Philanthropy Has a Duty to Respond Quickly to the COVID-19 Outbreak. Here's How We Can Do It

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Philanthropy Has a Duty to Respond Quickly to the COVID-19 Outbreak. Here's How We Can Do It
By: Lori Bezahler, President, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation. This article was originally published by Inside Philanthropy on March 16, 2020.

As COVID-19 fears rise and communities face growing health and economic concerns, local nonprofits are stepping up to fill the gaps in our social safety net while trying to protect our families and communities. Public schools are closing from Washington to Arkansas, and children are losing school meals, safe space, and basic medical care—putting an even bigger strain on the limited childcare and healthcare infrastructure in the U.S.

Philanthropy must adapt quickly to this crisis. Our grantees need us to respond immediately in this time of global health concern, financial strain, and increased uncertainty. As an industry, we aren’t known to be nimble, but there are six things we can all do right now while getting ready for a long-term financial downturn that threatens the sector. While most of these suggestions require no additional funding beyond what is already in grantmaking budgets, where it does require additional money, we should not balk at increasing funds to grantees at this critical moment.

  1. Convert funding to unrestricted general operating support. Pushing deadlines on deliverables may feel good, but it is not the same thing as giving grantees the space they need to adapt quickly in this vulnerable moment by offering our support in the form of unrestricted funds. Once the crisis has passed, are we expecting them to make up several months of work before the end of the grant term? And if not, are we going to increase the grant to cover salary and expenses over the longer time period? Or are we OK with staff being laid off? The virus has exposed our industry’s failure to think holistically about our grantees’ financial needs as functioning organizations and employers. But we can change that now and convert funds to general operating support. 

  2. Talk to your grantees They know what they need now, so ask them, listen to what they say, and give them what they need. You may not be able to do everything they hope for, but they will appreciate hearing from you, and your offer to help will let them know they have an ally at a time when we are all feeling a bit overwhelmed by constantly changing circumstances.

  3. Remove or reduce application and reporting requirements. My organization is committed to reducing the burden on our grantees in the grantmaking and reporting process. At Hazen, we have developed interview protocols for prospective grantees and as a tool for reporting. If there is information that needs further research within the organization, they can bring that back to us later. We can make thoughtful choices and maintain a rigorous process without unduly burdening organizations, particularly when they are under increased stress.

  4. Help grantees transition to a remote workforce. As more and more communities turn to precautionary measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, our grantees are doing the same as employers. But with limited funds, small organizations may not have a digital infrastructure in place. We have purchased bulk licenses for online meeting services for grantees, which can support teams more effectively than free services under the strain of increased usage. 

  5. Cover the immediate losses from the virus’ impacts. Conferences, events and meetings are being canceled now, with grassroots organizations having to sustain lost expenses and deposits for travel, meeting spaces, and more. Funders can more quickly cover these losses so our grantees can stay focused on longer-term resiliency plans.

  6. Grant emergency response funds. Grassroots organizations need to respond rapidly to the health concerns of the virus, including additional cleaning services and supplies, food delivery and home supplies for quarantined staff and community members, and childcare when schools are closed. We can move resources now to make sure our grantees are not alone in picking up the costs of taking care of our communities. 

Finally, this is both a sprint and a marathon. Organizations need our support now. But they will also need us to step up as we begin to feel the financial implications set in motion by the health crisis. We must be thinking now about how to support them as that unfolds. We believe that the most effective response will be one that is collective, and philanthropy must join together in identifying and funding points of intervention that will contribute to the stability and sustainability of our grantees and the field.

Lori Bezahler is the CEO of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, a private foundation committed to supporting organizing and leadership of young people and communities of color in dismantling structural inequity based on race and class.

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