Nonprofit Lessons Learned from the Longest Ever Government Shutdown (So Far)

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The longest government shutdown in the nation’s history officially ended on January 25, 2019. During the 35-day partial shutdown, approximately 420,000 federal workers worked without pay, and another 380,000 were furloughed (TIME, 2019).

Government shutdowns can have heavy impacts for many nonprofit organizations that often work to fill gaps left by suspended federal services.

Many human services organizations see a spike in demand for necessities, such as food and shelter, while simultaneously struggling with a lack of government funding. Other nonprofits, such as environmental and disaster relief organizations, see a less immediate impact.

Rather, they face greater difficulty later in the year when the delays in preparations for disaster season result in a heavier burden on the nonprofit sector. While we are still working to understand the different impacts that the shutdown has had and will have on nonprofits, we do recognize that events like this distribute impact unevenly across the sector.

Nonprofits collectively receive about a third of their revenue from government service fees, contracts, and grants (Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2018). With another potential shutdown looming, we spoke with four nonprofit leaders about some of the biggest lessons learned in the recent shutdown and how they’re preparing for potential future shutdowns:

Dealing with a shutdown means all hands on deck.

As your organization is developing plans and preparing for potential future events, know it will be a full-team effort, and make sure you take into account how it will impact other projects and staff morale.

For many nonprofit organizations, the recent government shutdown was a lesson in what is possible.

“We always knew that the Feed More team could rise to the occasion and do near anything, but this was a bit more,” said Richard Gliot, Chief Operating Officer at Feed More. “It was an interdisciplinary process, so there wasn’t a department in the organization that wasn’t a part of what we did.”

This sentiment was echoed by Emily Douce, Director of Budget and Appropriations, Government Affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), who said, “[Shutdowns] bring in a lot of our resources…it’s really an all hands on deck task.” This team effort, while valuable for accomplishing necessary tasks, can stall other activities.

She continued, “While we planned for things like this, we never planned for something this long, and a lot of our work has been put on hold. We’re working ridiculous hours because we’re trying to do two jobs, and we’re a bit overwhelmed with all of it.”

That was one of the biggest lessons learned by Hopelink. “Don’t underestimate the impact on staff,” explained Jeni Craswell, the organization’s Vice President of Advancement and External Relations. Not only do staff often experience a higher workload, but the emotional stress of trying to meet the increased need can also be taxing.

“I think one of the biggest impacts on our organization was the concern and anxiety of staff. Even though they weren’t personally experiencing it, they fear for the people in our community,” Craswell continued. “We made sure to communicate with staff about both what we’re doing and what we will do if needed, and we offered resources to staff if they found themselves in an anxious place.

Take the opportunity to invest in your community.

When the community reaches out, make sure you are gathering information, so you can begin to cultivate relationships with these prospects following the shutdown.

While you may not need support immediately, these individuals have expressed interest in your cause and educating these eager volunteers and donors about the work your nonprofit does year-round can have long-term benefits for your organization.

All leaders who we spoke to expressed great appreciation for the overwhelming level of community support:

Government-Shutdown-Callout1“We heard from very few people in our community who were actually impacted or reached out—much more concern from our donors about the potential need. There was a huge response from our donors about what we need to do and what they can do to help.” –Jeni Craswell, Hopelink

“One of the first things that happened, there was a great response from the community in general. People really wanted to do food drives and provide support for the furloughed federal workers… They were contacting us to provide support…” –Richard Gliot, Feed More

“There have been a lot of people that have been doing outreach to us on a person-by-person and an organization level asking, ‘What can we do to help?’” –Emily Douce, NPCA

“Gleaners has received several gifts specifically to help the furloughed work distributions.” –Cecile Aitchison, Gleaners Community Food Bank

Following the shutdown, these organizations are now working to transform this community interest to regular support. Jeni Craswell described how Hopelink is following up with those who reached out to thank them and try to redirect their support to the people who experience food insecurity every day, not just during a shutdown.

Shape the conversation.

Increased coverage and name recognition can be very beneficial for your nonprofit, but exposure is most beneficial when you control the conversation—sharing the most relevant and important information with the community to generate long-term support.

While we would rather avoid crises like a government shutdown, they can be an opportunity to increase name recognition throughout your community. For both Feed More and NPCA, the government shutdown meant increased media coverage as the organizations became go-to sources for information.

However, with increased exposure, it’s important that nonprofits maintain control of the conversation.

NPCA’s shutdown plans largely revolve around ensuring they are the ones shaping the message about the impact of the shutdown on National Parks. By doing their own research and staying connected with communities, NPCA ensures that the story that gets out is one that they have worked to carefully curate.

Feed More’s Marketing and Communications team also worked to ensure they were presenting a consistent message to the media and worked closely with partners to understand how food banks were handling increased demand.

Strong partnerships make all the difference.

If your nonprofit needs additional funding, consider contacting local community foundations that can offer emergency funds.

Remember: partnerships can do more than just help fund your organization. Partnerships are valuable for gathering information, implementing programs, and ensuring the supply chain doesn’t get interrupted. Work with your partners in advance of a shutdown to develop plans and maintain positive relationships.

Government-Shutdown-Callout2Community members weren’t the only ones who stepped up during the shutdown. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that organizations like United Way, JPMorgan Chase, Feeding America, and several other community foundations provided emergency grants to support struggling nonprofits.

Gleaners Community Food Bank was able to implement a new program for unpaid federal employees by coordinating with the United Way and nine other partner agencies, according to its Vice President of Development Cecile Aitchison.

But partnerships go beyond money. Feed More’s partnerships with suppliers ensured they had enough food to meet the increased demand, and strong relationships with network food banks guaranteed they were able to get food to clients quickly to meet the needs of the community.

NPCA used its relationships with people in the communities around National Parks to gather personal stories and ensure they were receiving up-to-date information about the impacts of the shutdown.

Think about the big picture.

Thinking about the “big picture” looks different for each organization, but when you’re making plans to manage potential crises, it’s important to ensure you are addressing the different factors that impact your ability to provide services.

For NPCA, the big picture is about doing research. The NPCA shutdown “playbook” provides a plan for how to quickly gather information that would be of interest to the media.

It walks through different types of information needed—ensuring nothing is left out. In addition to talking to parks directors, staff talk to the communities surrounding parks to understand human impact.

NPCA makes sure their messaging goes beyond trash in the parks to include impacts on tourism, stalls in hiring, and more. If they didn’t think about the “big picture” of the shutdown, they would likely miss some of the short- and long-term impacts of the shutdown on parks.

Hopelink thinks about the big picture by making sure they address the logistics of how to provide services to furloughed workers. They think through each service line to determine what they currently offer that could support government workers, how to qualify workers for service, and what services can be provided even when workers do not qualify.

By addressing the nuances of qualification, Hopelink was able to create plans for addressing needs in many different types of situations.

Gleaners approached the “big picture” by building a timeline of how impact would likely progress. This timeline allowed them to educate the community on what they would need at different phases in the shutdown and ensure they use resources efficiently. By focusing on how impact would shift over time, they were able to address needs as they arose.

This shutdown demonstrated the importance of understanding the big picture and recognizing the many ways systems intersect to ensure that services can be provided in times of need. Furthermore, it illuminated previously unidentified gaps in planning for many organizations.

Feed More had plans in place to deal with natural disasters, but they did not have any solidified plans for managing a government shutdown since there had never been a shutdown of this magnitude.

This shutdown encouraged Feed More to consider the bigger picture and ask: “What else could happen?” To ensure Feed More is prepared for the future, they are learning from this shutdown.

According to Richard Gliot, this means “looking at all of the different channels for how food is provided and thinking about what would happen if any of those get disrupted.” For Feed More, the “big picture” is about making sure they are prepared for any possible situation that may increase need in their community.

Organizations interviewed:

Feed More

Richard Gliot, Chief Operating Officer

Feed More (Richmond, VA) collects, prepares and distributes food to neighbors in need throughout Central Virginia. With a service area that stretches across 34 counties and cities, Feed More’s comprehensive programs and network of nearly 300 agencies helps ensure communities have access to healthy meals year round.

National Parks Conservation Association

Emily Douce, Director of Budget and Appropriations, Government Affairs

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA; Washington, DC) is the independent, nonpartisan voice of America’s national parks. NPCA celebrates the parks and works tirelessly to defend them, whether on the ground, in the courtroom, or on Capitol Hill.


Jeni Craswell, Vice President of Advancement and External Relations

Hopelink (Redmond, WA) serves homeless and low-income families, children, seniors, and people with disabilities in King and Snohomish counties in Washington State. They provide stability and help people gain the skills and knowledge they need to exit poverty for good.

Hopelink’s programs include housing, transportation, family development, financial assistance, employment programs, adult education, financial literacy training, and food banks.

Gleaners Community Food Bank

Cecile Aitchison, Vice President of Development

Gleaners Community Food Bank (GCFB; Detroit, MI) is a member of the Feeding America network and works with member agencies to fight hunger in southeastern Michigan. As a food distributor, Gleaners is committed to providing agencies with nutritional, high quality food.

Gleaners also has education and advocacy programs to help reduce reliance on the emergency food systems.