NORTH ADAMS — During the coronavirus pandemic, Berkshire County largely has turned to nonprofits to meet communities' needs.

Yet, as increased joblessness, social isolation and health risks have heightened demand for services, nonprofits have faced safety restrictions and economic pressures that have forced them to pivot. While nonprofit leaders say the sector's creativity and penchant for collaboration, coupled with strong philanthropic support, have allowed organizations to survive, they say there still is work to do to sustain and expand their impact, including further incorporating racial equity concerns into their practice.

"What I see happening is people doing what they always do. Folks who are nonprofit leaders are experts in adapting and overcoming barriers," said Liana Toscanini, executive director of the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires.

Food security nonprofits have been particularly busy because of a pandemic-induced rise in hunger, but they have had to change their distribution patterns because of safety concerns.

The Berkshire Food Project in North Adams has doubled its meal output, and while that group usually relies on 1,000 volunteer hours each month to prepare and serve community meals, it closed its doors to volunteers in March for coronavirus safety reasons. Unable to safely serve people in its dining room, the group turned that space into a kitchen to use to meet increased demand.

It has been distributing over 300 takeout meals a day outdoors to minimize health risks, but with colder weather coming, new adjustments might be in store.

"We're just worried about how long we can really just pull this all off, and can our resources outlast the continuing need?" said Executive Director Kim McMann.

Health care nonprofits have shifted their appointments to telehealth consultations by telephone or video call.

Yet, telehealth also has brought new costs: The Brien Center, which provides mental health services in Pittsfield, has purchased over 100 laptops and cellphones for patients, and it has upgraded its internet infrastructure as well.

"I think everybody's learning to live and provide service in a different way," said Executive Director Christine Macbeth. "I can't even tell you how many Zoom accounts we have out there now."

Internet upgrades also have been a priority for child care centers, which have welcomed students participating in local public schools' remote learning experiments. Lack of transportation has prevented some families from returning, and decreased enrollments have led to concern not only for those families, but also for child care centers' budgets.

"We went and got some hotspots for our kids, and aside from having to juggle lunch around and breaks because different schools are on a little bit of a different time, it's gone OK," said Erin Sullivan, vice president of communications and donor relations for 18 Degrees Family Services in Pittsfield.

Many nonprofits credit the Berkshire community with providing strong financial support when the pandemic hit.

On March 17, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and Berkshire United Way, in partnership with the Northern Berkshire United Way and the Williamstown Community Chest, launched a COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund that awarded over $2 million through 132 grants to 95 nonprofits.

"I think we are very fortunate here in the Berkshires that many of our corporate partners, the corporations here, the businesses here, understand and value the work that the nonprofit sector does," said Candace Winkler, president and CEO of the Berkshire United Way.

Peter Taylor, Berkshire Taconic's president, attributes the strong support, in part, to a recognition of the key role nonprofits play in the Berkshire economy. Nonprofits account for one-fourth of the county's private sector jobs and nearly half its economic output.

"That philanthropy is only as valuable as being able to get it to nonprofits that address the immediate need of the community," Taylor said. "They're critical infrastructure."

There also are calls to ensure that diverse voices play a role in deciding where funding goes. It also is important that nonprofits and those who provide funding take feedback from the people on the receiving end of services, said Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO of Bridge in Lee.

"What I'm worried about is that people have this tendency to want to go back to what the norm is, but the norm wasn't serving our vulnerable communities," VanSant said. "We need to be actually asking those communities what they need."

Bridge launched its New Pathways series in May to explore issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, and Berkshire Taconic and the Berkshire United Way provided funding for that series.

"What we're constantly advocating for is alignment with people of color in leadership: Until these gaps in leadership get rectified, at least align with folks that can advance your work," she said.

Hundreds of nonprofits have gotten help from the Nonprofit Center, which has held town halls for nonprofits to provide guidance on topics such as budgeting, safety regulations and fundraising in the time of COVID-19, as well as a talk on racial equity that VanSant participated in.

With many nonprofits facing similar challenges, executive directors formed a support group to share ideas and resources, Toscanini said.

Fundraising has been a particular struggle, with gathering restrictions preventing organizations from holding large galas that typically attract donors. It has become particularly important for cultural nonprofits, many of which have seen huge shortfalls in earned revenue.

While the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington has tried to add programming in the few opportunities it has found, the venue's earned revenue has dropped to "next to nothing" this year, said Janis Martinson, its executive director. It has turned its typical summer gala into an Oct. 11 free online event celebrating its 15th anniversary, with performances from a range of performers.

"We had an exciting year in store for people in 2020 that we've had to rework," Martinson said.

Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires, based in Great Barrington, receives all its funding through grants and donations. Its 10 full-time staff and 160 volunteers provide health care to people who are uninsured or underinsured, and the organization was so busy with providing services that the group decided not to plan a virtual gala, opting instead to write an appeal letter, said Executive Director Ilana Steinhauer.

While nonprofits benefit from an initial outpouring of financial support, as well as the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, there is some financial concern now with uncertainty remaining over whether there will be another federal stimulus package and how large anticipated cuts will be to Massachusetts' budget.

"When you get a very big economic downturn, our hope is that if the states have to do any cuts, they're going to be very judicious about it," said Jim Klocke, CEO of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. "We have to make up for the lost ground, and we've got more ground to cover in the years ahead."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.