Cultivating Community Resilience Through Nonprofit Connections

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December 8, 2020

By Sydney Wilburn, Alyssa Studer, Moira Porter and David W. Springer

The RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, an academic and research center in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, recently released the Austin Area Sustainability Indicators annual Austin Futures Report focused on community and climate resilience. In it, researchers posed the question: "Instead of normalizing and valorizing herculean efforts of historically disadvantaged communities, how can resilience interrogate and change inequitable societal structures?"[1]

Resiliency Toolkit
Full Report (University of Texas Libraries)

To prepare for the report, researchers surveyed 13 Austin-area nonprofit organizations. While each organization defined "resilience” differently, all understood the interconnected nature of the nine Austin Area Sustainability Indicators, including climate and community resilience.[2] The nonprofit sector operates in all of these areas, and often across more than one at a time. In their responses, all of them stressed the importance of collaboration.

Nonprofits are, at their core and out of necessity, spaces that foster experimentation and innovation. As such, they are the perfect sandbox for identifying and addressing potential solutions for the inequitable societal structures that crises such as COVID-19 exacerbate. Communities in which individuals and nonprofits work together and understand each other build robust social networks servicing different populations and collaborate on society's most challenging problems. Successful collaborations between organizations and community members (or among different nonprofit organizations) acknowledge strengths and weaknesses of each group, as well as the power that community members and groups close to the ground have to recognize problems, build, and deliver joint and innovative solutions.

These social networks should be well-maintained even in normal times, so when communities inevitably face unforeseen hardships, relationships are already in place to nimbly respond. To build these strong networks, nonprofits and other organizations should actively look for opportunities to collaborate with others that share their values and mission, as well as the skills, materials, and knowledge that are needed to fill gaps in services. Networks built on shared values and strong trust "allow more holistic, coordinated, timely, and realistic solutions to rise to the surface," a critical element in addressing crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.[3]

Nonprofits are, at their core and out of necessity, spaces that foster experimentation and innovation.

Though it is impossible to prepare for every potential crisis, communities in which nonprofits have built strong networks can more easily support the individuals who utilize their services and each other. This is especially important today, when so many of the nonprofits that serve the individuals and communities that are the most impacted by COVID-19 are facing financial strains themselves.

Go Austin! Vamos Austin! (GAVA), is a nonprofit that organizes and mobilizes community power to reduce barriers to health while increasing institutional capacities to respond to the people most impacted by historic inequities. GAVA has invested significant resources into the development of a framework and community resilience tool. Its work with The University of Texas at Austin, community members, and other local organizations demonstrate the power of building and maintaining a variety of relationships within a social network. Connections GAVA built over the years with community organizations such as Austin Together Fund, the Dell Medical School, and the City of Austin RISE program helped them quickly provide cash assistance to residents hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis in some of Austin's lowest-income areas. As a grassroots organization deeply embedded in the community in which it works, GAVA incorporates its members' experiences, ideas, and values into its programs and services. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, GAVA worked with a community member who had food handling experience and another local nonprofit, Urban Roots, to quickly respond to the need for food relief, delivering fresh produce to 30 households. By incorporating key principles such as using a strengths-based approach to their work, recognizing structural inequity, prioritizing the interests of residents, and building a broad base of community stakeholders, GAVA has woven a safety net for the East Austin area.[4] GAVA operates off the People's Institute principle that everyone in a community is a gatekeeper of a unique set of information and resources.[5] Based in transparency and common interests, those relationships allow it to leverage resources and build authentic leadership and social power.

To build these strong networks, nonprofits and other organizations should actively look for opportunities to collaborate with others that share their values and mission, as well as the skills, materials, and knowledge.

Drawing on both our survey and the broader lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis, our report underlines some of the most important efforts that stakeholders such as UT Austin and the nonprofit community at large should undertake going forward. These include the need to:

  • Establish and maintain open channels of communication and encourage collaboration between institutions of higher education and their local nonprofit community. Establish programs or structures to identify skilled students and alumni and match them with nonprofits in the community. As natural community hubs and accelerators of talent, our Texas higher education institutions are well-connected to talented individuals and are uniquely positioned to match them with nonprofits that have needs in areas such as data and financial management, research, grant writing and fundraising, and strategic planning.
  • Direct funding toward data collection, management, and analysis projects. Nonprofits often have difficulty securing adequate funding to support data projects due to their high demands on personnel and the low initial ROI. Over time, however, quality data collection and analysis help nonprofits better understand their communities and the impacts of their services, as well as their existing gaps in services.
  • Listen to communities to develop and implement plans for restructuring, rebuilding, and revitalizing in the light of a crisis. Grassroots organizers and community-led organizations know the territory; be sure to engage them when preparing for and responding to crises, and when working to revitalize and heal afterward.
  • Build relationships and networks with nonprofits that serve rural populations. The Greater Austin area recognizes thousands of 501(c)(3) nonprofits, ranging from small, one-staff operations to local branches of national organizations. Nonprofits in urban areas have more opportunities to build networks with each other, institutions of higher education, and corporate partners than operations that operate in rural areas. The Texas nonprofit community will become more robust and sustainable to the extent that it brings rural nonprofits into its networks. Organizations can learn from each other, share resources and best practices, and help build a statewide network to protect communities and regions that may be harder hit by crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent series of case studies from the RGK Center and other community partners highlighted the impact that nonprofits have on local economies. One case study found that a nonprofit organization investing in workforce development in Southeast Texas successfully trained more than 1,000 previously unemployed individuals and placed many in jobs within the local oil and gas sector.[6] This emphasis on human and community development leads to more successful economic development—a critical aspect of Texas communities' efforts to rebuild and bounce back in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

To the extent that nonprofits strengthen their networks with each other and the communities they work with, they can redouble their impacts, interrogating and changing inequitable social structures for the better.


Sydney Wilburn is a Senior Outreach Program Coordinator at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. She provides program support and manages communications at the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service. Alyssa Studer is a Program Coordinator at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where she manages the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service's CONNECT program. Moira PorterMoira Porter is Associate Director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service. David W. Springer is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and directs the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service.

[1] "Community & Climate Resilience. Austin Futures 2020: An Annual Report by the Austin Area Sustainability Indicators"

[2] "Explore the Indicators," Austin Area Sustainability Indicators.

[3] Wei-Skillern, Jane, & Silver, Nora. "Four Network Principles for Collaboration Success." The Foundation Review, 5(1). 2013.

[4] "Our Model," Go Austin! Vamos Austin!

[5] "Our Principles of Practice," Go Austin! Vamos Austin!

[6] Lindsey Harbison. The Impact and Opportunity of Our Nonprofit Sector: A Case Study Analysis. Built for Texas case study.


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