COVID19: What Philanthropy Can Do

Kathleen Kelly Janus
6 min readMar 16, 2020
Governor Newsom addresses foundation leaders at State of California Philanthropy Summit earlier this year

Ever since I started my role as Senior Advisor on Social Innovation to Governor Gavin Newsom, I’ve been saying this is a “moment for partnership like never before.” Never could I have imagined just how true that statement would become as it has in this moment.

As the State of California embarks on the massive undertaking of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in our State to save lives and help those already infected, we NEED our philanthropic partners like never before. Philanthropic capital is nimble capital. It can support innovation and outside- of-the-box community interventions alongside our statewide response.

To those philanthropists considering how to meet the growing need, a few critical reminders:

1. This is a quickly evolving situation. Flexibility is more important than it’s ever been before.

2. This is a marathon not a sprint. By all accounts COVID-19 will get worse before it gets better. As immediate needs continue to surge, we also need to be investing with a long-term focus in mind.

3. There are many ways to support our efforts, and we need all of them! My goal in presenting a buffet of opportunities for partnership is not to be prescriptive, but to open up new lines of communication and thinking about how to partner. Invest where you are uniquely positioned to do so, and bring all of your resources, regional understanding, and relationships to bear.

With that in mind, there are two primary categories of need that are emerging: first supporting the public health response and second supporting vulnerable communities.


A few areas where there are opportunities for partnership on the public health response include what I’m calling the 4 Ts — testing, tracking, treatment, and transparency:

1. Testing: We know that increasing testing capacity has been a challenge. With private lab testing starting in California this week, our capacity is much more significant, but we still need to ramp up to meet the growing need. Investing in testing innovation is an important role that philanthropy can play. Private researchers like Stanford and UCSF have developed in-house tests that they are using, and the Gates Foundation has developed home testing kits that they are processing through the University of Washington. And just today the California Governor’s Office announced a partnership with Verily to develop community testing sites using their Project Baseline technology. This kind of innovation is exactly what we need.

2. Technology + Tracking the Spread of the Disease: We have in-house predictive models at California’s Department of Health and Human Services that can show the spread of the virus across California, but we also know that we have the best technology in the world right here in our state. Governor Newsom is committed to leveraging external AI partners to try to predict the spread of the COVID-19 across California so we can be prepared with our response.

3. Treatment: There is currently no known vaccine for COVID-19. As a state, we will be relying on private research institutions to support vaccine testing and therapeutic treatment research, so investing in private research is another way to support the public health response, especially for the long-term.

4. Transparency through Active Communications: Finally, as we move from the containment phase to the mitigation phase, we will need strong messaging to ensure all Californians have the correct information to stay safe. We are working on a statewide PSA Campaign that will launch soon, and have already had so many private partners lend their support to that effort. But local communities — especially local departments of public health — are each going to need support to develop local messaging. Remember, we are a state with 58 counties, each of which will experience this outbreak in a different way, so supporting local jurisdictions will be key. Organizations like the CDC Foundation are playing a critical role in supporting local communications strategies.


The second area where we’re seeing a huge need for philanthropic partnership is supporting California’s already vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Low wage workers, low-income families, homeless individuals, and other underserved populations are going to be disproportionately affected by this pandemic.

How can you help support those most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19?

1. Use community foundations. As this virus is poised to spread throughout the state, community foundations are going to be in the best position to support hyper-local relief efforts in a way that the State cannot. Philanthropy California, a statewide coalition of grantmakers, is working closely with the League of California Community Foundations, United Ways and others to set up regional disaster funds throughout the state. This will be critical to help us get resources to communities that don’t have as much access to philanthropic funding (like inland California and tribal areas).

2. Support local nonprofits serving vulnerable populations — food banks (especially if kids can no longer get school lunches), meals on wheels, senior centers, homeless-serving organizations — are also relying on philanthropic support to get through this outbreak. Nonprofits themselves are going to be particularly vulnerable given the increase in demand, and the decrease in funding with canceled fundraisers and the stock market decline. And of course flexible, general operating support is critical during this uncertain time — both making new unrestricted grants and freeing up prior programmatic grants to convert to general operating support are desperately needed.

3. Support organizations that provide individual assistance. 57% of Americans don’t have $500 in their bank accounts to cover an emergency. The State has many benefits that will be available to individuals — paid family leave, unemployment insurance, etc. — but some of our most vulnerable Californians won’t be eligible for those (i.e. non-workers), and often flexible cash grants to cover rental payments or utility bills will be needed most. I encourage you to look for structures that are already in place like flexible rent subsidy pools or community foundations, that are set up for individual assistance. The Hilton Foundation, for example, just made a $250K grant to Brilliant Corners to support rental subsidies in Los Angeles County.

4. Finally, support small businesses. 90% of businesses fail within two years of being struck by disaster. SBA loans are available to business owners, and just last week San Francisco announced a million-dollar fund to support $10K grants to small businesses. The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development is working to set up 0% loan funds through CDFI’s, which are a great place to invest. We are also working to set up a statewide philanthropic fund for small businesses — stay tuned for more information on that soon.

I’ll end just as I started: This is a moment for partnership like we’ve never experienced before.

First, it’s a moment for partnership with the state: we are executing on addressing an unprecedented pandemic here in California, and we need your partnership to support local communities who are going to experience this global pandemic in different, locally unique ways that have hyper-local needs.

It’s also a moment for collaboration with each other — scattershot grantmaking is not going to be as impactful as donors coming together to amplify their impact by working together. Use this as an opportunity to work through intermediaries, like the CDC Foundation or Philanthropy California, and for collaborative grantmaking. Together, our work will go so much farther — the sum is greater than its parts.

Governor Newsom is committed to working in partnership with the private and philanthropic sectors to address the COVID-19 virus head on, slowing the spread and saving lives! We hope you will join us as we meet this moment head-on.



Kathleen Kelly Janus

Senior Advisor at Freedman Consulting, Stanford lecturer, led public-private partnerships @CAGovernor Newsom, Social Startup Success author, mom of three.