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Philanthropy after 2020: Reverse Gear or Fast Forward?

June 13, 2020
Hilary Pearson

Three months, a quarter of a year, since the pandemic lockdown began. Long days, short weeks for many in the nonprofit sector and their funders. The troubling impacts of the lockdown on charities are piling up: lost revenue, staff layoffs, shuttered programs, and negative increases in social indices such as mental illness, domestic violence and food insecurity. At the same time, these weeks have seen extraordinarily positive actions: rapid deployment of public support to individuals and nonprofit organizations, new collective funds for community support, commitments by private funders to give more and to give with fewer conditions. And innovative responses to longstanding social issues that have been sharpened by the pandemic, such as food insecurity, homelessness, youth in care or on the streets, and the needs of Indigenous communities and communities of colour. 

Where do we stand now and what might the next six months look like? We have no shortage of advice on this. I have been struck over these few weeks not only by the unprecedented actions taken by philanthropy but also by the deep and generous thought leadership offered by so many in the philanthropic sector. One need only look at the pandemic-related coverage of The Philanthropist in Canada or the Center for Effective Philanthropy in the United States to find articles, opinions and advice that are realistic, reflective and hopeful. Many thought leaders are starting to speculate about whether this crisis will lead to fundamental changes in the practice of philanthropy. Or, conversely, whether foundations are going to revert to previous (pre-pandemic) patterns as many did after 2008/2009.

Foundations both in Canada and in the US have responded to the unprecedented crisis in unprecedented ways. Many have stepped up to the call to give more (for example the extraordinary initiative by Ford and four other US foundations to borrow more cash in order to get more cash into the community). And many have realized the importance of giving more to address the issues exposed so cruelly by the pandemic: inequality, exclusion, hunger, poverty….the social determinants of health. There has been more talk of the need for gender or equity or diversity lenses in funding practice. Will practices change more rapidly as the pandemic unfolds and after it is over? These questions are addressed in a number of useful recent commentaries.

Real Change or More of the Same? Foundation Leaders Look Beyond COVID-19, by Thomas Boyd, tries to peer into the future “after the dust settles”. Inside Philanthropy asked a number of US foundation leaders what lessons they are learning from the pandemic. Most of these leaders are from the larger, well-staffed and well-known foundations such as Rockefeller, MacArthur, Bloomberg and Hearst. They generally agree on the future importance of more collaboration across sectors (particularly with government). These foundations are collaborating in many ways: creating and/or joining collective community funds, convening community players from government, the nonprofit sector and business, supporting initiatives by governments and researchers on treatments and vaccines. We have seen this in Canada too, as collective funds supported by government, public and private funders have been created from Vancouver to Montreal. New collaborative funds are going to be rolling out, particularly for Indigenous and black-led communities, as the unequal toll of the pandemic becomes clearer and clearer. This may well continue as more funders acquire experience in collaborative funding.

US foundations also think that they will maintain increased flexibility and fewer hoops to jump through for their grantees. They believe that previous practices such as lengthy grant applications, long time periods for decisions, and onerous reporting on grants will not return as they have understood the benefits of nimbleness. Says the Hearst Foundation, “We're nimble and want to stay that way and be responsive.” We have seen this in Canada too, with many foundations trying to get money out the door more quickly. It’s a change apparent everywhere. Clare Wilkins writes in Is the Future Unrestricted? Charity Funding Post-COVID, (New Philanthropy Capital in the UK), that “more funders than ever are trusting their grantees, agreeing to new kinds of asks and being understanding about difficult messages and bad news – such as delays in achieving a set of outcomes or a need to change planned activities.” 

It seems that foundations are likely to give more and give faster, at least for the remainder of 2020 since the social and economic toll of the pandemic and lockdown will continue. No reverse gear yet. But what might give foundations pause in the second half of 2020? Clare Wilkins suggests that it is too soon to say that practices have changed permanently. In her view, we have entered a “testing phase” for the sector. “Many donors have done what has been asked of them and they will be watching to see how their gifts are managed. It is now the responsibility of charities and fundraisers to ensure that the trust and flexibility loaned to them is rewarded – so in the future funders can be persuaded to give in the same way again.”

This statement puts the spotlight on the relationship between funder and charity, not just on the behaviour of funders. Will relationships fundamentally change after the pandemic? Or will foundations reverse as they doubt their effectiveness? It is one thing to give more and faster. It is another to give differently.  So how can foundations build different practice? One way is through better listening. Patricia Harris of Bloomberg notes, “Our belief has always been that philanthropy should be constantly evolving and changing, because if you’re not listening to your partners about what they need and when they need it, you’re not making as big of an impact as you can and should be.”  This point is made in an excellent blog on listening practice Six Tips for Funders to Listen Well Right Now by Kevin Bolduc of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. His advice is for now, in crisis circumstances, but is equally valid for later, given the pre-existing and now accelerating questions around who to listen to and how to hear the voices unheard. He says, succinctly (but with many great examples in his blog): listen quickly, carefully, differently and comprehensively. These are practices that any foundation can begin to implement over the next six months. With this, we can hope to see fast forward change and not reverse in philanthropy for 2021.

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