Key Insights from Social Service Providers about How They’ve Adapted during the Pandemic
Written by Meagan Benetti, MS MBA – Root Cause Intern
For the past year, communities across the U.S. have been experiencing trauma and grief with the tragic loss of loved ones, the undue strain on our healthcare systems, and other hardships faced by so many as a result of Covid-19 and the fragmented and insufficient national response. The pandemic has magnified the persistent racial and economic disparities that exist in the U.S., particularly among Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. This past year also brought about a reckoning with the racial injustices that are endemic in our systems and institutions. With these challenges, many businesses and social service agencies have been forced to make significant shifts in how they operate, with many having to downsize or close their doors.
Given these circumstances, Root Cause wanted to better understand how social service providers have dealt with these challenges. Our goal was to learn about how organizations have adapted to support their staff and better serve their communities during the pandemic. We were also curious about how organizations were making decisions, the impact of those decisions, and what support organizations need moving forward. In late 2020, we spoke with 11 direct-service organizations across the U.S. about their experiences. Here’s a glimpse of what we’ve learned:
1. Flexible funding has been critical to enable service providers to adapt and respond to the needs of their communities.
Whether it was used to provide core services or to add other program components to meet their clients’ changing needs, flexible funding has been essential.
- For example, one organization was able to shift service provision to phone calls rather than in-person assistance while still meeting funding requirements. Because of this program adaptation, staff have been able to maintain consistent enrollment; which has, in turn, stabilized funding that is dependent on numbers served.
- Another organization, with the support of flexible funders, was able to broaden its reach to provide a free remote-learning workshop series for teachers, rather than limit participation to just the schools that were part of the original grant funding.
Both of these critical changes were possible because the funders approved a more flexible use of their funding. Flexibility was an essential ingredient for providing needed services, and funding mechanisms should enable responsiveness to community needs.
2. Organizations that have continuous learning and improvement practices are more agile and better able to adapt their programming.
Organizations that were already in the practice of soliciting feedback from staff and clients used their continuous learning practices to understand needs, assess satisfaction with and openness to changed practices, and then further refine changes.
- One organization asked the families they serve about their willingness to use, and their comfort with, telehealth. They received a mix of responses that allowed the organization to tailor the communication methods they used to meet the respective preferences of their families, rather than assuming that one method would work well enough for everyone.
- Another program that regularly surveys participants found that the majority of their participants preferred having access to both in-person and online support programs. As a direct result of this feedback, the organization has continued to use this hybrid approach even as pandemic restrictions have been lifted, rather than simply returning to the in-person modality.
In other words, continuous learning and improvement practices not only support organizational adaptation and resilience to better serve people during the pandemic; they also generate improvements that are beneficial even as pandemic conditions improve.
3. The digital divide is painstakingly clear – and even access to technology doesn’t ensure participation in services.
A common finding from our interviews is that there are significant disparities in access to reliable internet, technology, and quiet places to work from home, especially for students served by school-based nonprofit organizations. It has impacted students’ abilities to be in school, prepare for college and careers, and participate in summer jobs. Even students who have a quiet place to work have family members who are also trying to work from home or attend virtual school, making internet connections less reliable. For example, one organization had access to a telehealth tool that their county was piloting. However, they found that their clients did not have the necessary technology and/or bandwidth at home to use it and preferred phone calls instead.
On the other hand, students who do have access, or who have had their access increase due to the support of these organizations, are increasingly growing more fatigued with virtual school, supports, and services. Organizations shared that some students were not engaging in school; and therefore, were not engaging with the school-based nonprofit program or were opting out of extra activities offered by the programs. There is concern for these students, as they were identified as having the highest needs even prior to the pandemic, that if they aren’t getting the support they need now, they will fall away from a higher education path. The students and staff we have spoken with tell us that while technology has enabled many services to continue, the inequitable access, fatigue, and increasing disengagement translate into huge gaps in learning and service participation – the long-term impact of which is still unknown.
These are just a few of the insights we’ve gained from the organizations that we’ve spoken to. If you’d like to learn more about their pandemic experiences and lessons learned, you can check out the full report here.