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Options and Opportunities for Giving in a Changed World

AS THE WORLD ADDRESSES THE SPREAD OF THE CORONAVIRUS and the ensuing economic turmoil, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors face an ambiguous future. There are and will continue to be complex community needs, but the full scope of those needs is still unclear. While it’s readily apparent that philanthropic capital is more important than ever, the situation is extremely fluid and evolving rapidly, and the flurry of news and informal conversations can make it hard to identify the best philanthropic response.

In the following Q&A, we answer questions clients are asking on how to get started with giving in response to the current crisis and offer considerations for longer-term investments to address the virus — as well as potential effects on the charitable sector and issues that may emerge in the future.

What can I do right now to help with the coronavirus outbreak?
Right now, needs are emerging at the national and local levels on a daily if not hourly basis. There are multiple opportunities to partner with nonprofits to ensure that they both survive this current situation and also thrive and continue to support your communities and all who live in them. Your philanthropy is likely to be a vital component of their successful future. If you run a foundation, consider providing funding or taking administrative steps to suspend or eliminate grant reporting and site visits so that nonprofits can concentrate on providing services.

Make sure you’re building relationships with organizations that work with at-risk populations most effectively, so that in the next crisis you’re poised to make charitable gifts immediately without needing to do initial research.

That said, as you explore your options, we strongly advise that you carefully vet any organization you’re considering for a donation, particularly if it’s a brand-new entity. We know from experience related to disaster relief that heightened public awareness and urgency can give rise to scams that masquerade as legitimate charities to gather money. 

How can I help organizations addressing virus prevention, treatment and research?
The good news is that there have been unprecedented levels of cooperation within the international scientific community in the race to find both a treatment and preventative vaccine for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Multiple local, regional and international response funds have been started and many more no doubt will be created to support these efforts, as well as address treatment for those experiencing severe symptoms.

On the research front, you may wish to consider contributing to existing organizations in order to leverage their expert vetting of specific scientists or scientific approaches being proposed by researchers. If you’re interested in supporting treatment, you might consider gifts to local hospitals or other medical treatment groups, including international aid organizations.

Longer term, since basic scientific research is generally under-funded in the United States, investing in both bench and clinical research, as well as strengthening the global public health infrastructure, would help position the world to respond better to the next novel pathogen that emerges.

How can I help my community?
First, donors should consider nonprofits who work with the most marginalized populations. On a recent webinar Dr. Lauren Smith pointed out that “disasters lay bare inequities,”1 and this public health emergency has already hit some of the most vulnerable people in our nation the hardest. Low-income workers may not have health insurance or paid sick leave, and frequently are unable to afford to take time from work in order to self-quarantine or to seek treatment if they suspect they’re ill. Language barriers and housing instability may pose additional obstacles to those in need of testing, treatment and basic support. With schools closed in many communities, children from low-income families may miss their school-provided breakfasts and/or lunches, which will put stress on local nutrition programs.  

To help, look for safety-net organizations such as food pantries, homelessness prevention programs and health care providers. Another opportunity would be to support population-specific work such as funding medical interpreters or translating materials into other languages. Right now, disseminating accurate information is critical, so directing funds toward organizations at the front line of that effort can have wide impact.

Second, consider the ripple effects of the current situation. At a moment such as this, nonprofits that have revenue-generating activities such as theaters or museums may see a sudden drop-off in those revenues if they have to curtail their activities to support “social distancing” public health strategies. While you might not consider yourself an arts funder, the economic vitality of your community surely benefits from a healthy, thriving arts community. The mental health impacts of the public crisis should not be overlooked in your grants strategy. On another front, if your geography includes both urban and rural areas, you may wish to examine the specific resources available to people living in the rural areas, as those areas tend to be under-funded and under-resourced.

Additional information and giving opportunities

Center for Disaster Philanthropy Overview and Response Fund

CDC Foundation Response Fund

Global Giving Coronavirus Relief Fund

World Health Organization COVID-19 Solidarity Fund

The Gates Foundation is sponsoring two funds: Combating COVID-19 Fund, which will help develop the most promising vaccines and diagnostics and protect the most vulnerable, and the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator Fund, which will expedite the process of getting new treatments to market quickly.

Where can I find information about trusted nonprofits in my local area?
Your local community foundation may be a good starting point to learn more about potential nonprofits in your area. In addition, many community foundations are setting up local funds to provide targeted assistance to the areas they serve.  You can find your area’s community foundation at the Council on Foundations Community Foundation Locator.

What other adjustments might I make to my giving strategy in light of the crisis?
Because the situation is so fluid, we recommend that donors consider making unrestricted gifts, as it’s difficult for organizations to anticipate exactly what will be needed as events evolve. As state and federal aid packages are still in development, flexible dollars that can be used to cover unanticipated expenses will be most valuable to nonprofits.

The Nonprofit Finance Fund has reported that fewer than 25% of nonprofits in the United States have more than 6 months of operating cash in reserves, and almost 10% have less than 30 days cash on hand.2 Reach out to your grantees or to the organizations you routinely support to identify their immediate concerns and needs. If you have a current commitment to an organization, consider prepaying multiyear pledges and/or allowing for flexibility in the use of funds. Find out if nonprofits have had to cancel or postpone major fundraising events and consider making donations to offset those missed fundraising opportunities.3 Consider converting existing program grants into general operating grants so that your grantees can be nimble in their response to this changing situation. Consider providing funding so that they can pay additional sick leave or pay staff when venues are closed, so that there isn’t a disruption in staff incomes.

Once the current situation abates, what are some longer-term opportunities?
Make sure you’re building relationships with organizations that work with at-risk populations most effectively, so that in the next crisis you’re poised to make charitable gifts immediately without needing to do initial research.

In addition, work with organizations that you support to strengthen their infrastructure and capacity, in order to ensure that they will be in a strong position to support their communities in the short and long term. You may wish to ask them if they have strong emergency and contingency plans, including appropriate technological infrastructure (e.g., technology to allow staff to work remotely) to weather the next major disruptive event. If not, consider making a capacity-building grant to assist with the organization’s business continuity planning.

Finally, significant research shows that communities fare better in disasters when they have characteristics of resilience such as engagement at the community level, a sense of cohesiveness and neighborhood involvement or integration, partnership among organizations, integrated pre-event planning, exercises and agreements, and optimal community health and access to quality health services.4 After the coronavirus has passed, you might consider reaching out to key organizations in the region to see what they learned from this experience and what support they will need to help build long-term resilience for the community.  Building community resilience is long-term work and has shown to have significant payoffs in hard times.

To learn more, please contact your advisor.


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“How Philanthropy Can Support and Enhance the Government Response to COVID-19,”March 12, 2020 Webinar sponsored by Southern California Grantmakers.  Lauren Smith, MD, MPH, is the Co-CEO of FSG, a global strategy consulting group, and the former Medical Director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

The 2018 Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector Survey.  See summary at https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/tools-resources/operating-reserves-nonprofits (page retrieved 3/12/20).

Points in the paragraph drawn from Opinion piece “6 Steps for Grant Makers to Take Now to Ensure Nonprofits Recover from Coronavirus Spread.” Antony Bugg-Levine, published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 9, 2020. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Coronavirus-6-Steps-for-Grant/248202 (page retrieved March 16, 2020).

Chandra, Anita, et al. “Building Community Resilience to Disasters: A Way Forward to Enhance National Health Security.” RAND Corporation https://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR915.html

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