April 13, 2020

Four Ways for Community-Focused Philanthropy to Confront the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis

Based on conversations with more than a dozen community-focused philanthropies, here are four ways for funders to support local communities as they work through this most critical phase of the coronavirus crisis and prepare for an eventual recovery from the pandemic and the recession.

By: Willa Seldon

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a globe-spanning health and socio-economic crisis. However, the contagion’s impact hits most directly at the local level, where it amplifies pre-existing racial, cultural, and economic disparities that are likely to deepen even after the pandemic begins to subside. Some of the initial data are dispiriting: As of early April, Black Americans represented 81 percent of COVID-19 related fatalities in Milwaukee County, whose population is 26 percent Black; in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, Black residents accounted for 58 percent of COVID-19 fatalities, despite representing just 23 percent of the population.

Vulnerable urban as well as rural communities—where residents have long confronted chronic poverty and living conditions that contribute to poor health—will require customized responses that best meet their specific challenges, even with the $2 trillion that the federal government is funneling to groups affected by the pandemic. Community-focused philanthropies, through their deep connections to local organizations, are uniquely positioned to help other philanthropists, mission-driven corporations, and government agencies identify critical community needs and channel vital resources effectively.

Community-focused funders can also fill the gaps in government supports—and many are rushing to do so. As of April 13, there were more than 400 COVID-19 funds across the country, often sponsored by community foundations or other intermediaries that have a close-up view of their communities’ on-the-ground conditions. Giving Compass and National Center for Family Philanthropy are collaborating to vet and spotlight funds that are responding to the consequences of coronavirus. If you are interested in contributing, their sites include a full list and a map. 

For the most part, these rapid-response funds lean into two types of giving: supporting individuals’ and families’ critical baseline needs for food, housing and cash assistance, with a special focus on those who are most at-risk; and stabilizing community organizations, such as by converting current restricted grants to general operating support.

To better understand not only what philanthropy is doing, but also how it is abetting organizations that are working shoulder to shoulder with those most vulnerable to COVID-19’s assault, we connected with more than a dozen community-focused philanthropies. Their replies, combined with what we have gleaned from advising place-based philanthropies and community organizations, helped us surface four actionable ways for funders to support local communities as they work through this most critical phase and prepare for an eventual recovery from the pandemic and the recession.

By no means is this a comprehensive list. Our hope is simply that if these recommendations resonate with funders and foundations, they might put them to work—fast.

Unparalleled losses require unprecedented giving 
Community-focused organizations as well as the rest of the social sector are confronting an existential threat from bleeding revenues and service shutdowns. A survey by La Piana Consulting of 433 social sector organizations found that 70 percent of respondents have lost revenue and on average, they’ve had to lay off or furlough 19 percent of their staff, even as they expect to make additional cuts as the economy slides further into a recession.

With donor-advised funds at community foundations holding approximately $34 billion in assets in 2018, now is the time for donors to consider releasing funds to help alleviate the pandemic’s wreckage. Although philanthropies have suffered market losses, foundations might consider tapping their endowments during this seminal moment, as many did during the 2008 recession.

Money matters immensely, but grantees need more of almost everything. Beyond dramatic increases in funding, community-focused organizations also require ramped-up resources. For example, in addition to funding relief grants focused on emergency needs and cash assistance programs, Robin Hood is also providing community partners with technical and human resources support and assistance with navigating the recently approved CARES Act, including its emergency small-business loan program.

For stretched philanthropies that are doing their utmost to support distressed grantees, it’s best to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is still a lot of value in solving, say, 60 percent of a given problem now and dealing with the remaining 40 percent later, when we’re on the backside of the pandemic’s change curve.

Not all needs are the same
As we’ve noted, COVID-19 is exacerbating the challenges faced by groups that might not fully benefit from government supports, such as immigrants and gig workers, as well as inequities that have long existed in marginalized communities. So it behooves place-based funders to apply a racial and economic equity lens to their outreach, to better pinpoint specific impacts. For some philanthropies, that means adhering to their core principles, even as they push to act fast.

“We want to focus on individuals and families who are going to be first hit and worst hit—immigrants and refugees, people of color, and undocumented residents,” said Kris Hermanns, chief impact officer of Seattle Foundation. “Those who don’t have medical insurance or qualify for unemployment; those who could be targeted by hate crimes; those who are one check away from being homeless.”

To ensure there is a real understanding of communities’ needs and how they vary, funders are deploying a variety of channels to gather community input. Silicon Valley Community Foundation is tapping into its nonprofit network and membership organizations and complementing its outreach with data analysis, to parse out how the crisis is impacting different racial and ethnic groups.

Sophia Pappas, managing director of the Birth through Eight Strategy for Tulsa at the George Kaiser Family Foundation, highlighted that it’s important—in general with place-based initiatives and especially during a community-wide crisis with circumstances continuously changing—to use multiple channels to understand needs and opportunities. “We trust organizations providing services, both nonprofits and public sector agencies, to figure out who needs what,” she told us. “And we actively seek out additional community sources to understand barriers and how to respond, as well as opportunities to partner with organizations and individuals to fill gaps.”

The trust-first principle also applies to the way funders engage with grantees. A crisis is hardly an ideal time to continue adhering to grant restrictions or insist that reporting requirements be maintained. Far better to listen and respond to grantees’ asks, without disrupting their efforts. Todd Dalrymple and Meka Sales of The Duke Endowment shared: “Our responsibility is to not get in folks’ way and to be opportunistic about how to help grantees.”

Build bigger bridges
Philanthropy has moved quickly to respond to the crisis, creating a proliferation of funds in some communities. But as the pandemic’s health and economic impacts endure over the coming months, collective thinking—and coordinated efforts among philanthropies and other actors—may need to supplement individual actions. Because they work where governments, businesses, and nonprofits intersect, place-based philanthropies are finding themselves at a helpful crossroads between the sectors, where they can quickly move toward consequential collaborations.

The Boston Foundation is adapting its coronavirus response, in collaboration with the City of Boston and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, to achieve a more coordinated regional strategy. The City of Boston is shining a sharp spotlight on the immediate needs of its families and medical workers, while United Way is harnessing its network to support people living in Boston’s surrounding towns. For its part, Boston Foundation is hosting the fund and working to address the area’s longer-term challenges.

Real-time collaboration can mean working across channels as well as sectors. Even as Tipping Point holds weekly calls with its grantees to better understand their immediate difficulties, it is also reaching out to companies to bridge the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Because of that collaborative effort, Revolution Foods is now providing fully reimbursable emergency meals to one of Tipping Point's grantees, Community Housing Partnership. The two organizations are now working together to extend that partnership to other housing groups in San Francisco.

Respond rapidly—and invest for the long term 
If it wasn’t clear before, the pandemic has made it crystal clear now: Either/or is over; we now live in a both/and world. Community-focused funders are being called on to act swiftly to confront the immediate crisis and make investments that sustain distressed communities after the pandemic finally abates. It’s a very steep challenge, but some funders are doing their best to meet it. In addition to redoubling its support for nonprofits, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in partnership with Opportunity Fund, has created a separate fund for small businesses, which are essential for ensuring that when communities emerge on the other side of the pandemic, they are still intact.

“Small businesses collectively employ over 50 percent of California’s workforce; 1.6 million small businesses are owned by people of color,” SVCF’s Erica Wood and Stuart Burden told us in an email. “When they fail, our communities suffer, and it is critical we provide support.”

Other funders are also focusing on the longer-term effects of the pandemic, even as they address acute problems. Last year, when markets were still strong, The James Irvine Foundation set aside $20 million to support grantees in case of a recession—never realizing the economy would get this bad, this fast. Those funds will go to its core grantees, with $2 million going out immediately, without any requirements for proposals. Irvine added an additional $2 million to this fund from its unallocated grants budget, to expand these recession supports to other grassroots organizations on the frontline of the crisis.

If the coronavirus catastrophe has a sliver of a silver lining, it’s that within the chaos, there are opportunities for long-sought change. It might have been unthinkable, just a few short months ago, that the federal government would suspend foreclosures and evictions on HUD-backed properties and slash federal student loan interest rates to zero for at least 60 days, as it is doing now during the emergency. Another example: Ken Levit, executive director of George Kaiser Family Foundation, reports there is gathering momentum for criminal justice reform.

“The jail population in Tulsa has been reduced by 25 percent,” he shared. “The presiding judge and public defender quickly worked to identify individuals who could be immediately released from jail, either on their own recognizance or through accelerated case resolutions. Additionally, efforts to limit the number of arrests and bookings into the jail are ongoing. The district court and chief of police are discouraging arrests related to failure to pay court costs and other low-level offenses.”  

As the pandemic deepens and philanthropies respond to the threats and grief that people are experiencing, they might well ask: How can we identify and seize on opportunities to bring about enduring, systemic change to the communities we serve?

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