Sharing insights from a snapshot study on funder responses to Covid-19 and how non-profits experienced different responses:

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

Why we did this:

We commissioned this for our own benefit — Firetree is deeply committed to learning, we try to continually reflect on our own work and get feedback from our partners.

Focus and key questions explored:

The snapshot focused specifically upon private and corporate funders based predominantly in Singapore and Hong Kong, (funding non-profits based in those two cities and/or the whole of South-East Asia.)

Brief overview of the methodology:

The snapshot research sought perspectives from funders and non-profits through:

  • ‘Dipstick’ surveys; brief, anonymised surveys for both funders and non-profits;
  • Anonymised 1-hour interviews; led by Just Cause, with a range of funders (not including Firetree) and a range of non-profits.
This is taken from slide 5 in the full insights deck at the end.


This snapshot focuses on specific profiles of funders and non-profits, which may not be representative of the sector more broadly. It was conducted in a short timeframe in December 2020 with small sample sizes and respondents ‘opted-in.’

The key questions we set out to explore were:

How have private and corporate funders in Singapore and Hong Kong adapted their grant-making in response to Covid-19 and how have non-profits experienced different funder responses?

What are the needs and challenges for effective grant-making going forward?

What We Found:

Of the funders Just Cause interviewed, responses to Covid-19 broadly fell into 3 categories, summarised below:

Taken from slide 8 in the insights deck
  • All funders (100%) surveyed reported allowing grantee project goals and timelines to shift, with at least some of their grantee portfolio
  • Over 80% reported providing increased size of their existing grants or providing supplemental funding, with at least some of their portfolio
  • However, far fewer funders (41%) reported converting restricted grants to unrestricted funding.
Taken from slide 9 in the insights deck
  • a higher proportion of non-profits reported greater restrictions
  • and a lower proportion reported increased flexibility (see below.)
Taken from slide 10 of the insights deck.
Taken from slide 12 of the insights deck
Taken from slide 13 of the insights deck.

HOW funders behave is as important as what we do:

When Just Cause asked non-profits “which Covid-19 response(s) from funders was helpful and what was not”, what they heard was not just what was done by funders, but how it was done.

Taken from slide 15 of the insights deck

What are the needs and challenges for grant partnerships going forward?

We asked surveyed funders which actions that they took in response to Covid-19 in 2020, do they intend to maintain in 2021.

Taken from slide 18 of the insights deck.
Taken from slide 19 of the insights deck.
Taken from slide 21 of the insights deck.
  • Increasing size of existing funding, providing additional funding outside of a funders core priorities and unrestricting funding were the changes most non-profits wished were maintained in 2021, but less than half of funder respondents report intending to maintain these;
  • Almost all funders report intending to continue to allow project goals and timelines to shift, but less than half of non-profits selected this as a top wish.
Taken from slide 22 of the insights deck. Non-profit respondents selected top 3 wishes from a list of potential actions, funder respondents selected all applicable actions from a parallel list. The graph shows top 6 results.

We asked non-profits what they foresaw as their top challenges in managing grant relationships in 2021.

The top answers related to managing relationships with existing funding — the top two cited challenges were:

  • Managing expectations and relationships with funders and
  • Understanding whether their funding is secure
Taken from slide 23 in the insights deck. Non-profit respondents selected top 3 challenges from a list
  • Building trust with new grantees;
  • Finding new grantee partners.
Taken from slide 24 of the insights deck.
  • Understanding whether their funding is secure is a top challenge for non-profits, but very few funders report this as an issue. I feel this shows one of the many ways that power imbalances manifest themselves in relationships between funders and non-profits;
  • Adapting to changes/managing changes to programmes is common across both funders and non-profits;
  • Finding opportunities for collaboration and learning came back as a key challenge for funders, but much less so for non-profit. This is interesting and perhaps speaks to how time-stretched non-profits are. As it happens, from our partial experience with Firetree’s own partners, we have seen lots of examples of collaboration between non-profits — particularly in relation to responding to changing needs. This topic deserves further and much deeper investigation.
Taken from slide 25 of the insights deck. Respondents selected top 3 challenges from a list of potential challenges. Funder respondents selected all applicable actions from a parallel list. Included above are the main challenges — i.e. ones which represented more than 20% for funders and/or non-profits.

Finally, we asked non-profits their advice to funders to help them better support non-profits in the future.

The most common advice focused upon engaging in conversations on needs, challenges and opportunities, not on more funding:

Taken from slide 26 of the insights deck. Respondents provided free text responses

Going forward:

Have these findings really surprised us? Honestly; no, not really.

It’s not that we have everything figured out — we absolutely don’t. We are constantly learning as we go and there is much in here that we can get better at.

So, here’s what we as Firetree are going to do:

Double-down on our commitment to multi-year, general operating support funding with our partners, wherever possible. This is our default model and always has been.

To access the full snapshot slide-deck, please click here.



Reflections, approaches and updates from Firetree Philanthropy. We support work that creates long-term positive change in communities ​in Southeast Asia.

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