Clyde Conversations: ASAP, Nonprofits, and Fundraising in a Post-COVID World.
The Washington, D.C. metro region is home to an estimated 50,000 asylum seekers. Working in partnership with immigration legal services providers, the Asylum Seeker Assistance Project (ASAP) provides holistic services and support to address the urgent and unmet needs that can impact asylum legal case outcomes. Like most nonprofits, ASAP relies on financial and volunteer assistance to keep its doors open and services available to those who need them most. Through direct services, education, and support, ASAP strengthens communities by empowering asylum seekers to rebuild their lives with dignity and purpose. As the country has come to a standstill, and the number of unemployment claims continues to rise, we sat down with ASAP founder and Executive Director Joan Hodges-Wu to discuss how COVID-19 has changed the landscape of nonprofit communications, operations, and fundraising capabilities. How have the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic affected the work you do with clients? In theory, COVID-19 is an infectious disease that does not discriminate based on race, class, or country of origin. In reality, this virus targets the most vulnerable in society because they are more exposed. By the beginning of April, nearly 70% of ASAP clients had lost their jobs and no longer had the means to buy food, pay rent, or purchase essential medications. Unlike other populations in need, asylum seekers do not have a social safety net to protect them because of their limbo legal status. As an organization, we are fortunate in that we are still able to provide most of our services via digital platforms. Unfortunately, client need for services has significantly increased. Clients who were previously self-sufficient before the pandemic are reconnecting and asking for help. At the same time, many of our community partners have closed because it’s not safe to operate or they don’t have enough funds. We’ve also had to be more creative in how we safely guide clients through this process. We can’t tell someone who has an underlying medical condition to go to a foodbank. Or if they need medicine, they can’t wait until they have a job to start taking it again. Our staff is working hard to support clients but the need is immense. How are you making things work? Most of our clients have access to email, text, and phone so we continue to work with clients to identify needs and set goals. Using technology to connect has also decreased some common client service barriers such as lack of childcare or reliable transportation. When we go back to the office, we’re already planning to balance the in-person work we do with virtual activities in a more intentional way. Fundraising is critical to your operation. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your fundraising efforts? Every spring, ASAP hosts a breakfast fundraiser which serves as our biggest single fundraising event of the year. We had to cancel this event while simultaneously reckoning with the fact that asylum seekers need our services now more than ever. So we had to get creative. In the past, we’ve recruited dedicated ASAP supporters to serve as ‘table captains’ to spread the word to friends, family, and colleagues to attend our breakfast fundraiser. Given the current reality, we applied the same approach to raise funds for our COVID-19 Emergency Food & Medicine Fund. We asked select donors and volunteers if they would be willing to serve as fundraising captains. Twenty-two people agreed. ASAP’s board launched the fund with a $25,000 match. We held our breath, said a prayer, and in four weeks’ time, we tripled what our breakfast fundraiser would have raised. We received $10 donations from clients, $1,200 donations from loyal donors, and everything in between. This experience has reaffirmed so many of my core beliefs as a nonprofit leader. What is something positive that has come out of this trying time? I recently asked individual staff to send me 15 ideas about things we are doing now that we should continue to do after we return to the office. One theme that stood out was the opportunity to offer more virtual activities that connect clients and volunteers. Prior to COVID-19, ASAP facilitated a very active client storytelling group. Storytelling is really important because it reminds listeners that asylum seekers are more than just a legal status. Our clients are more than the worst thing that ever happened to them. Storytelling helps us build bridges. Prior to COVID-19, our storytelling events happened in-person. Now, we’re thinking about ways to use Zoom and other digital platforms to reach beyond just one room and a single audience. What have your clients taught you during this time? The experience of living in an uncertain time and wondering when it will end is the asylum experience. They know what isolation and loneliness feel like. They know about missing family members who are far away. Issues like food insecurity and economic hardship are familiar to them. Honestly, the best advice I’ve gotten during COVID has come from our clients. They constantly remind us to be positive and the importance of moving forward. Yesterday, a client from Cameroon told me: “Don’t worry, Joan. Rain does not fall on one roof alone. We are all in this together.”