COVID-19 and the Role of Philanthropy: How We Can Become Better Grantmakers

May 14, 2020

Over the past couple of months, the impacts of COVID-19 have expanded in ways that have challenged us in philanthropy to reflect on our role right now. 

The challenges brought about by this global pandemic are in fact an opportunity for us to become better grantmakers—to trust the leadership of people doing the work, to make long-term, significant investments in their vision, and ultimately, to get out of their way. 

In March, we shared what we were hearing from organizers and advocates about challenges they are facing and what they need from funders. We also shared some of the questions we have been grappling with, as we have considered how to meet emerging grantee needs. 

We’d like to share some of the ways we have responded to COVID-19, as well as lessons we have learned. We hope our reflections are useful for others contemplating changes in their own grantmaking, and that we will hear feedback on what more we can do:

1. Rapidly moving increased funding to groups on the ground:

Since March, we have made nearly 50 rapid response grants totaling more than $400,000 to grantee partners across several of our donor collaborative funds. This has included support for technological needs like Zoom licenses, laptops, and digital organizing tools, resources for staffing needs, investments in mutual aid networks, and funding for organizing and advocacy building towards long-term, systemic change.

Some examples: In late April, our Disability Inclusion Fund launched a $200,000 rapid response fund to support the needs of people with disabilities related to the impact of COVID-19, and will award grants by the end of the month. The Transforming Movements Fund has offered resources to support campaigns calling for people to be released from immigration detention, as well as campaigns demanding the release of people in prison. The Spark Justice Fund has awarded grants to groups working on rapid response bail outs, as well as organizations providing housing and basic needs support to folks being released from jail so that they can safely quarantine before returning to their communities. And our Racial Equity Initiatives have held trainings on how to facilitate virtual spaces and created Slack channels for grantees, so that they can share ideas and resources for support during COVID-19.

Over the past two months, our rapid response funding has been focused on meeting needs that have emerged during COVID-19. However, we are mindful that many groups’ current needs build upon their long-term organizing. This global pandemic has exacerbated systemic inequities that our grantees have been addressing in their long-term work. Groups on the ground are using this opportunity to make progress on demands for universal access to healthcare and housing, fair wages, paid sick leave, rights and freedoms for oppressed communities, along with many others.

Our approach to both rapid response and longer-term grantmaking recognizes that in order for groups to organize and win systemic, transformative change, their members and the communities they serve must have their basic needs met. Mutual aid is not a direct service practice that exists in a vacuum — it is a key part of building power and grassroots organizing that needs more investment from philanthropy.

2. Easing application and reporting burdens on grantees:

In response to the pandemic, many of our funds have adjusted reporting and proposal requirements for grantees. This includes providing grants with limited or no proposal requirements and extending reporting deadlines or eliminating reporting requirements.

Prior to the pandemic, some of our funds had already created streamlined application and reporting processes that we were able to expand upon during COVID-19. In many cases, program staff have conducted calls with grantees in lieu of asking for a written proposal or report submissions. We are also continuing to simplify application processes. For example, the Disability Inclusion Fund’s rapid response application consisted of two narrative questions, and made accommodations for groups that wanted to submit proposals via video or over the phone.

3. Prioritizing flexible funding:

Many of our donor collaboratives at Borealis prioritize offering general operating support grants, because we believe organizations doing the work are best served by having maximum flexibility to determine how to use resources.

Given how the pandemic has led to organizations needing to quickly adjust their plans and strategies, we have converted existing project support grants to general operating grants, so that organizations are able to use funds where they are most needed right now. 

4. Collaborating with funder partners: 

In April, Borealis Philanthropy’s Fund for Trans Generations, Destination Tomorrow’s TRANScend Community Impact Fund, and Third Wave Fund launched the COVID-19 Collective Fund for Trans Communities to get financial resources to trans-led organizations and transgender, gender nonconforming, and non-binary communities who are organizing in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

We engaged in this collaboration in order to ease burdens for trans-led organizations applying for grants amidst the COVID-19 crisis. The collective has created a common application for potential grantees so that they can submit one application to one place for review. Funders will review applications and collectively decide how to resource prospective grantees. 

We are proud of this collaboration because a common grantmaking application is an essential step towards reducing burdens on grantees. If more organizations are able to submit one proposal for funding, or are at least asked very similar questions in grant applications, this allows them to focus on the critical work they are doing in their communities rather than on fundraising.

Our responses to COVID-19 build upon our existing practices and principles as a grantmaker. Our commitments to accessibility, collaboration, easing burdens on grantees, offering flexible funding, and investing in communities impacted by injustice are not a temporary response to this pandemic—they are practices we will continue to deepen over time in order to become more thoughtful, intentional funders of social movements. 

We are witnessing how this global pandemic has led many foundations to adopt more equitable practices—increases in payouts from endowments, commitments to longer-term, flexible funding, and changes in reporting or proposal requirements. If these policies and practices can happen during a pandemic, we see no reason why they can’t be institutionalized by foundations post-crisis. 

We also know that because of this country’s long history of structural racism, the impact of a global pandemic like COVID-19 is felt disproportionately by communities of color, queer and trans people, immigrants, people with disabilities, low-income people, and many others. 

People of color make up a large percentage of essential workers: healthcare workers, public transit workers, grocery store workers, and others. Because of a long history of being prevented from accessing quality healthcare, they are disproportionately likely to have pre-existing health conditions. Distance learning means inequitable education for poor and low-income students who don’t have access to computers or a parent that has the privilege of working from home to support their learning.

And yet, these communities and the organizations that most effectively advocate for them continue to be under-resourced by philanthropy. A recent report from Echoing Green and the Bridgespan Group confirmed the ongoing reality of racial disparities in grantmaking. From 2012-2015, the report found that, “on average the revenues of the Black-led organizations are 24 percent smaller than the revenues of their white-led counterparts.” And from 2010-2014, only 11 percent of big bets for social change went to people of color-led organizations. Nonprofit leaders of color are of course unsurprised by these findings, as they experience this reality through their fundraising experiences every day. 

Philanthropy has also long been aware of both this funding gap and these disparate impacts. In this moment, funders whose mission is to close gaps in racial and economic disparities that existed pre-COVID have an opportunity to make real progress towards that goal, so that these disparities do not increase in a post-COVID world. By recognizing and resourcing the powerful and visionary organizing led by people of color and other marginalized communities, right now and in the long-term, we can emerge from this crisis as a stronger, more just, and more equitable society.