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Editorial: Find more ways to help South Carolina's struggling nonprofits

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Robert Ellington, with the nonprofit HALOS, drops off diapers to a family in need in May in North Charleston. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

They are vital parts of our communities, providing us with our distinctive arts scenes and cultural places, support for our schools and students, a better appreciation of our natural environment, improved health and too many other basic needs and public benefits to try to list here. They are South Carolina’s nonprofits.

And they are hurting like never before.

The depth of that hurt was revealed last week by the Riley Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston. Working with six umbrella nonprofit groups, the center surveyed 2,954 nonprofit groups this month. It received responses from 566, including 90 from Charleston County and 12 and three from Dorchester and Berkeley counties, respectively. Those responding ranged from tiny groups that spend less than $50,000 a year to well-known nonprofits with budgets of more than $1 million.

Almost two-thirds indicated they won’t be able to survive another six months without more help, and 1 in 5 already have furloughed staff. Even considering that nonprofits were more likely to respond to the survey if they wanted to get a message out, those are still alarming numbers. As the survey’s leader Robert Kahle put it: “They’re worried. ... This has been one of the most difficult studies I’ve done in terms of trying to understand the depth of despair and the depth of anxiety.”

Of course, the nonprofit sector is not monolithic. Those focusing on basic needs, such as food pantries and homeless shelters, have seen increased needs but also increased giving. Arts and culture have really suffered the most, mainly because of lost admission or ticket sales. Meanwhile, 63% of nonprofits say they rely on one source for more than 40% of their income, so those who benefit greatly from annual galas or other fundraising events have been hurt.

There are two issues. First is whether vital nonprofits such as food banks, health providers and others meeting basic human needs will continue to receive the necessary support to keep pace with growing demand. The second, equally challenging question is whether these institutions and others such as children’s museums, zoos and aquariums and theater groups will have the operational support to survive. Imagine how hard it might be to revive them once the pandemic ends.

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So we’re pleased to see that South Carolina lawmakers appear poised to spend up to $25 million from the state’s federal CARES Act funds to invest in nonprofits. A legislative conference committee is expected to hammer out the details this week, and we hope the result will include support for nonprofits to sustain themselves as well as to keep providing their services. As for the state panel distributing the relief, it should include voices from the nonprofit sector and have flexibility to adapt quickly if more federal aid comes through.

We also urge Congress to find some middle ground and provide more help with a renewed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and further Paycheck Protection Program help for nonprofits. Expanding the above-the-line charitable deductions, now $300, also would help.

Those fortunate enough to still have a job, and that includes most of us, should consider how we can help. Many of us actually are saving money because we’re working from home more, driving less, eating out less and the like. We’re also anxious about the future, but we should consider how we can assist those nonprofits we think do the most good and make our community one we’re proud to call home.

Katy Pugh Smith of the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy notes South Carolina’s residents are generous, but the state isn’t as wealthy as many, particularly in terms of philanthropic assets per capita. “This is just a once-in-a-generation kind of pandemic were facing,” she says. “Philanthropy will help, but this is bigger than the burden philanthropy alone can handle.”

While nonprofits have been hit hard, the survey also showed their resiliency. More than half found at least some silver lining, such as pioneering ways to advance their missions online or realizing they can succeed with less costly office space. “These folks who run these nonprofits aren’t just rolling over saying, ‘Woe is me,’” Mr. Kahle says.

They are trying, against ever more difficult odds, and we should try to help them however we can.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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