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What We Learned About Crisis Grantmaking During the Pandemic

September 9, 2022
Caryl M. Stern
An evaluation of the Walton Family Foundation’s Covid response offers lessons in the opportunities and challenges of emergency funding

When historians reflect on what life was like in March 2020, I believe they’ll record it as a moment of collective trauma — when everything certain became uncertain, when the anchors of our daily lives became unmoored.

How would we protect our families, educate our kids, keep people employed, and provide or access basic services? Let’s be honest — no one knew the answers.

During that chaotic first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were all struggling to keep our heads above water, let alone swim.

What we did know was the crisis required an unprecedented response from government, business, nonprofits, and philanthropy.

As the scale of the emergency became clear, the organization I lead – the Walton Family Foundation – created a $35-million Covid Relief Fund to share resources to grantees and communities on the front lines of pandemic response.

Quote: Caryl M. Stern on our commitment to collaboration

As an organization committed to listening to and learning from our partners, we wanted to know whether our emergency response made a difference and what we could have done better. We commissioned an in-depth analysis to figure what approaches to keep in all of our grant making and how we should think about our giving the next time catastrophe strikes.

Already, we are applying some of this thinking as we examine how to help the nonprofits we support respond to the challenges inflation poses — including higher demand for services, growing pressure on wages, and the fast rise in how much it costs to buy products and services essential to a nonprofit’s mission.

Beyond the benefits to our own operations, we believe philanthropy as a whole can benefit from these lessons. But we are even more eager to hear what others have learned, so we hope that this essay will kick off even more sharing about what grant makers and nonprofits are learning about crisis responses.

At the foundation, providing emergency Covid aid required helping schools transitioning students to online learning, arts organizations whose marquees went dark, community organizations feeding families, and fishers who lost restaurant markets for their catch.

For some of our grantees, particularly small organizations with limited budgets, Covid-19 posed an existential threat. And for every organization, the pandemic risked impairing essential work that creates access to opportunity.

Quote: Caryl M. Stern on our grantees

As we wrapped up the emergency fund, the foundation’s Strategy, Learning, and Evaluation Department engaged Public Profit, an evaluation and strategy firm, to conduct a retrospective evaluation through grantee reports, surveys, and interviews.

The evaluation concluded the Covid Relief Fund delivered significant support to people and communities in a timely fashion.

Timeliness was critical. The evaluation found that 40% of grantees who received emergency funds were considering laying off employees and 60% said they were considering cutting programming in March 2020.

To get the $35 million out the door quickly, we needed to simplify our grantmaking process. We shortened the overall timeline for approving grants, provided more flexibility on reporting, and temporarily shifted the responsibility of completing grant applications from grantees to staff.

As a result, many grantees received emergency funding before they were able to secure federal Paycheck Protection Program funding. Seventy percent of grantees said they got money faster than through our typical grantmaking process.

Overall, the evaluation showed the relief had significant impact. Grants directly reached more than 800,000 children and 35,000 households. The funds enabled schools to provide students with more than 10,000 chromebooks and tablets and 12,000 wifi hotspots. They supported distribution of 170,000 meals and more than 65,000 items of personal protective equipment to people in need.

Our grantees deserve enormous credit for making every dollar count – using the grants to provide immediate relief, retain staff, and develop innovative new approaches to their work that will have lasting impact.

The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, for example, fed 25,000 students who lost access to breakfast and lunch when schools closed. It then raised and distributed matching funds to more than 100 grassroots nonprofits – mostly Black- and women-led – to reduce food insecurity throughout the Mississippi Delta. And it invested in freezers to store perishable food, strengthening the regional food safety net for the future.

Keith Fulcher, president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, with Kendric Travis of Coahoma County Youth Outreach
Keith Fulcher, president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, with Kendric Travis of Coahoma County Youth Outreach. The Community Foundation gave a grant for food and materials to organization.

Instruction Partners, one of our education grantees, used relief funds to shift their staff into a new stream of work curating “Grab and Go” printed instructional materials for students who lacked Internet access to complete online assignments.

“For a lot of kids, school is their sense of purpose,” said Instruction Partners CEO Emily Freitag. “We wanted to make sure that even through remote learning, their school materials could create a sense of connection and purpose in their days of isolation.”

Emily Freitag, CEO, Instruction Partners

In any crisis, the response needs to be fast, effective, and nimble. But that can bring tradeoffs.

Through our evaluation, we found that our desire to move quickly meant we missed some needs that arose later in the pandemic. The first lesson: In the future, we need to think about balancing immediate needs against emerging needs as circumstances evolve.

Because of the urgency of the crisis, we also worked primarily with existing foundation grantees with whom we had well-established relationships. The second lesson: By not identifying new grantees, though, we missed an opportunity for our grantmaking to be even more diverse and inclusive, limiting access to resources among organizations that serve people with tremendous needs.

We take each of those learnings seriously. Today, we better understand the importance of cultivating new relationships before and during times of crisis – and believe even more strongly that those closest to the problem are in the best position to find solutions that can endure.

Covid Relief Fund

As we look back on challenges of pandemic relief funding, we understand now that we were managing polarities as we sought to have the greatest impact. There was a dynamic tension in our decision making – between moving fast and slow, being responsive and strategic.

To that end, the foundation invited the team at CoCreative to host a training for our staff on how to use ‘polarity thinking’ – an approach to understanding the deeper interdependence of seemingly divergent values – to help us question some of the key assumptions in our current grantmaking practices.

The relief fund evaluation also raised questions about how we could improve our grantees’ experience when applying for funding during non-emergencies. That has prompted us to look for ways to improve our grants management software and user experience, and to make sure that the documentation we require is appropriate for the size and resources of the project and nonprofit we are supporting. In short, not every grant needs the same level of due diligence.

Covid Relief Fund grants

We are also more conscious now of the need to be adaptive in our regular grantmaking as grantees confront new challenges that have some of the characteristics of emergency, such as the end of federal relief funding and record-high inflation. That’s why the foundation has established a working group to consider the impact of inflation on grantee resources.

In times of tumult, it can be easy to think that strategic planning and evaluation are luxuries. But these moments of disruption are often when this work is most essential, because they are the moments when we learn the most.

Our experiences during COVID-19 have reinforced our commitment to collaboration and community-driven change. At a time when no one was in a position to go it alone, our grantees showed what is possible when people work beyond existing networks.

This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on Sept. 8, 2022.

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