Listening to the Nonprofit Community During COVID-19
Things are changing quickly, frequently, and for many of us, frighteningly. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all to respond generously and compassionately despite the chaotic nature of the day—and that’s what we intend to do. The Walter & Elise Haas Fund is offering, and hopefully modelling, COVID-19-specific support in two phases, with more likely to come as the situation evolves.
We are now and have always been a community-oriented grantmaker, committed to the San Francisco Bay Area and its vulnerable and at-risk populations. Today, that at-risk population includes all of us, but the risks are far greater and far direr for those lacking shelter, medical care, or—in numbers that are rapidly increasing—a source of income. We are working quickly to learn, adjust, and react so that we can deliver support in the ways in which help can extend the farthest.
First, we have expedited awarding our annual Safety Net grants by a few weeks. Second, we mobilized to award a dozen additional rapid response grants to safety net and support organizations that are already in our portfolio. These front-line nonprofits focus on the immediate and pressing need to provide food to those without. We directed these rapid response grants towards those organizations that serve seniors and other vulnerable populations that are at particularly high risk. We also awarded funds to help school-age children access meals during school closures.
Last Friday, March 13th—the day before Bay Area residents received instructions to shelter in place—we sent out a survey to our nonprofit partners. We recognize that this situation is a dynamic one, and that things have changed dramatically since then, however the responses we received were helpful in guiding our response.
You can review the quantitative responses to our short survey here. We also asked “What are three things philanthropy should be doing in support of grantees?” The 80+ qualitative responses we received fell largely into five categories:
- FUNDING: As organizations scramble to keep their programs operating and staff employed under extremely challenging circumstances, they need emergency unrestricted or general operating support. Where that’s not possible, the early release of already awarded grant payments will help keep these organizations solvent as they adjust.
- TOGETHERNESS: Nonprofits reported they need help sharing best practices and space where they can learn from and support each other. They need frameworks, resources, connections, and advocacy from the Philanthropic community. This togetherness will help those who are overwhelmed—practically and emotionally—by the vastly increased needs they are asked to help meet.
- FLEXIBILITY: Nonprofits emphasized the need for flexibility from their funding partners. At a time when schools, stores, and national borders are closed, insisting that dance class, or tax filing assistance, or evaluation activities go on as planned is not fully recognizing the gravity of this moment. Flexibility looks like: amending grants to include report extensions, duration extensions, report cancellations, and shifts from project support to general operating support.
- TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE: The quick transition to remote work and virtual delivery of services and programming means a vastly increased need for technical assistance. Therefore, nonprofits need IT support and access to free software that facilitates their shift to operating as close to normal while offices and classrooms are closed.
- POLICY: The nonprofit sector, including its workers, stands to benefit from the aid packages being discussed by state and local governments. To the extent possible, the nonprofit community calls on its philanthropic partners to support these measures.
For those of you who shared your valuable time to respond to our survey, thank you. It will be useful in guiding our work, and we hope it’s useful in guiding the work of our philanthropic peers. We value making decisions based on what our nonprofit partners say is important to them.
All this leads us to the second phase of our response to COVID-19. Taking the advice of our nonprofit partners, the Fund’s Program Officers are already working to convert some project grants to general operating support grants and to relax strict reporting requirements.
We will do what we can to support human needs and the needs of nonprofits. We expect that will mean supporting the economic stability of individuals, families, and organizations, likely through pooled funds being created by philanthropic partners such as community foundations and nonprofit intermediaries. We want to make sure that people—especially domestic, restaurant, arts community workers, and others who lack employment protections—remain able to sustain themselves and their families through this crisis. Members of the immigrant community are also especially vulnerable, as they are less likely to benefit from any government support.
And it is troubling to recognize how disproportionately and direly the arts community is being affected—as that community is dependent on people coming together. If we cannot infuse artists with support, we risk many arts organizations closing their doors for good.
We have been and will continue to be as adaptable and flexible as possible. We’ve always relied upon our relationships with our philanthropic and grantee partners, and we hope our partners will continue to rely upon us—and to be honest about what they need and how we can help.
While we are conscious of and concerned about the looming recession and subsequent decrease in the size of the Fund’s endowment, trustees have made the decision to increase the Fund’s payout this year. But even with increased resources, the Fund, on its own, can’t respond to the scale of need caused by COVID-19. Philanthropy works best when funders are working together in common cause.
We have to be flexible and—as much as possible—proactive in offering flexibility. Even approaching a funder with a request for flexibility right now is beyond the capabilities of many nonprofit leaders who are swamped trying to keep their organizations intact and their staff and constituents safe.
I am explicitly calling on my Philanthropic peers to trust their grantees and to do all they can to lighten the burdens they face. We have to hold each other up and we have to do so right now.
To say these times are stressful is a vast understatement. We can’t do everything for everyone, but we see it as our job—and the job of all funders—to alleviate as many burdens as possible. At the very least, we need to promise to not to add to the list of burdens our grantee partners face.
Stay safe. Stay healthy.