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Philanthropy and the Pandemic Year: Past and Future

March 14, 2021
Hilary Pearson

This past week was the first anniversary of the global pandemic and the end of a remarkable twelve months that we have experienced together. As with other anniversaries, this one prompts a reflection on what happened, how we reacted and what is to come. This is my contribution, reflecting in particular on how Canadian philanthropy has reacted.

One year ago, in my first blog on philanthropy in the pandemic, I suggested that philanthropy must:

  • Be creative in providing extraordinary funding to support public information and preparedness
  • Reach out to current grantees and offer them your support, whatever they need
  • Be nimble and flexible in your funding commitments, more than ever
  • Commit to the long term and don’t pull back even if you are feeling stock market pain
  • Increase disbursements
  • Offer information and create shared information and work platforms
  • Fund the infrastructure that supports the sector

This wasn’t original. At the time, in the first week of lockdown, there had already been calls for philanthropy to step up. And many individual foundations in Canada responded more quickly and more flexibly than they ever had before. The pan-Canadian philanthropic networks collaborated on a set of principles to help funders respond to the crisis with flexibility, proactivity and creativity. These networks also committed to gathering and sharing data on the responses of philanthropy through a shared website. A number of funders committed to giving more over the next year. Indeed, the data collected by the networks to date indicates that more than $192 million has been allocated to pandemic needs.

As the pandemic crisis wore on, we witnessed more and more clearly the overlapping crisis of systemic racism and inequality, represented not only by the marginalization and violence experienced by racialized Americans and Canadians but also by the much more onerous impact of the pandemic on their health and economic opportunities.

I realized, as many of us did, that philanthropic foundations needed to pay more attention not only to how much and how flexibly they gave, but how they listened, and how they worked more effectively with their community partners and with each other. We began to hear more conversations about intersectional inequities, and the importance of sharing power and building trusting relationships with grantees. These conversations have shifted the philanthropic response to some degree, as the focus moved from rushing out emergency funds to thinking about who was on the receiving end of these funds, and if they were not, how to reach them.

This effort prompted more philanthropic collaboration and willingness to fund collectively. Private and community foundations worked together to establish collective place-based funds, as well as funds targeted to specific communities that were historically underfunded by philanthropy (example, the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund, and the Foundation for Black Communities). Many community foundations worked with the federal government to increase funding through the Emergency Community Support Fund. Dr Susan Phillips and colleagues at Carleton University are working with a cohort of 22 foundations to track and share their pandemic responses and many of them report significant shifts in their work as a result of the pandemic.

The good news, as we look back, is that philanthropy has proved its willingness to grant more and more flexibly, to review some of its practices, to listen more and to work collectively with others to extend impact. The Lyle S. Hallman Foundation in Ontario’s Waterloo Region provides just one example of a creative and thoughtful response to the pandemic (which is succinctly summarized in a report released this month). And much of this is paralleled across North American philanthropy, as noted by Inside Philanthropy in its Lessons from One Year of Covid Philanthropy.

But what now? The question many are asking is whether these responses were only short-term, and whether philanthropy will revert to the “old” normal as the crisis eases. I asked this question in early January, as I considered the possibility of a new agenda. I suggested that this might be a crucial moment for funders to reconsider old relationships and roles, not just as individuals but also at the level of governments, of philanthropy and of civil society writ large. The effects of the pandemic, combined with the movement for more meaningful action against systemic racism, inequality and exclusion have created the opportunity for a break with the “old normal”.

Is it likely? The work now only gets harder. Susan Phillips and her team suggested last fall that “the foundation response to COVID-19 and racial justice seems to be entering a critical phase: how to move beyond emergency, flexible grantmaking – a familiar process to foundations -- to more change-oriented strategies and engagement.” This is difficult for many funders. They are not comfortable in the systems change or policy advocacy space. And few funders still are willing to commit to sustained and unrestricted general operating funding to community partners, whether they are delivering services or advocating for systemic solutions to the challenges that we face as a country.  Nevertheless, if we listen to community partners, this is what they will be telling us to do.

In March 2020, I quoted Grant Oliphant, the eloquent leader of the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh, who urged us to find ways to embrace our collective responsibility and accountability to each other. Philanthropy in Canada rose to this challenge. Now, in March 2021, I return to Oliphant for inspiration. As he says, “we each must ask ourselves, wherever we stand, in whatever roles we might play, what we can contribute to the process of turning this around. For philanthropy, even though it springs from many different traditions and philosophies, there are many paths we can take….Philanthropy can and must make it our job to shorten the distances of space, opportunity, experience, culture and understanding that turn us on each other. We can support policies and programs designed to share prosperity more broadly again, in communities both rural and urban, creating pathways of hope for people [wherever they live].” 

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