Long Beach Community Foundation President and CEO Marcelle Epley discusses the challenges nonprofit organizations have faced since the onset of the pandemic, why the holidays see a surge in giving, what issues are most important as Christmas approaches and best practices for making donations.
The interview has been edited for space considerations.
BRANDON RICHARDSON: The past 21 months have been difficult for everyone, and I’m sure nonprofit organizations were not immune. Can you talk about some of the challenges nonprofits have faced since March 2020?
MARCELLE EPLEY: Fundraising for charities has been an issue since the onset of the pandemic. Many of them were successful in looking at different ways to fundraise, many of them were successful in receiving the federal Payroll Protection Plan stimulus funds, and others had a very good database of existing donors they could reach out to for support. Others weren’t as successful and had to close programs or eliminate or reduce staffing levels. I think the larger organizations … figured out how they could survive under the circumstances and provide services and gain funding. But there are some that had to significantly downsize.
BR: Of course, nonprofits always are facing an uphill battle. What are other challenges nonprofits face?
ME: Even [before] March 2020, the No. 1 issue that charities face consistently is funds for basic operations. When charities are applying for grant funding, even from us, it’s challenging for them to fund their basic administration. The grants they apply for are to provide programming. But underneath the programs are the administrative costs that go into running the organization. And those dollars are very hard to find. If someone … knew the organization they wanted to give to, but weren’t sure how or what to give, I would encourage them to give to general operations.
In the last two years, there’s been a large shift in leadership. It seems to come in waves—every five-to-10 years, there seems to be a long-term executive director that leaves an organization, and then we hear that four or five or six or seven more executive directors leave. That provides a challenge for charities because then they’ve lost institutional knowledge. And one challenge that all charities—and many for-profit organizations even—have is succession planning. For many of the smaller charities, sharing knowledge and information, having staff to cover all the bases, can be extremely challenging, so that when an individual leaves an organization in a key position, it takes a while for that charity to get back online and fully functioning.
BR: Shifting to the holiday season: Why are the holidays such a popular time for giving, and what are some of the best ways people can go about doing it?
ME: The holidays really pull the heartstrings of individuals that have means to give because there’s an understanding that there are people that don’t have as much during a time of giving. While it feels good to be the recipient of a gift, it also feels very good … to give that gift. I believe that the spirit of giving is popular during the holidays, because it’s a time when people reflect on what’s important to them. They reflect on the value of friendship and family. They reflect on the value of making things better around them. We even see people that have very little giving to charity themselves because they know that someone else has it worse than them.
I would recommend that if an individual knows the charities they want to give to, to contact them and find out what’s needed. We saw during the pandemic, a massive surge of donated items and for some of the charities, there was no home for those items. That creates a burden, an additional task on that charity to find a home for those items. Many charities will even publish on their website specific items that they’re looking for. So we recommend checking with specific charities before you drop off a donation. And, of course, cash is king and in many cases is the best gift. That way the charity has the flexibility to either purchase what they need or cover their operations.
If an individual doesn’t know which charity to contribute to, there are two really great resources on our website: One is if people were to go to longbeachcf.org and click on the donate button, there are about 60 or 70 charitable funds … we work closely with that are doing outstanding work in the community. It’s a great lead list for somebody looking to shop to make a charitable donation. These are vetted organizations by the Community Foundation. The other resource: We made approximately $1.3 million worth of donations to about 90 charities that serve Long Beach during the coronavirus pandemic and those are listed on our website … with their contact information.
BR: What issues are most important during the holiday season, and what are some organizations that focus on those areas?
ME: If you were to ask me what the most important issues are in the Long Beach community that an individual can specifically support during the holidays, it would be around two subjects: homelessness … and mental health in youth. For people suffering from homelessness, there are several organizations that come to mind. The first is the hub of all activity as it relates to the Health and Human Services Department in conjunction with several other charities in the city that really help people suffering from homelessness, and that is the Multi-Service Center. The charities that come to mind that are not only helping people suffering from homelessness, but also helping people from becoming homeless in the first place—catching them before they fall—are Urban Community Outreach, Long Beach Community Table and Mental Health America of Los Angeles.
For mental health, there’s the JCFS—the Jewish Children Family Services, but they go by JCFS because they serve more than just Jewish families. There’s also the Guidance Center that works with families and mental health in youth. Those are two of the top organizations that come to mind.
BR: Why is mental health in youth so important, especially this time of year?
ME: We hear that it is a serious problem all year round, but with the schools being out, parents and youth might have more time to be receiving services and also amongst the teenage population, they have more time to think and perhaps act on the traumatic effects of the coronavirus—depression, anxiety. We’re not out of the pandemic yet. That’s a population that, especially during the holidays, needs to be cared for.
BR: There are so many nonprofits in Long Beach and the region that many probably take for granted. Why is the presence of nonprofits in communities like Long Beach so important?
ME: It’s important to have charities large and small … because, quite frankly, there is a lot of need in Long Beach. We are one of the most diverse cities in the nation, not just for what we look like but also for our access to resources, our income levels, our education levels, and there are areas of Long Beach and people in Long Beach that need a lot of help with their rent, with their schooling, to make a better life for themselves. And equally, there are a lot of people in Long Beach that want to help and want a vehicle to be able to help individuals. And there is a gap. There is a very large gap between what government can provide and what people need to live a sustainable life.
The Long Beach Community Foundation is celebrating its 25th year. Epley has served as president and CEO of the organization for the last seven years. For tax purposes, Epley recommends those wanting to donate in 2021 do so as soon as possible. For more information, visit longbeachcf.org.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct name for Mental Health America of Los Angeles.