resource that an organization has: the people that work with it and work for it.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

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  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.