My Labor of Love: Keeping a Nonprofit Fiscally Sound During the Pandemic While Responding to Urgent Community Needs

by Chief Financial Officer Priscilla Chen-Ok

As we turned the calendar to 2022, I wanted to share my learnings from my labor of love during the pandemic. I look back on how despite the curve balls thrown by revenue shifts, MEDA kept and grew our staff and services. At the same time, we managed to bring millions of dollars to families struggling during the pandemic — community members whose lives had also been suddenly disrupted. 

In February 2020, I was excited to step into my new role as Chief Finance Officer of MEDA, a community-based organization serving a low-income and immigrant community of color for almost five decades. I came to MEDA because the organization is embedded in the community and offers a unique combination of programs and business lines targeted at keeping and building the assets and wealth of low-income households. I brought to the table 20+ years in business development, finance and operations, having worked in investment real estate and advertising before transitioning into the nonprofit sector. My career goal was to spend the next 20 years in the nonprofit field, committed to children, families and immigrants such as myself. I have never been happier using my financial experience than now, as I support the work of nonprofits.

In March 2020, San Francisco announced the shelter-in-place mandate as a response to the global pandemic. The financial situation for families in communities we served — and how we as an organization served them — changed overnight. Latinos in San Francisco were disproportionately affected by the pandemic since many immediately lost their jobs, while those still employed were mostly frontline essential workers living in overcrowded conditions. Small businesses shuttered overnight. Families struggled to put food on the table.

The last 21 months have been quite the ride for us in finance, supporting an organization that continues to step up to the immediate impact of the pandemic on households’ incomes and lives while systematically dealing with historic challenges of gentrification and racial inequity. As the organization pivoted based on its decades of experience, I stepped into leveraging my 20+ years of experience to lead a team of financial professionals best poised to make that pivot during the crisis.

My mantra has always been “How can we best shape money to best serve the community?” It’s about putting community first. It’s about putting dollars where they can be well spent. It’s about return on investment

Keeping MEDA in strong financial standing enabled us to meet urgent community needs brought on by COVID-19. There are 15 million reasons I have been proud to work for MEDA as we met the challenges of the pandemic: the $10 million in 0%-interest or low-interest loans and grants our Business Action team and CDFI , Fondo Adelante, had disbursed; and the $5 million our Income Action team provided in recovery funds for those who fell ill to the virus.

This aforementioned would not have been possible without strengthening MEDA’s financial standing in the middle of a rapidly changing financial landscape. To best manage the finances of a dynamic organization with several programs and business lines, I have employed a three-pronged strategy in building a sound financial foundation.

  1. Staffing. Bring in the right team to create a secure financial foundation from which to scale. To do any job well, you need the right people — and in finance that means those with a knowledge base that matches the complexities of the accounting skills required. For my last three hires, I have been able to bring in 60 years of nonprofit experience. Additionally, knowing that you cannot run a business sitting on the sidelines, I have embedded members of my Finance team with specific industry knowledge in our individual lines of business (e.g., our Community Real Estate team or our Fondo Adelante CDFI team).
  2. Systems. Your accounting system must be at the center of your financial infrastructure if you are to meet the needs of a dynamic organization. That system must ensure accrual GAAP-basis accounting rather than working on a cash basis. This ensures you are projecting and understanding your full revenue and expense obligations. Your accounting system and structure must reflect your business. Look at your books in aggregate while keeping entities’ cash flows separate — and with a correct balance sheet for each business line.
  3. Public-private partnership. By having sound finances and a secure fiscal foundation, a nonprofit can support public sector efforts. For example, during the pandemic, MEDA’s strong financial standing allowed us to offer over a million dollars in 0%-interest stop gap loans to the City and County of San Francisco until they could get funder contracts signed and in place for monies targeted at COVID-19 relief programs.

Looking forward, MEDA will seek equitable recovery for San Francisco’s Latino and immigrant community. We are well positioned to devise and implement such work, as we collaborate with partners, elected officials, philanthropists, foundations and our community.

For me, this remains a labor of love.


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