Options and opportunities for giving in a changed world
The pandemic has created greater philanthropic need — but also caused significant shifts in the ways people are giving. Here’s how donors can respond.
AS THE WORLD CONTINUES TO ADDRESS the impact of the coronavirus, the ensuing economic fallout and a broad public discourse about racial equity, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors face an ambiguous future. There are and will continue to be complex community needs, but the full scope of those needs is still evolving. While it’s readily apparent that philanthropic capital is more important than ever, the situation remains extremely fluid and rapidly changing at local levels, and the flurry of news and informal conversations can make it hard to identify the best philanthropic response.
In the following Q&A, we answer questions clients are asking on how to give in response to the current crises and also offer considerations for longer-term investments to address the potential effects on the charitable sector and issues that may emerge in the future.
What can I do right now to help?
Right now, needs are still emerging at the national and local levels. There are multiple opportunities to partner with nonprofits to ensure that they both survive the current situation and also thrive and continue to support your communities and all who live in them. Your philanthropy is likely to be a vital component of their successful future. If you run a foundation, consider providing additional funding or taking steps to suspend or eliminate grant reporting and other administrative requirements so nonprofits can concentrate on providing services.
Make sure you’re building relationships with organizations that work with at-risk and under-resourced populations most effectively, so that in the next crisis you’re poised to make charitable gifts immediately without needing to do initial research.
That said, as you explore your options, we strongly advise that you carefully vet any organization you’re considering for a donation, particularly if it’s a brand-new entity. We know from experience related to disaster relief that heightened public awareness and urgency can give rise to scams that masquerade as legitimate charities to gather money.
How can I help organizations addressing virus prevention, treatment and research?
The good news is that there have been unprecedented levels of cooperation within the international scientific community in the race to find both treatments and preventative vaccines for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Multiple local, regional and international response funds were created to support these efforts, as well as to address treatment for those experiencing severe symptoms. In addition, groups are working to insure that vaccines are disseminated broadly to everyone.
On the research front, you may wish to consider contributing to existing organizations in order to leverage their expert vetting of specific scientists or scientific approaches being proposed by researchers. If you’re interested in supporting treatment, you might consider gifts to local hospitals or other medical treatment groups, including international aid organizations.
Longer term, because basic scientific research is generally under-funded in the United States, investing in both bench and clinical research, as well as strengthening the global public health infrastructure, would help position the world to respond better to the next novel pathogen that emerges.
How can I help my community?
First, donors should consider nonprofits that work with the most marginalized populations. Dr. Lauren Smith has pointed out that “disasters lay bare inequities,”1 and this public health emergency has hit some of the most vulnerable people in our nation the hardest. Low-income workers may not have health insurance or paid sick leave, and still are frequently unable to afford time off from work in order to self-quarantine or to seek treatment if they suspect they’re ill. Language barriers and housing instability may pose additional obstacles to those in need of testing, treatment and basic support. While many schools have returned to in-person learning, some schools may continue to function in a virtual or mostly virtual fashion, depending on location – and that can leave children from low-income families without school-provided breakfasts and/or lunches.
Safety-net organizations such as food pantries, homelessness prevention programs and health care providers still need help. Another opportunity would be in support of population-specific work such as funding medical interpreters or translating materials into other languages. Disseminating accurate information continues to be critical, so directing funds toward organizations at the front line of that effort can have wide impact.
Pay attention to local data and discussions about what populations in your community have disparate outcomes on key life indicators such as maternal mortality, high school completion or homelessness. Look for and support organizations that are led by and explicitly serve those populations.
Finally, consider the ripple effects of the virus-related situation. Many nonprofits with revenue-generating activities – theaters and museums, for instance – have seen a sudden drop-off in those revenues from curtailing their activities to support “social distancing” public health strategies. While you might not consider yourself an arts funder, the economic vitality of your community surely benefits from a healthy, thriving arts community. In addition, the mental health impacts of the public crisis should not be overlooked in your grants strategy. On another front, if your geography includes both urban and rural areas, you may wish to examine the specific resources available to people living in the rural areas, as those areas tend to be under-funded and under-resourced.
Additional information and giving opportunities
Where can I find information about trusted nonprofits in my local area?
Your local community foundation may be a good starting point to learn more about potential nonprofits in your area. In addition, many community foundations are setting up local funds to provide targeted assistance to the areas they serve. You can find your area’s community foundation at the Council on Foundations Community Foundation Locator.
What other adjustments might I make to my giving strategy in light of the crisis?
Because the situation remains fluid, we recommend donors consider making unrestricted gifts, as it’s difficult for organizations to anticipate exactly what will be needed as events evolve. As the public health crisis has lasted longer than initially anticipated, and in some cases additional state and federal aid packages are still in development, flexible dollars that can be used to cover unanticipated expenses will be most valuable to nonprofits.
The Nonprofit Finance Fund has reported that fewer than 25% of nonprofits in the United States have more than 6 months of operating cash in reserves, and almost 10% have less than 30 days cash on hand.2 Reach out to your grantees or to the organizations you routinely support to identify their immediate concerns and needs. If you have a current commitment to an organization, consider prepaying multiyear pledges and/or allowing for flexibility in the use of funds. Find out if nonprofits have had to cancel or postpone major fundraising events and consider making donations to offset those missed fundraising opportunities.3 Consider converting existing program grants into general operating grants so that your grantees can be nimble in their response to this changing situation. Consider providing funding so that they can pay additional sick leave or pay staff when venues are closed, so that there isn’t a disruption in staff incomes.
Once the current situation abates, what are some longer-term opportunities?
Make sure you’re building relationships with organizations that work with at-risk populations most effectively, so that in the next crisis you’re poised to make charitable gifts immediately without needing to do initial research.
In addition, work with organizations that you support to strengthen their infrastructure and capacity, in order to ensure that they will be in a strong position to support their communities in the short and long term. You may wish to ask them if they have strong emergency and contingency plans, including appropriate technological infrastructure (e.g., technology to allow staff to work remotely) to weather the next major disruptive event. If not, consider making a capacity-building grant to assist with the organization’s business continuity planning.
Finally, significant research shows that communities fare better in disasters when they have characteristics of resilience such as engagement at the community level, a sense of cohesiveness and neighborhood involvement or integration, partnership among organizations, integrated pre-event planning, exercises and agreements, and optimal community health and access to quality health services.4 After the coronavirus has passed, you might consider reaching out to key organizations in the region to see what they learned from this experience, how they are working with marginalized community members and what support they will need to help build long-term resilience for the community. Building community resilience is long-term work and has shown to have significant payoffs in hard times.
To learn more, please contact your advisor.
1 “How Philanthropy Can Support and Enhance the Government Response to COVID-19,” March 12, 2020 Webinar sponsored by Southern California Grantmakers. Lauren Smith, MD, MPH, is the Co-CEO of FSG, a global strategy consulting group, and the former Medical Director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
2 The 2018 Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector Survey. See summary at https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/tools-resources/operating-reserves-nonprofits (page retrieved 3/12/20).
3 Points in the paragraph drawn from Opinion piece “6 Steps for Grant Makers to Take Now to Ensure Nonprofits Recover from Coronavirus Spread.” Antony Bugg-Levine, published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 9, 2020. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Coronavirus-6-Steps-for-Grant/248202 (page retrieved March 16, 2020).
4 Chandra, Anita, et al. “Building Community Resilience to Disasters: A Way Forward to Enhance National Health Security.” RAND Corporation https://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR915.html