Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

Even though it feels and looks like it, it is incorrect to say our economy has been shut down. Cars are still going up and down Highway 101. All the grocery stores are busy. The list of essential services just got a little bigger this week, and somebody is keeping UPS and FedEx busy with all those Amazon and other online orders.

But two big parts of our local economy, indeed, are shut down — and very tightly. Not every restaurant is doing take-out orders or deliveries. Downtown shops, bookstores, galleries, business offices and coffee houses are all closed. We know our entire hospitality and tourism industry is shuttered, but the other big part of our economy that is shut down is our many hundreds of foundational nonprofits.

Sonoma County has 2,900 incorporated nonprofits that fill fundamental roles across all of our communities. In good times, when they are not redirecting their support to restoration efforts after wildfires and floods, these nonprofits are major sources for our arts and culture, affordable housing, environmental protection, health and human services, educational scholarships and workforce development. In 2018, they contributed $2 billion in support of a multitude of programs. These organizations also employ thousands of people.

All of the financial support for our nonprofits comes from local business donations and worker contributions, plus some legacy endowments. Right now, in this stopped-clock world of the COVID-19 pandemic, none of that money is being accrued. And, when our economy begins to open wider and wider, our foundational nonprofits will have to compete for renewed attention with a surge of emergency needs during a period of prolonged economic recession.

The physical evidence of how our most vital nonprofits already have been damaged is all around us. The list of canceled events is also a list of our nonprofits’ loss of major fundraising opportunities. The Volunteer Center’s Human Race, which raised $300,000 for dozens of participating nonprofits last year, is usually held this first week of May. It has been canceled, joining the long list of events such as the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce’s Apple Blossom Festival, Cloverdale Chamber’s annual car show, the Farm Trails’ Gravenstein Fair, Healdsburg’s Future Farmer’s Country Fair, numerous Cinco de Mayo fundraisers and many more.

We know our businesses and general economy will recover eventually, but we also know some businesses will fail. Some jobs will be lost and our local governments will face numerous emergency budget decisions. But we should give extra attention to our nonprofits. They are not nice amenities or luxuries. Many are considered essential community institutions. To name a few, there is the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Council on Aging, Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, Landpaths, Burbank Housing Corp., our many community healthcare foundations, our museums and historical societies and the nonprofit foundations of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Winegrowers and Sonoma County Vintners. The Sonoma County Community Foundation ( facilitated $13.5 million in grants in 2018, supporting more than 50 other vital nonprofits.

It has always seemed to be something of a “false divide” to list for-profit corporations separately from nonprofit ones, especially where they exist in the same community and share kindred purposes, activities and missions. We really couldn’t have the successful and desirable local economy we have been nurturing and benefiting from for all these years without both sectors.

We should take heed as we begin the historic work to rise from this pandemic-caused economic crisis. We will want to bring all of our various economic sectors and partners back up together and not forget or sacrifice one for another.

We are now providing as much extra support as we can to our Redwood Empire Food Bank, but soon we will want to hear the Santa Rosa Symphony play again or our summer outdoor concerts. We could all profit from a little music.

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