Pandemic, civil unrest spotlight potential of mutual aid

The COVID-19 pandemic and the response to racial justice issues have brought greater attention to mutual aid. Although the concept is nothing new, its emergence in recent times highlights the possibility that nonprofits can partner on mutual aid projects to enhance their mission- and cost-effectiveness when resources are tight. With the need for services so high, it’s worth exploring.

Mutual aid 101

Mutual aid rests on the notion that aid recipients should also make some type of contribution when possible — for example, food cooperatives where customers volunteer in the stores or lending circles where people lend each other money at low or zero interest. Mutual aid recognizes that everyone has needs that deserve to be met, as well as something to offer others. Solidarity over charity is emphasized.

Mutual aid projects have been around for centuries, dating as far back as the 1700s. They’ve been particularly active — and essential — in minority and immigrant communities. Historically, members have pitched in money to support widows, cover burial expenses and extend personal or business loans that borrowers couldn’t obtain from banks.

2020 spark

In 2020, mutual aid groups have stepped up their efforts, in part because the traditional charity models simply can’t meet the overwhelming need. COVID-19, for example, has left millions of previously employed people without paychecks. Those who were already unemployed or at the margins of society generally didn’t qualify for temporary benefits from the federal government, causing them to fall further behind and into greater risk.

New mutual aid groups have sprung up to help quickly and directly fill the gaps by creating two-way commitments. Some groups, for example, offer cash assistance in exchange for recipients checking in on the elderly or ill, running errands or locating scarce supplies, such as personal protective equipment.

After George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in late May 2020, Minnesota’s Star Tribune reported on a surge of mutual aid groups in the Twin Cities. When protests led to fires and chaos, one woman started a Facebook page to build a mutual aid network of neighbors directly helping people in need of everything from food to cash. As of late summer, the group boasted almost 20,000 members. It handles requests to find low-cost eyeglasses and car repairs, air mattresses and coolers for tent communities, and cash for families who need rent, diapers and medicine.

Opportunities for nonprofits

Some nonprofits already have collaborated with mutual aid groups to compound their power. In North Carolina, for example, a YWCA and two foundations joined forces to establish a fund for grassroots mutual aid groups working in Greensboro neighborhoods. The YWCA has provided operational support, and all three have generated funding.

The website for the nonprofit Massachusetts Jobs with Justice features links to mutual aid networks across the state. On the other side of the nation, San Francisco public radio and TV station KQED has assembled a list of mutual aid funds that distribute emergency grants to artists, creative professionals and freelancers dealing with financial hardships. And AARP has posted a map showing local mutual aid groups across the country that might be of interest to seniors.

Allies in the trenches

Rather than seeing mutual aid groups as competition, nonprofits should consider them valuable tools for addressing growing crises at a time when many more formal organizations are strapped for cash and looking at creative solutions for growing demand. By teaming with mutual aid groups, nonprofits gain access to diverse volunteers who provide a wide range of perspectives and experiences.