Vanessa Volz: On the Domestic Violence Frontlines

by Vanessa Volz, Executive Director of Sojourner House, a Providence-based domestic and sexual violence agency.  Learn more about the organization and support their efforts here:

For those of us who work in the domestic violence advocacy movement, we are constantly strategizing around the concept of “home.” At agencies like Sojourner House, where I serve as the Executive Director, our largest program for individuals and families who have experienced abuse is residential housing. We provide emergency shelter, transitional housing, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing. We help those who are in dangerous situations leave safely, and once they have fled, we work to ensure that they receive the support and resources they need in a place they can call their own.

In the era of COVID-19, however, the residential work that our advocates do has been turned completely on its head. With increased concerns about the transmission of the virus, government mandates are ordering people to stay in place, to work remotely if at all possible, and to restrict contact with people who don’t live with them. As advocates, we are faced with a very frightening paradox in this world of quarantines: even if we have shelter beds or apartments available, victims who now seek our services often don’t have a way to leave their abusive situation since they are confined to their homes.

COVID-19 isn’t just causing agencies like Sojourner House to recalibrate their programs. It’s altering the very way philanthropic individuals and businesses support our work. In the midst of a devastating pandemic caused by this virus, I do see an emerging silver lining: Perhaps this period of the coronavirus will subtly, but profoundly, create a shift in the way philanthropic dollars are allocated to social service organizations.

Like many victim services organizations, Sojourner House relies heavily on governmental funds. In recent years, we have been able to secure federal funding to expand our housing program, but many of those sources require matching funds in proportion to the grant award’s budget.  To that end, securing individual, foundation, and corporate dollars is even more imperative. The process to secure these funds most frequently comes about by writing grant proposals for specific programs, petitioning corporate businesses for event sponsorship, and establishing relationships with donors for individual contributions.

In just the few short weeks that we have been living with restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, I have noticed some surprising and welcome changes to the way that funders interact with us. COVID-19 has clearly disrupted the operations of many standard protocols, and not the least is nonprofit philanthropic funding and support. I urge funders to consider retaining these new practices as we eventually move back into a “normal” way of managing nonprofit operations once this crisis has passed.  Namely:

  • I’ve witnessed an increase in the number of unrestricted gifts and grants available for general operations. This kind of funding is typically very difficult to secure in the nonprofit funding landscape, and many foundations and corporate donors traditionally restrict gifts for specific programs and purposes. However, last week we had a major corporation call us at Sojourner House to say that they were making an unrestricted gift for us to use in any way we saw fit. “We know this is a challenging time, and your services are critical. We just want to make sure that you keep your doors open,” the community affairs director explained.

I appreciated the director’s thoughtful gesture, as well as his words. It was a welcome relief to feel like the funder had a high enough regard for our organization to allow us to use the funds in a manner that worked best for us. Unrestricted funds are considered vital to nonprofit organizations, as they help us fill gaps in our operating budgets, especially for expenses that federal grants won’t cover.

  • I have also seen existing funders reach out to say that they are willing to be flexible with existing restrictions on their current donation or grant. While they may have originally provided us with a grant for a specific program or purpose, a handful of our funders have invited us to contact them if we now find ourselves in a position to need to use the funds for other reasons.  
  • I have also seen funders relaxing stringent grant reporting guidelines or shortening long and detailed grant applications. Funders right now seem to recognize that nonprofits need funds quickly in the current climate, and they are responding by reducing application requirements and streamlining processes.  

One important take-away to this discussion about funding trends during the COVID-19 era is this: while I appreciate how funders are concerned about our work right now and how they want to help us execute our mission, domestic violence is a systemic issue that is not going to go away after this pandemic is over. It’s critical that we realize as a society that if we truly want to help victims and survivors, we have to invest more resources in this work. We have to believe that victim services agencies are the experts in their field and know the best ways to serve their clientele. In the reproductive justice movement, we often use the slogan, “Trust women.” In the human services field, it would make sense for us to extend this ideology to “Trust well-managed nonprofit organizations to execute their mission.” We are the ones who best know our clients’ needs. We are the ones who best know our organization’s operational needs. We are the ones who best know how to utilize funding to support the programs that we are running every day.

Funders and donors, please let the new practices that we’re adopting during the crisis period of COVID-19 not just be a temporary suspension of normal philanthropic giving. When it’s time to move into a post-coronavirus world, I sincerely hope that the charitable giving world will remember how empowering it was for the organization and for the donor to provide more flexibility with their funding.

Author: Vanessa Volz

Vanessa Volz has been the executive director of Sojourner House ( since 2011. During her tenure, the agency has developed new programming, more than tripled its operational budget, and established an endowment. She previously served as a staff attorney at a disability rights non-profit organization, and she teaches at Rhode Island College in their Gender and Women Studies program, where she has created new courses, including "Gender-Based Violence." She is the current board President of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH), and the former board President of the Women's Health and Education Fund (WHEF). She is a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, Bard College, and Leadership Rhode Island. Originally from the Midwest, she currently lives in Providence, RI with her husband and two rescued dogs.

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