The following is a letter I wrote to my congressional representatives. As someone who encourages archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations to write to their representatives, I felt it was only fair I share this letter with you.
April 21, 2020
You may know me as the consultant who helped Astoria Public Library win a $17,000 award from Oregon Cultural trust and a $50,000 award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services; which led to a $250,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Or, as the consultant who brought in more than $750,000 from the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and local Portland foundations to Portland’s historically designated Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church to help preserve and share their Civil Rights history.
I’m a small business owner of a certified women-owned business. I provide services to archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations who can’t afford a specialist on a permanent basis. I teach them how to take care of their historical artifacts, how to manage digital collections online, and how to apply for grant funding successfully. My business will reach its three-year anniversary on May 2, 2020, and until recently, had been flourishing.
Building a business isn’t easy. Building a business that serves the nonprofit sector—a sector known for being cash-strapped—is even harder. But, I did it. I attended business classes offered by Mercy Corps., I taught myself business basics, and I created a successful consultancy that supports local heritage organizations. After my first year I was able to hire a local business coach, a tax accountant, and then a lawyer. After two years, I began to make a profit and invested that profit both into my business as well as my professional community. I acquired new systems to grow my services online and I was about to hire staff. Additionally, I supplied 50% of the funding for the new Archivist-in-Residence program at Northwest Archivists—a program that will pay a new professional $18/hour for 264-hours to work with a local heritage organization.
The pandemic and the ensuing shutdown of nonprofit organizations I work with has caused a rapid and spectacular shutdown of my business. Within four weeks I went from my busiest quarter to date, to hardly operating in Quarter 2.
I can’t even begin to tell you how demoralizing it is to have something you’ve built completely crumble through no fault of your own. The three years of hustle, sweat equity, and ingenuity that went into building my successful business feels as if it’s been nullified. It’s devastating to think I may have to relive that period of my life over again. It’s almost inconceivable.
The effects of this pandemic and economic crisis will be long-lived, especially in the nonprofit sector. Studies from the American Alliance of Museums show that it took museums 10-years to recover from the 2008 recession. TEN YEARS. How long will it take us to recover from this one?
The short-term support offered to small businesses is not enough.
The stimulus check meant to help Americans fill financial gaps was based on last year’s tax filings. As stated above, I owned a flourishing and successful business last year. But, I’m hardly working now. That $1200 meant to help Americans? I saw less than $200. That’s not even enough to cover a week of groceries for my family. Basing the stimulus check amount on anything other than our current financial reality is ridiculously unhelpful for Americans.
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), ran out of money in less than two-weeks. Oregon Live reports that while more than 18,000 Oregon small businesses received loans, it amounts to Oregon receiving approximately 1.1% of the $3.8-billion available. Analysis conducted by Bloomberg concludes Oregon is near the bottom of the list (along with our west coast counterparts) in terms of money received. PPP’s definition of “small business” currently includes 99% of American businesses. When evaluating American small businesses through the US Census Bureau and IRS Statistics, we learn that 88% of small businesses have 20 or less employees and 40% revenue $100,000 or less annually. At the same time, these small businesses account for 44% of the gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Small Business Administration. Congress must develop narrower parameters for how a small business is defined, or else there’s little chance for the PPP to successfully save the small businesses that help fuel our local economy.
I applied for unemployment two-weeks ago. My claim hasn’t been processed yet, which is understandable given that 15% of previously employed Oregonians are now unemployed. Even if my claim is approved the unemployment maximum benefit—regardless of past revenue generated—is $648/week. That’s $2.50 above Portland’s minimum wage. The amount will be barely enough to meet my basic business operating costs for services, contracts, and utilities that remain unchanged in our current crisis. Very little of this money will actually be available to me to help with my family and our household expenses. Unemployment benefits must be adjusted to account for actual wages—or for small businesses, their revenue—lost.
The three economic mechanisms meant to help protect my small business and by extension, my family, have failed completely. I received less than $200 for my stimulus check, I can’t currently secure a small business loan from the evaporated Paycheck Protection Program, and I will only receive the maximum amount of unemployment of $648/week (once my claim is processed). But this isn’t just about me. This is about the nonprofit community I support through service and philanthropy so that they, in turn, can serve their local communities.
The services I provide to nonprofit cultural institutions, the money my family donates regularly to philanthropy, and the fellow small businesses I support are now also jeopardized. I went from a successful community-minded business looking to hire local staff to a business on life support.
Tell me. What am I support to do? Wait another 10-years for the cultural heritage sector to recuperate to pre-COVID levels? Put in even more sweat equity, knowing this could happen again and there are no supports in place to protect my small business?
I urge you to support legislative policies that are for small business owners. Please more narrowly define “small business” and adequately fund the PPP. Please fix the broken way of calculating stimulus checks to account for the current financial reality. Please expand unemployment benefits to be based on actual wages or self-employed revenue. And finally, please fully fund the $4-billion-dollar request put forth by the American Alliance of Museums as the last stimulus package funded less than 5% of the request.
If these requests aren’t addressed in the near-future then we’re at risk to lose a significant portion of our small businesses and local heritage institutions.
Rachael Cristine Woody
Owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC