A charitable heart (Credit: Shutterstock)

With COVID-19 and the global pandemic, the needs in our communities have risen to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

The speed and severity of the decline are unprecedented, creating tremendous need at a time when social distancing has made it even more challenging for organizations to respond.

While some non-profits have found creative ways to meet the challenge, there is still a large gap that must be filled given the tremendous need of those in our communities who have fallen through the cracks of government aid programs designed to help in the current crisis.

I have had numerous conversations with advisors and other industry leaders about the far-reaching impact of COVID-19. Challenging times often bring out the best in people and I have been encouraged by the efforts to help those in need as a result of this pandemic.

In my role as board chair of a local non-profit, I’ve also asked for input from CEOs of other charities to get their perspectives regarding the most important needs today, given their experience on the front lines during this pandemic.

Below is a summary of this input, and how you can make a difference in your local community.

1. Food Banks Need Volunteers (No Just Money)

This is really the “perfect storm” for your local food pantry. With so many people out of work, the need is exploding.

The St. Petersburg Free Clinic is a great example. We have three primary missions: food, health care and housing. The food program includes a Food Bank (we distributed over 11 million pounds of food last year), a Food Pantry — which we call We Help, along with Pack-A-Sack, which is a program that delivers food to kids at participating schools.

At our Food Pantry, we typically serve 200 families per day. Last Thursday, we served 745. During the first two weeks of April, more than 1000 new families visited our facility.

Most were comfortably employed and supporting their families just a few short weeks ago. Suddenly, they find themselves visiting a food pantry.

I’m reminded of why our core mission is to serve others with “compassion and respect,” for how we treat them has long standing implications for their sense of value and self-confidence. These are staggering statistics and highlight the tremendous need resulting from this pandemic.

Unfortunately, as the need is expanding there is another shift that has occurred that is impacting supply.  A significant portion (about 25% in our case) of the supply for Food Banks comes from the “excess” food from grocery stores.

If you’ve been grocery shopping during the past few weeks, you’ve likely noticed the “food hoarding” that has emptied shelves at stores across the country. (It’s also why consumer staples are performing so well, but that’s another story).

This has been devastating for food banks, as this supply evaporated overnight. As a result, many food banks are now purchasing food, resulting in a significant increase in costs to meet the expanded needs in our communities.

In addition, Food Banks, like most non-profits, rely heavily on retirees as volunteers. While we all know this intuitively, we were still a bit surprised to find that 83% of our volunteers are over age 65.

Given the implications of COVID-19 for this segment of the population, we asked our older volunteers to stay home, to protect themselves and each other. This has created a tremendous need and is a great opportunity if you’re looking for a way to help.

You also can get your college age kids involved. They suddenly find themselves at home with extra time on their hands and many would enjoy having something really meaningful to do during the current crisis.

2. Homeless Shelters, Other Places Need Help 

While this need also is expanding, social distancing, along with the importance of being prepared for potential outbreaks, has resulted in many shelters and housing programs limiting the number of residents.

We have done this in each of our residential programs (we operate three housing programs, one each for women, men and families) as a precaution to protect current residents.

Shelters have been setting up large temporary facilities, spaced out to provide social distancing, to help control the spread within the homeless population. There is certainly an opportunity to help provide for the financial needs, though volunteer opportunities are limited given social distancing guidelines.

3. Programs Focused on Domestic Violence 

For many families, reduced travel schedules, closed schools, and working remotely have provided an opportunity to spend quality time together in ways that weren’t possible given their busy schedules just a few short weeks ago.

Unfortunately, this extra time has a dark side for some families. The stress created by the pandemic and the personal and financial implications also result in an increase in abuse.

When this happens, the impact is felt by the entire family, with the kids often paying a particularly high price. The trauma that comes with abuse can last a lifetime.

Providing those impacted with housing, therapy and financial support is a key component to stopping the cycle of abuse. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence is a great resource and can direct you to local organization where you can help.

United Way is also a great resource as they are connected to many organizations throughout the communities they serve. One area that may be worth exploring is the “ALICE” population, which refers to those who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

This is a group that lives right on the edge of poverty, often one paycheck away from food insecurity or even becoming homeless.

While many sources, including foundations, grants, the CARES Act, and the many generous individual gifts, have provided an important bridge that will allow our organization and others to meet the short-term demand, more will likely be required given the implications for so many families.

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Bill Van Law has been a financial services professional for more than 25 years and is CEO and founder of WVL Group, consulting to C-Suite executives to help them refine business strategy, accelerate growth and build organizational capability. Prior to launching WVL Group, he served as president of the Investment Advisors Division of Raymond James Financial.