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5 Learnings from Funders as They Respond to COVID-19

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Across the globe, many organizations are adjusting to social distancing and remote working — philanthropy is no exception. To support our members during this time of adjustment, PACE worked with the Democracy Funders Network and Entrepreneurship Funders Network to host a call for philanthropic funders to share with one another the operational implications of COVID-19. The call focused on several topics including adjustments in operational work, how funders are supporting their grantees, changes that are being considered to grantmaking practices, and long-term shifts in both operations and grant-making.

As a field, we are seeing a dramatic need to restructure the way we operate to best support grantees and nonprofits in responding to this pandemic in the immediate term and set us up for success to continue to respond and prepare in the long-term.

Five main themes rose to the surface throughout the call and it was encouraging to see this community share their learnings and approach the conversation in a collaborative and positive way, even while virtually speaking over Zoom.

Here are the 5 thematic takeaways that funders are learning as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Building community while physically apart presents challenges.

There is a dissonance between our mission as funders and the reality of this situation. Many funders on the call felt their role is to build community — both with their grantees and through their missions. But during this unique crisis, being physically removed from coworkers, grantees, and our communities makes it difficult to assess real needs, priorities, and potential for coordination.

People are thinking creatively and experimenting with the use of tools to enhance virtual work — Zoom has breakout room features, and IdeaFlip lets you brainstorm with post-its online! — and we shared various tips and resources for shifting programming and best coordinating logistics. The call itself was a learning opportunity in juggling over thirty participants in an open conversation and sharing resources with one another. Many shared that one key to success in large virtual conversations is having one person run the meeting on the front end and another person “behind the scenes” managing technical issues and logistics — and maintaining open communication between the two throughout the experience.

2. The pandemic raises concerns about equity and highlights societal divides.

The global pandemic has brought upon new concerns around the stark reality that access to education, healthcare, telemedicine, and even the internet, is not omnipresent, and if we’re not careful, inequity could be exacerbated. Rural communities, hourly and low wage workers, unemployed workers, people experiencing homelessness, and undocumented citizens are likely to face additional challenges in many of these areas. Additionally, accurate and up-to-date information about the pandemic seems to be having a harder time reaching some of these demographics. Funders see this as an opportunity to support and elevate the needs of marginalized communities and are recognizing the need for on-the-ground local coordination and public-private partnerships to help ensure all communities are supported in efforts.

3. There is no “one approach fits all” for supporting grantees through this pandemic.

Funders are taking a wide variety of approaches to support their grantees financially and in ensuring that they can provide services as effectively as possible. From shifting restricted grants to general operating support, loosening or removing reporting and grant application requirements, shifting timelines for discretionary funds, surveying grantees to better understand their needs — the message was clear that the philanthropy community is ready to take necessary action to support nonprofits and trust their ability to adapt as needed.

Folks shared two pieces of advice:

  • First, strive to listen to grantees, but be careful not to over-survey or inundate them with requests, especially given the rapidly changing nature of the situation — not all of the needs or impacts may be knowable right now. Consider if/how requests for information can be streamlined and low-lift.
  • Second, the short- and long-term needs of grantees vary. While many of the aforementioned supports are effective in the short-term, the long-term needs of grantees may be different, and some needs may be more acute than others. It’s important to consider how to offer grantees consistency and normalcy, as well as keeping a balance between short- and long-term strategies.

4. Remaining flexible and open to rapid response is outside of funders’ typical comfort zones.

Several communities have set up rapid response funds to support the immediate needs of this pandemic. Funders have moved quickly to set up and activate these funds and have created tremendously helpful resources to aggregate rapid response funds across the country. That said, working with boards and other leadership to be comfortable with rapid response (or even near-term uncertainty) can be a challenge.

First, program grants need to be framed as aspirational, with the understanding that the ever-changing landscape of this pandemic requires flexibility and patience.

Second, the typical diligence process for specific funds may not be as fully structured as we may normally be used to. Funders may need to have a high level of trust in leadership and embrace that some level of detail may need to be determined along the way, even if your investment is needed up front.

Finally, we heard that some non-place based funders are challenging themselves to adapt their typical focus and support work at their local level, in addition to their typical national or international level.

5. Long-term shifts in grant-making and operations are up for consideration.

Three longer term realities have been made clear to funders as they think past the next few weeks or months into the fall and even into 2021:

First, the viability of events and conferences is at risk. There is uncertainty about when nonprofits will once again be able to rely on events with confidence as a backbone of their typical engagement strategy. And, for many, they’re having to revisit their overall reliance on events and conferences, especially when they account for a significant source of revenue. Funders shared that several are considering keeping event sponsorships in the interim to support nonprofits and are thinking creatively about how to keep the engines running with worldwide event cancellations.

Second, folks are seeing an emergence of conversations about nonprofit mergers and acquisitions — a topic that is often kept quiet from funders. Boards and CEOs of like-minded organizations are beginning to explore the potential for mergers and acquisitions in order to harness necessary resources and make the most of their impact during this crisis.

And finally, funders are recognizing in order to be forward-thinking they need to start to coordinate some field-wide scenario planning to consider how the issues, sectors, or causes they support might look like on the other side of this crisis and how to prepare for and support that potential shift.

Have you experimented with new operational procedures, adapted grant-making, or a shift in your typical funding practices? We’d love to hear more about how funders are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and welcome additional learnings and reflections.

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a…

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)

Written by

A network of foundations and funders committed to civic engagement and democratic practice. Visit our publication at: medium.com/office-of-citizen

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.

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