COVID-19: What Borealis Is Learning from Organizations on the Ground, and How Funders Can Respond

March 20, 2020

As the global COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the impact on all of us changes everyday. As funders—foundations, individual donors, intermediaries, and others—consider how to respond both in this moment of crisis and over the long-term, we want to share some of the challenges and needs we have heard from organizations on the ground that Borealis supports:

  • Translating on-the-ground organizing to virtual spaces 

Groups engaged in door-knocking and neighborhood canvassing face the challenge of adapting to a new reality that limits physical contact and the ability to connect with people out in the community. We have heard from groups that are struggling to pay canvassers for door knocking that is no longer possible. Organizations are considering transitioning to phone calls or virtual outreach, but not all canvassers have access to laptops, internet, unlimited data, and other resources that are needed for remote organizing. In addition, organizing virtually and online is a skill set that is distinct from on-the-ground canvassing, and some groups need training and other resources to effectively make the transition to building power online that is still driven by the values of offline relational organizing. 

  • Adapting to rapid response, direct action, and community protection from a distance

Monitoring the abuse and harm faced by people in jails, prisons, immigration detention facilities, people facing evictions, people without homes, and many others is traditionally done on the ground. Organizers are often in the field to respond when violence and harm occurs, so those in power know they will be held accountable for their actions. However, with shelter-in-place and other guidelines limiting crowds, organizers have to adjust tactics. Instead of direct action or mobilizing community members to turn out to government meetings, they must find additional ways of making their voices heard by public officials who are focused elsewhere. This can include, for example, purchasing digital advocacy tools so people can send customized messages to legislators. This is a pressing need, as we already know that these vulnerable communities are especially at risk for infection, being mistreated, and abuses of their rights. 

  • Responding to emerging needs of staff and communities served

Groups are being called on for mutual aid, to support their staff and people they serve in meeting their mental and physical health needs. Grassroots organizations fighting for the rights and freedoms of vulnerable people are acutely aware that their communities—immigrants, people of color, currently and formerly incarcerated people, LGBTQ people, transgender and gender non-conforming people, people with disabilities, poor and low-income people, and many others—are among the most likely to suffer physical, financial, and emotional harm from COVID-19. Some examples of specific support needs: healthcare, particularly healthcare that is accessible virtually, virtual wellness resources for mental and emotional health, food and supplies for staff and members, and stipends for phone service, caregiving, and rideshare travel. In addition, organizations want to share public health information about COVID-19 with their multilingual communities, and need financial support to translate documents.

  • Connecting and building coalition partnerships virtually, bracing for economic recession

Many convenings, conferences, and gatherings have been cancelled or postponed recently. These spaces are critically important for organizers and advocates to connect, build relationships, and learn from each other’s strategies. Groups need support to find new, innovative ways to effectively connect and learn from each other remotely. For some groups, these events are also lost revenue-generating opportunities, which is especially worrisome as the prediction of a pandemic-induced recession seems more likely while in the midst of a major election cycle.  

  • Transitioning to remote work environments

Organizations that have always worked out of brick and mortar offices need financial resources and strategic support to move their work online. For example, organizations need laptops, Zoom licenses, high-speed internet for employees, office supplies, and other resources to have team members work from home. With more people working remotely, digital security needs will also increase as we have learned from Palante Tech, who currently provides technical assistance and capacity-building to support advocacy groups in this area.  In addition, as people adjust to caring for their loved ones during the pandemic, organizations need additional resources to allow for more paid time off for their staff, and to support their team’s increased caregiving responsibilities. 

So what should funders DO with this knowledge? One point we want to emphasize: the above challenges and needs are a snapshot of what we’ve heard from organizations recently. They are not representative or universal, and as funders we should listen to grantees and respond to their individual circumstances rather than expect them to pivot their work in any particular way. In this moment (and in the long-term) we must adapt our grantmaking to grantee needs, instead of asking grantees to fit their work into our program areas. 

At Borealis, we are learning and adapting right now, and we do not have all of the answers. As a philanthropic intermediary, we are charged with responding to emerging grantee needs and making sure our funders know how they can help meet those needs. We are committed to sharing what we learn and learning with our philanthropic and grantee partners as conditions change. Some questions we are grappling with, that we ask others to consider:

  1. We have long known that unrestricted grant dollars and long-term funding are the most useful ways to support grantees. How can we increase our commitment to those principles, both right now and for the long haul?
  2. How can we ease reporting and application burdens on grantees immediately, and quickly and effectively fulfill rapid response requests?
  3. Can we repurpose existing grants so that groups have greater flexibility to use funding for their most pressing needs?
  4. As many of us quickly move to remote working environments with more flexible work arrangements, can we acknowledge that this has been a call from disability activists for years and use this opportunity to devote more time and resources to disability justice, access, and inclusion in our operations and grantmaking? 
  5. What can we learn from giving trends from the 2008 Great Recession and post-2016 election to ensure foundations increase their investments in the issues, communities, and movements that will carry us through this crisis towards a better future for all of us? 

We know this public health crisis underscores the need for systemic change that grassroots groups have long been fighting for—universal access to healthcare and housing, fair wages, paid sick leave, rights and freedoms for oppressed communities, among many more demands. We are thinking about how to best support organizations who are capitalizing on this movement moment to make progress on those long-term goals, and look forward to sharing what we learn in the coming weeks.