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UW-Milwaukee’s recent study shows how COVID-19 affected Wisconsin’s nonprofit sector

People carrying donation and charity related icons
Travis Cottrell
Stock Adobe
People carrying donation and charity related icons

In March of 2020 there were some significant changes during the onset of the pandemic for the nonprofit world in Wisconsin. Almost a third of the nonprofit workforce was dropped right out of the gate, mainly part-time and volunteer workforces, due to social distancing constraints.

While there wasn’t a significant drop in full-time employees, many smaller and rural nonprofits that volunteers drive by a substantial degree were hit particularly hard by the pandemic. In fact, 5% of Wisconsin’s nonprofits had to shutter their doors according to a recent, ongoing study by UW-Milwaukee that looks at the COVID-19 effect on Wisconsin’s nonprofit sector.

Bryce Lord is the associate director of the Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he says the philanthropic sector has stepped up in terms of aid, additional assistance, and having conversations with nonprofit leaders. As a result, he's hopeful that Wisconsin may see an easing of program-focused funding restrictions.

"We've added an awareness to the nonprofit sector in Wisconsin and how it connects to our lives, that it isn't just charity work, but an increasingly professionalized aspect of our society that isn't going away anytime soon," Lord explains.

He notes most organizations had a great year, despite the pandemic. Still, there were challenges that organizations faced — mainly in service delivery. 60% of organizations had to pause or suspend their services at the beginning of the pandemic, while 70% of organizations had to transfer their service to a virtual format overall according to Lord.

"In some ways, there's some really useful things that have come out of this, it'll be interesting to see who maintains it, who keeps it up, and whether it's right for the particular service that that nonprofit is providing, or is it better to go back to a face to face for now," says Lord.

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Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
"The COVID-19 Effect on Wisconsin's Nonprofit Sector" is an ongoing study of how nonprofit and community organizations throughout Wisconsin were impacted by COVID-19. Data from surveys in spring and summer of 2020 studies trends from an increasing lack of accessibility to communities organizations serve to organizations' financial path.

Another aspect that stood out in the study is that organizations are looking for help communicating their needs to the wider community. Lord believes that the nonprofit sector is as at a crossroads.

"I think the sector is going to become an increasing part of our overall day-to-day existence. So, helping the broader public understand that this is there, and these nonprofits are actually touching people's lives in ways that they may not even realize right now. Even more so making sure that they understand that this is a thriving, professionalized workforce," says Lord.

Even though donations are a big part of how nonprofits make money, Lord says the most considerable income revenue for organizations comes from service fees. Lord says there's been an increase in donations signifying an improvement out of need rather than an improvement out of struggle.

"Giving trends overall, in the last two years, they have increased. We see a lot of response from community foundations that are redirecting funding in order to provide that additional relief and additional assistance," he notes.

Lord says that he sees organizations providing things like virtual experiences becoming more common, but still stresses having human interaction if nonprofits are to survive.

"There has been an opening and improvement of awareness. We'll call it marketing, advocacy for the sector as a whole. I would hope it would continue all over the state, not just with urban nonprofits, but with rural [nonprofits as well], especially in communities that may have a great need but very few resources," he says.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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