9 min read

Kristin Adderson
December 28, 2020 – 9:59pm

December 27, 2020

Addressing a global pandemic and economic crisis while also driving for change in other areas—from racial inequity to equitable education to hunger—is a monumental challenge. We are lucky to have amazing nonprofit partners tackling these issues. We took a moment to check-in with some to hear how the year has shaped—and reshaped—their approach to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. 

Driving for racial equity and justice amid the pandemic: PolicyLink

“2020 was tragic and heart-opening for racial equity,” says Josh Kirschenbaum, Chief Operating Officer of the racial equity research and action institute PolicyLink. COVID-19 exposed racial disparities in health and access to care, and the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed showed how far the country has to go to address them. “We have to step into this opening and move into an era of reckoning and acceleration around equity and justice that we’ve never seen before,” he says.

Over the past year, PolicyLink helped drive the conversation around the need for equity-based solutions to COVID-19 with a comprehensive plan and set of policy priorities for pandemic response. They also released a weekly publication called COVID, Race, and the Revolution. “It’s critical to connect our data and policy proposals with narrative and communications,” Kirschenbaum says. 

PolicyLink has also worked to draw attention to the broader racial inequity crisis in the U.S. This summer, they released their Racial Equity Index, a data tool to measure the state of equity in the largest 100 metros across the U.S. They also released a report outlining racial disparities in the workforce during the pandemic and were a founding partner in WeMustCount.org, an effort to push for COVID-19 data disaggregated by race.

In 2021, PolicyLink wants to transform the energy and data around racial disparities in the U.S. into structural change. “We are no longer at the level of just doing project-based work,” Kirschenbaum says. “This is the time to lead with transformative solidary, focus on equity, and really redesign the nation.”

Combatting increasing hunger: Feeding America and World Food Programme

Image credit: Feeding America

COVID-19 is a multi-level crisis. Our partners at Feeding America and the World Food Programme have seen firsthand how the pandemic has affected hunger in the U.S. and the world—and they’re working to respond to it. 

“There’s been a perfect storm of increased demand, declines in donations of food, and disruptions to the charitable food assistance system’s operating model,” says Christine Feiner, Feeding America’s director of corporate partnerships. The organization estimates that progress made against food insecurity in the U.S.—which before was at the lowest it had been in 20 years—will be wiped out due to COVID-19. Over the last year, Feeding America saw demand increase 60% across its network of 200 food banks.

Feeding America has relied on data to guide the organization through the pandemic. They launched a survey to understand demand and challenges across their member food banks. “That allowed us to have a real-time view into what food banks were seeing on the ground so we could property support them and connect them to additional resources,” Feiner says. Feeding America has also used this data to push for policy change at the federal level to help people at risk of hunger—work they plan to continue next year. 

The United Nations World Food Programme—which became a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate this year—has been contending with increased need globally. “Roughly a quarter of a billion people—especially the already poor—are expected to have experienced food insecurity this year, largely driven by the loss of jobs, remittances, and purchasing power. Already poor and food insecure populations are disproportionately affected,” says Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, the digital transformation services chief at WFP. 

With the pandemic limiting WFP’s ability to work directly in communities and deliver aid, they’ve been able to use data and technology to reach people in need. In Tableau, they built a shipping and logistics platform for the entire humanitarian sector to manage and track aid deliveries in real-time. And they’ve been able to analyze data from technologies like text messaging and chatbots to get a picture of needs on the ground and ensure they’re responding most helpfully and efficiently. 

Next year, WFP will continue to focus on delivering aid in communities while pushing for policy change, Wielezynski says. “Our presence in over 80 countries gives us a unique position to help advise our government partners on solutions to hunger and food insecurity,” he says. 

Keeping the spotlight on homelessness: Community Solutions

Image credit: Community Solutions

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the spotlight has been on frontline workers: healthcare professionals, post office workers, grocery store clerks. “What a lot of people didn’t really recognize initially was that homeless service providers are also on the frontline of protecting a population that is especially vulnerable to COVID-19,” says Anna Kim, communications lead for Community Solutions

Communities and agencies that work with Community Solutions through their Built for Zero initiative—a data-driven program to bring about a functional end to homelessness—had to expand from the already-steep task of doing homeless response work to emergency pandemic response. “They needed to figure out how to get masks and PPE, and how to make shelters safe,” Kim says. But communities that have already been collecting detailed, person-specific data on their homeless population through Built for Zero found that same data to be critical in responding to COVID-19. Communities like Jacksonville, Florida, were able to use their by-name list of people experiencing homelessness to conduct wide-spread testing and keep people safe. 

Throughout the pandemic, Community Solutions has elevated the importance of addressing homelessness as both a public health and racial equity imperative. “The raised public consciousness around racial equity after the murder of George Floyd has also heightened the importance of understanding how homelessness has always disproportionately impacted Black and Native populations,” Kim says. “We’ve been able to raise awareness of the need to invest even further in addressing these disparities and ending homelessness.”

Community Solutions was recently named a finalist in the prestigious MacArthur Foundation 100&Change competition for their exceptional work. Next year, they hope to expand partnerships with cities across the U.S. to continue driving for an end to homelessness—even in the face of enormous health and economic challenges.

Addressing growing education equity gaps: Equal Opportunity Schools

As COVID-19 has forced schools to close and learning to go remote, equity divides among students have grown even more pronounced. “We talk about how COVID-19 is exacerbating inequities and pre-existing conditions in health, but it’s also true in education,” says Sasha Rabkin, chief strategy officer for Equal Opportunity Schools, an organization focused on closing equity gaps in education. “And inequity is a pre-existing condition.”

EOS has built data tools for schools and districts to understand inequities and how they play out along racial lines. Through the surveys they conducted twice in 2020, EOS found that over 75% of students say that they are struggling with motivation–particularly with balancing coursework with the desire to have deep conversations about what’s happening globally with COVID, racial injustice, and political movements.

“For educators to be able to hear that is invaluable,” Rabkin says. What’s on the mind of EOS and the educators they work with is how they can more genuinely meet students where they are and construct learning environments that respond to the current moment and bring students along. “Can we start to think about measuring and understanding and engaging with what matters, instead of continuing with the status quo? Schools look a lot like they did 20 years ago. Can we make this a moment to think critically about what we could be doing differently?”

Supporting access to sanitation and hand-washing infrastructure: Splash

A Splash handwashing station (Image credit: Make Beautiful)

As a nonprofit, Splash focuses on providing handwashing, hygiene, and sanitation infrastructure to kids in schools and orphanages in cities throughout the Global South. During the pandemic, says Laura Mapp, Director of Business Development at Splash, their work has become even more essential and complicated.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we engaged in direct COVID relief with our government partners in Ethiopia,” Mapp says. In Addis Ababa, three of the schools where Splash had previously installed hand-washing stations and sanitation infrastructure became quarantine centers, where people who suspected they had the virus could safely quarantine away from their families. Splash also partnered with the Bureau of Health in Addis Ababa to bring their handwashing stations to six hospitals across the city. They’ve been able to install sanitation infrastructure in schools while children are learning remotely.
Students learning from home, Mapp says, spurred Splash to innovate on ways to reach them virtually with messaging about the importance of handwashing and information about menstrual health, especially for girls. “This is helping us forge some new partnerships to enable the delivery of these tools, particularly in India, where mobile and computer usage is more accessible,” Mapp says. For instance, they’re partnering with a platform called Oky, designed by Unicef, that young girls can use to get answers about menstrual health questions.

While the pandemic continues to pose significant challenges in the communities where Splash works, Mapp is hopeful that the increased attention on the need for good sanitation infrastructure and communication around hygiene best practices will help keep people safe through and beyond the pandemic.

Pivoting a successful social enterprise to meet community needs: FareStart

Image Credit: FareStart

As soon as COVID-19 began forcing lockdowns in cities across the U.S., FareStart knew it would have to pivot its operations. The social enterprise manages a handful of restaurants and cafes across Seattle, where people facing barriers to employment—from homelessness to drug-use history—gain training and experience in the workforce. With restaurants shuttering and in-person work discouraged, FareStart’s programs could not continue as normal. 

Almost immediately, FareStart started using its restaurants and kitchens to prepare individual meals to deliver to the most vulnerable. FareStart now is serving over 50,000 individual meals per week, distributed across over 100 sites, says Erika Van Merr, FareStart’s Associate Director of Philanthropy. 

Managing this broad distribution operation and network, Van Merr says, has required more data than FareStart ever used before. They’ve been using external data to understand the COVID-19 situation in their community while inputting data daily to track meals: preparation location, for what organization, and where they were distributed. “We really had to up our data savviness to make decisions about how to operate daily,” Van Merr says. They plan to continue using data to expand their community meals program even after the pandemic is over.

While the organization has launched virtual training programs, it looks forward to bringing back the students in person and reopening its restaurant and cafes. “When people ask what our plans look like for next year, I tell them that we will continue to provide hunger relief for our community’s most vulnerable neighbors,” says Van Merr. 

To learn more about Tableau Foundation and its partners, visit tableau.com/foundation.