Neighborhoods across the country are struggling to keep up with demand for critical services. While the common response to this problem is to throw money at them (for the lucky nonprofits) or to do nothing (for the rest of them), we should instead think of nonprofits as infrastructure, and treat them accordingly.Through my work with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), I believe acknowledging that nonprofits and CBOs are infrastructure is a necessary first step to broadly improving their physical assets. Funding physical improvements to real property will allow these organizations to continue serving our communities well beyond the near-term demands of a pandemic recovery.
It may seem unusual to think of nonprofits as infrastructure, but without their buildings, rooms, spaces, and places, where would we have access to life saving healthcare services, watch a play, learn about our neighborhood or city history, drop off our kids for their after-school programs, or safely and sustainably store thousands of pounds of healthy food from regional farmers to distribute to underserved urban communities?
Catholic Charities Community Services (CCCS) knew how important their South Bronx food pantry was in normal times, but during the COVID-19 Pandemic, that importance rose to new levels. Their current food pantry is a less-than 6,000 square-foot space and has not had a comprehensive renovation or uplift since their pantry program started nearly 20 years ago. Yet in that relatively small space, they managed to distribute 84,000 food pantry bags in the past year to food-insecure households, parishes, CBOs, and public schools, totaling more than 1 million meals. But unfortunately, CCCS was forced to reject many donations because they did not have the space to properly house them, including a lot of perishable goods such as fruits and vegetables. In addition, their parking lot is not fully paved, making it ill-suited to frequent bulk deliveries of food. This often means trucks with larger deliveries are unable to drive in and drop off bulk donations, significantly decreasing the number of bulk donations received by CCCS.
Simple infrastructure upgrades like reconfiguring their space, improved mechanical systems to store perishable goods, and a properly paved parking lot would markedly increase CCCS’ ability to accept more goods and provide healthier options for the community.
Although CCCS has the programming and qualified staff in place, their infrastructure prevented them from meeting the demand in the community. Adequate investment in the organization’s programming and staffing is of course critical. However, it is the investment in upgrading their space that will allow their capacity to reach its full potential.
The City of New York developed the City Capital funding program for nonprofits like CCCS. Nonprofits apply for city funding from their council member(s) or borough president. In recognition of the public benefits derived from the irreplaceable and essential work of nonprofits, funding from this program is intended to help them improve their owned physical assets or to acquire property. The Office of Management and Budget vets all applications and assigns approved projects to NYCEDC or the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) for management and assisting nonprofits through the city funding process. At NYCEDC, we currently manage more than 100 projects, representing $1 billion of city investment into nonprofit infrastructure projects that have a public benefit.
Over the past 10 years, this program has shown how targeted government investment into nonprofit infrastructure benefits communities for generations. President Biden’s plan can build off this model by establishing a financial partnership with local governments. Partnering with local governments to advance private projects with a public benefit would help ensure that the most impoverished neighborhoods can access quality social, healthcare and cultural assets.
President Biden’s new $2 trillion dollar infrastructure plan reflects what we have been doing in New York: investing in nonprofits and their physical assets to increase job opportunities and catalyze community development. The plan supports nonprofits with $7.6 billion for community health centers and $135 million each to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This funding will be distributed as grants to cultural nonprofits. While Republicans have criticized the plan as diluting the definition of infrastructure, the reality is nonprofit infrastructure has been relied upon for decades to support people and societies to the same degree we rely upon roads for transportation. These organizations are anchors and connectors within their communities, offering social, cultural, and healthcare services and jobs. Supporting these organizations with public resources is vital to their success and to the broader recovery of the communities they serve.
Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC), on Staten Island, is familiar with this role. RUMC’s emergency room was originally designed to handle around 30,000 patients. However, a confluence of changes such as an increasing population and changing demographics over the past 25 years has pushed that number to 65,000 patients annually.
During the pandemic, RUMC converted its lobby and parking lot into makeshift emergency rooms in order to handle the influx of COVID positive cases. Its already-undersized emergency room felt much smaller as cases rose exponentially in Staten Island, at one point having over 1,000 positive cases on the island.
Outside of any natural disaster event or pandemic, the emergency room is overcrowded on any given day with staff, patients, guests or equipment, with only one restroom for the entire area.
RUMC’s problem is an endemic example of the infrastructure needs for nonprofits. RUMC’s emergency room expansion project, managed by NYCEDC, will double the size of the existing facility, creating over 40 private treatment rooms, trauma bays, and improved ambulance access all within flood- and storm-resistant architecture. This new space will give their staff more space to work and consult with patients, while providing patients and guests with more privacy during their visit.
Infrastructure is the physical embodiment of how our communities are knit together, and by virtue, our cities, states, and country. The CCCS and RUMC projects demonstrate the ripple effect that can be created when the government invests in nonprofit and community infrastructure. As cities continue to battle fiscal uncertainty, a financial partnership between local governments and the federal government can position communities to thrive following the pandemic recovery. The federal government must use this opportunity to partner with local governments and lay the groundwork for an inclusive recovery that benefits generations to come.
Priya is an Assistant Vice President and Chief of Staff for the Funding Agreements Department at NYCEDC. She specializes in implementing projects that require managing multiple stakeholders, coordinating different types of funding and leveraging in-depth knowledge of city policy in support of nonprofit clients pursuing important neighborhood development projects.