People wait in line at a food pantry in Brooklyn. lev radin/shutterstock

People wait in line at a food pantry in Brooklyn. lev radin/shutterstock

Direct giving has come a long way in a short time.

Before the spread of the coronavirus, foundations considered the giving method an exercise in jumping through administrative hoops, and mostly employed it when funding individual scholarships and fellowships. 

Then donors accustomed to peer-to-peer giving platforms like GoFundMe saw ordinary people facing extraordinary times, and wanted to help. Soon, funds started popping up to reach people caught between a growing crisis and lagging government interventions.

Now considered an essential tool for helping vulnerable populations face the pandemic with dignity and social agency, the method has gone mainstream, sweeping up old hands like—which has employed direct giving for more than a decade—and new champions from individual donors to leading private foundations.

The Schusterman Family Foundation has become a standout in the space, adopting the practice early and staying the course as its COVID-19 funding evolved. As of early August, $90 million of the total $130 million in grants it’s made to combat the pandemic took that form. Its chair, Stacy Schusterman, considers the work a matter of equity, one of her family foundation’s five core values—and a guiding tenet of its founding.

Repairing the World 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation was founded by the couple in 1987 with the mission of strengthening the global Jewish community and the State of Israel, and their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

A son of immigrants, Charles Schusterman graduated top 10 in his class at the University of Oklahoma and served in the U.S. Army before returning to Tulsa to build Samson Investment Company, one of the top independent oil and gas companies in the world before its sale in 2011.  

A highly regarded philanthropist in her own right, Lynn Schusterman joined other big names in philanthropy by signing the Giving Pledge roughly a decade after her husband’s passing in 2000. Between 2014 and 2018, she co-chaired the foundation with her daughter, Stacy Schusterman, one of the couple’s three adult children. Two years ago, Lynn Schusterman became chair emerita, and Stacy took the reins as chair.

Today, the foundation’s reach is global with offices in six cities, and has expanded its focus to address the needs of marginalized people and communities with portfolios on improving K-12 public education in the United States, criminal justice reform, and gender and reproductive equity.

Still, its work remains grounded in the foundational commitment the Schustermans made to the principles of acting on tzedek, the imperative of pursuing justice; tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that roughly translates to repairing the world; and championing derekh eretz, the idea of treating all people equally by advancing the ideals of equity and inclusion. 

Facing a Pandemic

As the coronavirus spread, the Schusterman Foundation joined nearly 800 other foundations in signing a pledge of action that committed to helping their nonprofit partners by eliminating or loosening restrictions on current grants and reporting, and accelerating funding.

But that was just the beginning. Spurred by a discomfort she says grew when the 2017 Trump tax plan tipped the scales in favor of corporations and the wealthy in a way that “wasn’t deserved,” and growing inequity caused by the stagnation of the minimum wage, Schusterman connected with her four direct reports, all with different areas of responsibility. From there, the team created a cohesive approach to meeting the obvious “great needs” that were arising in a way that made equity the focus, especially for low-income communities of color. 

In short order, the foundation increased its 2020 giving projection by 50%, from $100 million to $150 million. And it became a clear leader in direct giving.

A small board that understood the emergency nature of the work allowed the foundation to act quickly. Working on a rolling basis, the Schusterman Foundation made its first COVID-related investments in March. By June, it had made 45 direct giving grants. 

The Power of Cash

Prior to the pandemic, Schusterman says the foundation’s direct giving had been limited to scholarships. But like other funders drawn to the tool, Schusterman saw the gap between government support and immediate need, and was looking for an effective means of getting emergency assistance to the hardest hit, like low-income communities, communities of color, women and essential workers. 

The foundation made its largest commitment to GiveDirectly, a nonprofit with a decade of experience helping donors put money in the hands of vulnerable populations. Schusterman was aware of the organization’s work in Africa, and learned about its U.S. COVID-19 effort—Project 100—through a call from Jonah Edelman, the CEO of Stand for Children, an existing partner on children’s initiatives. 

Currently the largest private direct giving COVID-19 response fund in the nation, Project 100 has already provided $1,000 cash transfers to 100,000 families receiving SNAP benefits in states with the highest levels of unemployment. Households using a Fresh EBT app are chosen at random and given a window of time to apply. 

Recipients are simply struggling to get by. Nearly 80% reported losing “significant” income during the pandemic. More than half have less than a few days of cash on hand. Families say they’ve used the funds for everything from avoiding eviction to diapers and keeping the lights on. 

Payment is received in a number of ways: through established bank accounts, PayPal, Venmo, prepaid card or MoneyGram. Each payment recognizes individual dignity, and the household’s ability to prioritize its own needs. There are no strings attached, no restrictions on how the money’s spent, no tracking of expenditures, and no repayment looming overhead. 

Schusterman and her team decided to go big and “really do something,” committing $20 million in April. At the end of July, as federal aid was expiring and unemployment reached record levels, they upped that by $10 million, for a total of $30 million, providing direct support to nearly 30,000 households across the country. The second surge also allowed Project 100 to expand its reach, and become Project 100+.

The foundation also invested in other marginalized groups throughout the country. It supported undocumented workers who found themselves unable to access stimulus support with total grants of $17.5 million. Ten million of that went to the California Immigrant Resilience Fund, which is distributing cash assistance through nearly 60 trusted immigrant organizations across the state. And the foundation provided $4.5 million to the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund to distribute debit cards, $1.5 million of which was issued as a challenge grant to boost other giving. 

The Schusterman Foundation joined local partners in Tulsa in supporting Restore Hope to clear past-due rent for more than 500 families facing eviction. And it made other investments supporting teachers, essential workers and the economically marginalized through organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jews of Color Initiative, and LIFT.  

Going forward, the foundation plans to continue meeting the challenges of the pandemic as needs evolve, and is even getting out ahead of making the pledge of action concessions more permanent by working on the infrastructure necessary to ease requirements.   

Direct giving will stay on the front burner. “People think foundations’ focus is on systemic change,” says Schusterman. “But this is an emergency moment.” 

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