VOLUNTEERS WORKING AT A DRIVE-UP FOOD PANTRY IN SHERMAN, TEXAS. Sara Carpenter/SHUTTERSTOCK
VOLUNTEERS WORKING AT A DRIVE-UP FOOD PANTRY IN SHERMAN, TEXAS. Sara Carpenter/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, like many influential funders, has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with new giving, devoting $250 million to pandemic response and research so far. The foundation is also taking some unique steps to reinforce the strained nonprofit sector in the U.S., including launching an online resource directing concerned individuals toward vetted charities and volunteer opportunities during the crisis.

Through its new “PowerOf” initiative, the foundation is devoting more than $12 million in grants and other funding intended to bolster the nonprofit community, and partnering with several charity rating groups to set up a one-stop shop where the public can locate COVID-19-related needs.

As part of PowerOf, the Gates Foundation is providing $725,000 in general operating grant support to groups advocating for policies and programs that benefit the nonprofit community, including the Independent Sector, the National Council of Nonprofits, the Council on Foundations, Philanthropy Roundtable and United Philanthropy Forum. The foundation further allocated another $9.1 million to the United Philanthropy Forum, which will then regrant $8.5 million through its Momentum Fund.

The Momentum Fund will provide general operating support grants of up to $100,000 to managers of COVID-19 emergency funds across the country. This “funding of funds” will enable community foundations, women’s foundations, affinity groups and others to increase their capacity to market, sustain and manage these funds, so they can respond more quickly and effectively to the pandemic. The United Philanthropy Forum (UPF) is currently evaluating 760 Momentum Fund applications it received prior to the June 18 deadline.

Victoria Vrana, deputy director of the foundation’s Philanthropic Partnerships Team, said that the Momentum Fund is intended to “meet the needs of communities and populations whose health and/or financial situations have been most severely impacted by the pandemic, and who have been historically underserved and under-resourced in the United States, U.S. territories or on Native American reservations.”

In its work to distribute Momentum Fund grants, the UPF is being advised by Grantmakers in Aging, the Donors of Color Network, Change Philanthropy, Funders Together to End Homelessness, and Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.

Last month, the Gates Foundation also launched the PowerOf website, a multipurpose portal to connect givers and volunteers to nonprofits addressing the crisis. Vrana says, “As [Gates] responded to COVID-19, we found there were a number of new givers who also wanted to support global health initiatives, and PowerOf was a way to respond to that generosity.”

Developing the Portal

In developing the PowerOf portal, Gates collaborated with six organizations to help the public identify well-vetted giving and volunteer opportunities: DonorsChoose, VolunteerMatch, GivingTuesday, Candid, Global Giving and Charity Navigator. Each one provides a specific functionality to the website, which makes it essentially a one-stop destination for people looking to help in the coronavirus crisis.

The most recent addition to the list of PowerOf partners is Charity Navigator, which connects portal users with highly rated nonprofits focused on providing relief and recovery to communities affected by the pandemic. Charity Navigator rates over 9,000 charities annually, rating approximately 40% of them with its highest score of four stars, and another 44% with three stars.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Charity Navigator has seen a more than 500% increase in giving to 118 nonprofits that it has identified as “COVID-19 Hot Topic” organizations. “I’m amazed at the traffic numbers,” said Michael Thatcher, the organization’s CEO. “We’ve seen close to $2 million go to these organizations” through Charity Navigator.

Another PowerOf partner is DonorsChoose, which provides users the opportunity to support teachers, many of whom have struggled to adapt to school closures and distance learning in the health crisis. The organization’s CEO, Charles Best, characterizes DonorsChoose as “one of the engines under the hood of PowerOf.” DonorsChoose has created a new category of projects that include funding of books, hygiene projects and other forms of educational support that can now be shipped directly to a student’s home.

An example of a project identified by DonorsChoose through the PowerOf portal is a request from a Washington, D.C., teacher for tablets, protective covers and comfortable headphones to assist her students with distance learning. Best stressed that because DonorsChoose “needs to make sure these requests are airtight in terms of integrity, we have a strong vetting program.”

GivingTuesday built a pandemic response around a special global day of giving on May 5 called GivingTuesdayNow. Giving Tuesday also offers users a number of “Generosity Tips & Tools” such as “Reach Out to Elderly Friends and Neighbors” on the PowerOf platform.

Both Candid and Global Giving direct users to COVID-19-focused funds that provide direct support to the needs of communities both in and outside the U.S., with the PowerOf website connecting donors with over 1,500 funds currently addressing the pandemic.

Candid, an entity formed through the merger of Foundation Center and GuideStar, is also supporting PowerOf’s recently heightened focus on equity. The partner helped the portal develop a “Support Equity” area, and is working to identify funds that support groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as communities of color and Indigenous people.

The sixth partner, VolunteerMatch, serves more than 120,000 nonprofits, and is working to develop virtual volunteering opportunities focused on COVID-19. The Gates Foundation found that volunteering had been hit hard by cancellations resulting from disruptive effects of the pandemic, such as shutdowns and social distancing needs. Using the PowerOf platform, users can locate and connect with organizations that provide virtual volunteering opportunities specifically focused on COVID-19.

Partnership in Washington State

Since PowerOf launched, All in Washington (All in WA), a COVID-19 response effort based in Washington State, started using the web portal to make it easier for its donors to find funds aligned with the causes and beneficiary groups they want to support.

Donors can use the PowerOf tool to give to the All In WA Fund, which supports community and cause-specific funds across Washington, such as the Black Future Co-op Fund, a first-of-its-kind fund intended to support the Black community in the state by alleviating disproportionate impacts of the pandemic, increasing resilience to economic and other shocks, and helping to build generational wealth.

The PowerOf program anticipates it will sunset once the pandemic is over. In the meantime, it aims to offer the public a portal of vetted opportunities for charitable giving and volunteering that is specifically focused on the health crisis.

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