The Coronavirus Crisis Has Changed How I View What Matters in Philanthropy

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Coronavirus Crisis Has Changed How I View What Matters in Philanthropy
By: Lisa Pilar Cowan, Vice President for Programs, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. This article was originally published by The Chonicle of Philanthropy on April 7, 2020.

I’ve spent a lot of time these past few weeks sitting at my dining room table staring blankly at my computer and wondering “what matters” in the coronavirus era? Other times, my mind wanders to mundane questions like — when is the last time someone watered the plants?

In my 9-5 life, as vice president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, I am spending my days wondering what matters in philanthropy. My colleagues and I have put into action plans already under way to give grantee partners more leeway and power. We are seeing all kinds of grant makers simplifying their application processes, changing their restricted project grants to general operating funds, and suspending site visits and reporting requirements. And we have joined more than 500 foundations to sign a pledge promising to support grantees in humane and realistic ways for the rest of 2020.

All are terrific and important responses to the moment we are in, and at the same time, they make me wonder why we were doing it the other way before. If we can recognize that this is easier for our grantees now, why didn’t we want to make it easier for them before? What matters most to allow them to do their best work in this devastating moment? Why would we pledge to treat grantees better for 2020 but not beyond that?

I am also wondering about the choices we should be making as we work to advance our mission of creating a more vibrant and equitable New York City. Could we do just as much good handing out $100 bills on the street corner in low-income neighborhoods (if we could do so without transmitting the virus) than using our traditional approach to grants? Or should we put all our funding into advocacy to overhaul the tax code? Or would it be even better to put all of our operating funds into the grant-making pot — rather than support multiple grant-making priorities to meet our mission? Perhaps all that would take to implement is one part-time person to write annual checks to the same group of effective organizations — and then more money could go to the nonprofits we support rather than to staff?

And while we are considering why we do what we do, and what really matters, I wonder why we ever used to dress up to go to the office and conferences and lunches, when so many of us are now doing the hardest work of our lives in our pajamas? Is this scrappy, urgent approach to grant making the one we must all adopt forever after?

Pondering all these questions can get to be too much at times, but I take solace in the value in the work we continue to do to bring smart people together. Our learning community of grantees, who usually meet quarterly to learn from and with each other, have met (virtually) biweekly since the virus hit New York City. They are helping each other deliver programs virtually, to supervise and take care of staff, members, and themselves during an impossible moment. They offer each other kindness, reassurance, tools, and resources to continue doing their critical work in this new world. The members of our Sterling Network — New York City leaders who are working on issues of economic mobility — have come together to support each other’s organizations and projects during this sudden moment of emergency response and to begin envisioning what a better and more equitable city could emerge from this crisis.

Still, I can’t get away from feeling an enormous sense of grief.

In this challenging time, all of us in philanthropy need to allow for the possibility that grief and stress are what we’re experiencing, even if it seems like that is an emotion that more appropriately belongs to those who have lost loved ones to the fast-spreading virus or jobs and businesses as the economy tanks.

I was enormously helped by an article in the Harvard Business Review by Scott Berinato. He adds a sixth stage of grief to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages. The sixth stage is finding meaning: “I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times. Even now people are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.”

So maybe this is another service that we who sit in philanthropy — most of us working from home, most of us with job security and stable housing — can offer. We can get a head start on making meaning. We can listen to the conversations our grantees and partners are having with each other. We can record, document, and absorb what we are learning and offer it back out for analysis and refinement, to come back to when we are on the other side. In this way, we can keep track of the lessons we are learning now, about what really matters, and adapt them for the long run. Perhaps while wearing our P.J.s in our offices.

Lisa Pilar Cowan is the vice president for programs at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation.

Lisa Cowan will be contributing opinion pieces to The Chronicle of Philanthropy on what it means to be a grantmaker at this time in history. Her second piece in this series, Covid-19 Lesson for a Grantmaker: Listening and Understanding Matters (Dispatches), was published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on April 21, 2020.


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