Philanthropy’s Lessons from the Pandemic

April 10, 2020
Hilary Pearson

I am learning some unexpected things as I look for news about the effects of the pandemic and lockdown. The bad news is all too easily found through print and other media. Watching CNN is a frightening experience right now.  But I am also finding much good news, especially through social media. Imagine this lockdown five or ten years ago without such media.  We would not be connected to a wider human community that is actively sharing and creating and thinking out loud through a world-wide network. I am learning information that I would simply not have known if I stuck to one or two traditional media sources. Even better, I am discovering creative responses through poetry and music. And I am coming across eloquent reflections on our shared condition that console and inspire me.

Social media pointed me to one of these eloquent reflections by Grant Oliphant, CEO of the Heinz Endowments, a private foundation in Pittsburgh. Oliphant is a thoughtful and articulate practitioner of philanthropy.  No surprise then that he has responded to this crisis with some important reflections on the situation that we find ourselves in and the meaning that we can take from it. In The Rescue We Seek, Oliphant summarizes five lessons that he believes this crisis is teaching us all:

  • This pandemic’s impact underlines social injustice; the least-well paid, least healthy and least privileged will suffer most
  • Science and evidence are the most important tools we have to cope with and overcome the crisis
  • Strong public leadership and focus is essential to our collective well-being
  • A degraded natural environment increases human vulnerability
  • Collective and shared action is as or more important than individual initiative

In my opinion, Oliphant provides a valuable framework for foundation leaders thinking through and beyond this crisis. “It turns out,” he says, “that justice matters, and so do knowledge, government and nature; it turns out that only by embracing our shared future can we be confident of reaching it.”  

How could foundation leaders translate this statement into concrete action? Think about each of these ideas in turn. Justice, knowledge, government (or public leadership) and nature. And consider all of these from the perspective of collective action. We might ask ourselves the following questions.

Justice: what can we do as a foundation to address injustice in the face of this crisis? We have heard about philanthropy’s pledges of action and encouragement to change foundation practices so that we remove the barriers and reduce the power imbalances between funder and recipient.  Directing more unrestricted funds to the organizations in our communities that are working to support the worst-hit and most vulnerable should be high on almost every funder’s list.

Knowledge: how can we as a foundation contribute to the knowledge that humanity must have to cope with and overcome this global threat? Even if as a foundation you haven’t previously considered funding research, this is surely the time to seek out opportunities for supporting global collective effort to find therapies, apps to test and trace, vaccines, etc.

Public leadership: how can we as a foundation support the development of effective public leaders to help us through future crises? Leadership is more important than ever. As Nancy Koehn, Harvard historian and author of Forged In Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, suggests, we need public leaders who offer” brutal honesty and credible hope”. Those leaders don’t emerge without mentoring and opportunities for growth. Young people are watching now. Koehn notes “This difficult, turbulent time will surely someday be seen, in part, as a fertile, living laboratory in which courageous leaders were made, not born.”

Nature: how can we as a foundation contribute to fixing the damage done to our natural environment? As Oliphant says, “you can view this virus as a plea for sanity from an angry planet, but I view it more as an expression of the obvious: the more we corrupt the air, water, biosystems and climate that give us life, the more vulnerable we become to illness and death.” If not now, then soon, every foundation will need to think about what it can do to build a healthier ecosystem. This is also about justice.

Collective action: how can we as a foundation contribute to the work/ideas/initiatives of others so that we can together be more effective to achieve more social and environmental justice, greater knowledge, better leadership? Everywhere, private foundations, community foundations and other funders are joining forces to respond to the emergency. Coming out of this crisis, every foundation should consider more participation in collective efforts to recover and rebuild.

Oliphant concludes: “We will triumph against this virus, but that isn’t the only test facing us…the deeper and more enduring test is whether we will use what we learn from this affliction to build a less fragile, fractured society.” This is an opportunity for us to expand our vision, and to grow as funders. Good news amid the bad.

Here are three resources to foster collective funding in this crisis (and there are many community-level collective funds in Canada as well):

COVID-19 Action Fund from CIFAR to mobilize the best thinkers across the world and provide the space needed to quickly address COVID-19 and understand future pandemic threats.

Covid -19 Response Fund, to support the World Health Organization in partnership with the United Nations Foundation and Swiss Philanthropy Foundation. Canadian donors can channel funds though the KBF Canada Foundation to the WHO.

Opportunities for Philanthropic Response to the COVID-19 Crisis. The Bridgespan Group provides perspectives on where funder resources can be productively and collectively channeled.

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