Philanthropy In the Pandemic: What Must Be Done?

March 17, 2020
Hilary Pearson

“The path forward is to realize that we do have power, even in the face of something that makes us feel incredibly small, and that it lies where it always has—in remembering that we are in this thing together and in finding ways to embrace our collective responsibility and accountability to each other.” – Grant Oliphant, Heinz Endowments. 

We are in this together. This is the key message of what is happening in this pandemic. Governments and public health experts are asking us to do what is necessary for us all not just for each of us. This is a remarkable time. People are realizing in very specific ways how important their actions are to the welfare of others. Most who work in the charitable or community sector think about this in their daily work.  But it isn’t front and centre in the public awareness. So it’s a shock when we are all confronted at the same time with the need to behave for the public, not the private, good.  We are in this together…..and we are called on to give up something for others. Freedom of movement, social gathering, collective enjoyment. It’s mind-bending but necessary.

More than this, philanthropy is called on to do what is necessary, what must be done for the public good. As my colleague Krystian Seibert in Australia has noted, this is the time for philanthropy to be at its best.  This is scary. And for foundations especially as the stock markets wipe out enormous value in endowments, it is very scary. This is as challenging as in 2008. Perhaps more. But just as we were summoned in 2009 to step up and commit to community partners, not to reduce funding commitments but to maintain and even increase them, we are called on again to step up. And we have so many tools and supports today that we did not have even in 2009.

“Maintaining community lifelines and safety nets are one of the most important contributions of the philanthropic community”. This is from an excellent webinar on the pandemic and how philanthropy can respond , from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. The CDP offers great resources to help foundations think through their strategies in this unprecedented situation.

Foundation leaders are also giving us some moral direction as they step up their leadership.  Comments from the Barr Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, the McConnell Foundation, the Hallman Foundation, the Lawson Foundation tell us: What must philanthropy do in this crisis?

  • 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 last point is so crucial. Infrastructure strengthens the organizations that weaken in the face of this terrible barrage by providing information, creating connections, advocating and lobbying. Imagine Canada, the Ontario Nonprofit Network and others are doing everything they can to keep the sector informed and to remind governments that sector organizations need extraordinary support to get through this crisis, just as small businesses and individuals do. They need help to do this work.

The financial and economic consequences of this crisis will fall heavily on the charitable sector. Foundations must be there to help for months and maybe years to come. We got through 2008-2009 together. We can get through this together too. But with courage and commitment. We must not flinch or fail. We are accountable to each other.

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