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3 Guiding Principles for Grant Makers Seeking a COVID-19 Playbook

May 13, 2020
This crisis presents a unique moment for philanthropic conversation and collaboration

After 14 years of raising money to respond to disasters, I now find myself on the other side of the desk. Just a few months ago, I left my role leading Unicef USA, having raised hundreds of millions to bring relief to those harmed by war, disease, and natural disasters. Now, I am at the Walton Family Foundation as part of a team of grant makers . And I have a newfound respect for foundations weighing how to respond to a crisis.

I began my new role just as COVID-19 was beginning its arc toward crisis in the United States. Like many strategic philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation knows its lane — elementary and secondary education, ocean and river conservation, and building quality of life in our home region. But when something on the scale of COVID-19 happens, we see daunting implications for our grantees and impact on their work in ways none of us could have anticipated.

I have seen firsthand how communities, nonprofits, and foundations come together in crisis. But few events have been as geographically dispersed as this one. None has been on this scale.

I looked for a playbook on how philanthropy can be most effective during a disaster of this magnitude. There were organizations with useful resources, like the National Center for Family Philanthropy, Independent Sector, and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, but there was no specific pandemic playbook. So I welcomed the opportunity to work with the Bridgespan Group developing a new framework for philanthropic investment to combat COVID-19. With this organization, I have thought deeply about the phases of disaster response and relief, and their implications for how philanthropy can effectively respond.

Policies enacted now will shape our economy and social fabric for years and address our ability to respond to future pandemics.

We began this work as COVID-19 cases began mounting in Seattle and New York City, focusing on how philanthropy could not only contribute to smart government policy and spending but also direct services to fill gaps in the government’s response. While the pandemic has evolved and the federal stimulus legislation will bring initial relief, both of those avenues for philanthropic response remain relevant. Policies enacted now will shape our economy and social fabric for years and address our ability to respond to future pandemics. Still, gaps in services for many Americans will persist, and philanthropy can continue to direct services to those whose lives have been shattered by the health and economic crises.

Our work outlined a series of principles for giving during a crisis. As a foundation, we have put many into practice in recent weeks:

  • Support existing grantees. We have leaned into this, allowing grantees to redirect their funding with minimal hurdles to address shifting needs during COVID-19.
  • Work through expert organizations. This is especially relevant for our elementary- and secondary-education program as we collaborate to ensure efforts in this space are coordinated.
  • Enable local responses. The Walton Family Foundation has always had a focus on our home region of Northwest Arkansas and other communities where we work through our education and environment programs. We have doubled down on meeting the needs of our community, working through our grantees, and exploring how we can support them in new ways as we combat this virus. This is uncharted territory. Needs are evolving almost daily.

As someone who knows the importance of responding swiftly to a crisis — and the consequences of delaying critical resources — I encourage us all not to make perfect the enemy of the good. All foundations and donors should think about how to use dollars immediately to support communities in need, particularly those most vulnerable. It is critical that we focus resources on poor and marginalized people. Across the United States, many existing disparities have intensified, with people of color disproportionately harmed. We all must focus on the most vulnerable in the places we serve.

This crisis presents a unique moment for philanthropic conversation and collaboration.

At the same time, we need to remember this crisis is both a marathon and a sprint. It is essential we tackle the immediate emergency, COVID-19’s impact on our institutions, workplaces, schools, and medical systems. But I have seen through my work in Haiti, and during other disaster responses at Unicef, that if you don’t focus funds today on the medium and long term, the systems will not be in place for recovery and rebuilding. Our framework and philanthropic responses will evolve to put in place the systems and funds to support individuals, small businesses, and critical services as they move through the many phases to full recovery.

This crisis presents a unique moment for philanthropic conversation and collaboration. We need to inform one another on our progress — learning from successes and failures. We must apply those lessons to have the greatest collective impact against COVID-19 as we sprint to respond today, but also to build long-term resilience against future pandemics.

We should apply the innovations emerging during the COVID-19 pandemic to the future of medicine, business, education, and other fields.

“There is no education like adversity,” the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said. Innovations spring from hard times, such as the advent of penicillin during World War II or the record number of new businesses formed in the depths of the Great Recession.

I look forward to seeing the tomorrows being invented today.

But as we seek to get through the next few days and weeks, we must celebrate the community we have built — through the cheers erupting along city blocks and rural hospital parking lots appreciating medical professionals, to the neighbors breaking into song together from their balconies, and the families gathering around the dinner table instead of running from one activity to another. Those social bonds are as great a source of community resilience as any government, business, or philanthropic response.

This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on May 8, 2020.

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