Tonia Wellons , president and CEO of the Greater Washington Community Foundation, addresses a gathering, pre-pandemic. GWCF has raised $7.5 million to date for COVID-19 relief.

Tonia Wellons, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Community Foundation, addresses a gathering, pre-pandemic. GWCF has raised $7.5 million to date for COVID-19 relief.

When COVID-19 first hit the United States, many funders quickly directed their support to community foundations, which often have deep knowledge of the unique needs and service providers throughout their regions. Over three months into the pandemic, community foundations have raised more than $462 million to support those affected by the coronavirus, according to the Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative.

With COVID-19 cases surging once again across the country, community foundations remain a critical focal point in philanthropy’s response to this new and uncertain phase of the crisis.

I recently spoke with Tonia Wellons, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Community Foundation (GWCF) and Katie Allan Zobel, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM), about how their organizations galvanized giving in the early days of the crisis, nonprofits’ changing needs as infections continue to rise, and the extent to which COVID-19 may permanently alter the mechanics of grantmaking.

Here’s a recap of our chat.

“Our Work and Messaging Resonated”

The GWCF has invested more than $1.2 billion across the greater Washington, D.C., metro area since its inception in 1973. On March 8, the city’s health officials announced the region’s first COVID-19 case—just four days before GWCF’s annual 600-person gala. The foundation canceled the event, donated the food to homeless shelters, and transferred ticket sales to its COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, which it launched on the 12th, the same day it was supposed to host its gala.

Tonia Wellons joined the foundation in 2016 and had been serving as the interim CEO since October. Her first official day on the job was March 31. Before the fundraising began, she and her team spoke with leaders at regional organizations to gauge their needs. She crafted a strategy accordingly, walked donors and funders through the plan over the phone, and held weekly conference calls with the larger civic community. Speakers included local nonprofits and government representatives.

Over three months later, the GWCF has raised $7.5 million to date for COVID-19 relief from over 700 donors, foundations and companies like PepsiCo, Amazon and Melinda Gates’ Pivotal Ventures. The fund has supported 199 organizations, 50% of which are led by people of color.

For comparison, the foundation raised $5 million over four years after the 2008 financial crisis. Wellons attributed the success of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund to “a combination of keeping aligned, plus understanding the community’s issues that broadened our donor base. Our work and messaging resonated and responded to what was happening in the community.”

She also told me that nonprofits that aren’t on the front lines of COVID-19 response should “link arms with groups that are doing the hard work of providing direct services or advocacy around some of the things communities of need will require for the long haul.”

Generating Local and Regional Support

CFWM launched the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley in March with a $1 million lead gift from MassMutual. To get the word out, the foundation received in-kind donations from local media for public service announcements, placed ads in Springfield’s local newspaper, and relaunched Valley Gives, a 24-hour marathon of giving, after a two-year hiatus. Formerly a single giving day event, Valley Gives will remain online for the remainder of the year. 

“We decided to reopen Valley Gives to facilitate community generosity and to give donors an easy way to learn about and donate to many nonprofits,” Zobel said. Prior to joining the Springfield, Massachusetts-based CFWM, Katie Allan Zobel held positions with WGBY, the region’s public television station, and Amherst College, where she oversaw the school’s alumni fund.

The foundation announced its first round of grants on March 30. As of June 16, the foundation had raised nearly $6.3 million from 630 donors, including foundations, individuals and businesses. The fund also received $2.8 million from the Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund.

“We feel fortunate that in Western Massachusetts, people care deeply about community,” Zobel told me, noting that the region, which is home to 700,000 residents and contains the most rural county in the state, lacks the deep-pocketed funders that call Boston home. Nevertheless, the foundation received over $2 million in support from funders outside of Western Massachusetts, including corporate funders in the Boston metropolitan region.

These funders traditionally give within the confines of the Boston area, Zobel said. But a number of private philanthropies in Greater Boston concluded that community foundations had “the local expertise, knowledge and networks to distribute money effectively” in response to COVID-19. Zobel also cited a “greater awareness” among these funders that “Boston can thrive, but if the rest of the state can’t, then the state doesn’t advance.”

Evolving Needs for Frontline Organizations

Both executives told me that nonprofits’ needs haven’t diminished since COVID-19 hit, but have simply evolved. Wellons said that in the GWCF’s first round of grantmaking, the foundation focused on helping frontline nonprofits transition to remote work, providing food security and cash assistance to low-wage workers who lost their jobs but were ineligible for unemployment and other benefits. Wellons encouraged donors to fund food distributors directly, rather than give through the foundation.

As of early June, the foundation began pivoting to its Phase Two strategy, which focuses on organizations serving children in the summer and fall, housing security, and continued support for frontline service providers and the region’s tenuous food infrastructure. “Many food banks in our region have shut down because they couldn’t put people at risk,” Wellons said. “I don’t think the food needs will return back to normal within the next couple of months.”

Similarly, Zobel told me that in the early days of the pandemic, “someone might have been getting access to the food pantry, but their mode of transportation has since disappeared,” she said. “So now we have to focus on that last mile of food delivery.” In addition, many nonprofits secured a financial lifeline via the U.S. Treasury’s Paycheck Protection Program. Now, however, much of that money has dried up, and cash flow has re-emerged as an area of immediate need, echoing the GWCF’s ongoing financial support for frontline organizations.

On June 16, the CFWM completed its 10th round of grants, totaling nearly $950,000 to local nonprofits, focusing on community centers, food security and education services.

Post-Pandemic Changes Across the Sector

Zobel and Wellons’ foundations simplified the grant application and reporting process in the aftermath of COVID-19. Both executives anticipate these changes will be permanent. “Like many of us, our nonprofits are making decisions in real time and need the flexibility,” Wellons said. “If something else takes priority, they have to have the ability to make those kinds of decisions.”

Zobel agreed, saying, “I think a more nimble and flexible approach” will be required in a dynamic, post-COVID-19 world. Other permanent changes envisioned by Zobel and Wellons include grantmakers’ continued embrace of operating support and more long-term partnerships as opposed to “one and done” grants.

Both executives encouraged nonprofits to pursue mergers. “We know that’s going to happen in the nonprofit sector,” Zobel said. “There will be a lot of new opportunities. What’s needed is technical assistance and adjusting the business model and finding good partnerships to make it work.”

Nonprofits shouldn’t approach a merger from the perspective of “we’re failing,” Wellons said, “but from a position of strength, in that some organizations can do more if they blended their back office to expand their footprint.”

The process may be disruptive and may even result in downsizing. But faced with a global pandemic that isn’t ending anytime soon, and shrinking revenues, many nonprofits will experience disruption either way. “We shouldn’t forgo an opportunity to create a better service or a broader reach for fear of what we lose,” Wellons said, but instead, “think about what we gain and how we can reorganize and re-strategize.”

To that end, philanthropy has to be “more open to risk,” said Wellons, who previously served as a political appointee for the Obama administration as head of global partnerships at the Peace Corps, and as a fund manager of a multi-donor initiative focused on financial access and inclusion at the World Bank Group.

“One of the biggest differences between my work in international development and domestic philanthropy is that we’re more willing to take high-risk bets in a developing country context; we’re more likely to get behind an important leader, even if the nonprofit is small and fledgling,” she said. “We’re more conservative in the U.S. context, and that’s because of the fear of bad publicity if we fail. But I don’t think we’re going to make progress in community development without more risks.”

“Creating Equity of Voice”

Zobel said COVID-19 has forced her organization to question the viability of the resource-intensive gala and even some in-person events. Her opinion is colored by her previous stint as a major gift officer at Amherst College. “I sometimes think about the amount of time I spent traveling and scheduling and missing people.” Zobel isn’t alone, here.

In late May, I spoke with Daniel Moss, the senior director of development at Lyric Opera of Chicago. “I’m always curious to hear how other development directors are changing away from events in this new reality,” he told me. "We are already starting to feel virtual gala fatigue. I’ve been championing less events for years at my organizations. Will we finally see a cultural shift with philanthropy permanently [moving] away from events? Fingers crossed.”

Similarly, Don Hasseltine, a senior consultant and vice president at the Aspen Leadership Group, told me that while event-centric alumni and development programs have been fundraisers’ go-to methods for drumming up support for the last several decades, they have had limited effectiveness. He predicts that within five years, 75% of higher ed alumni relations programming will take place online.

Zobel envisions a similar scenario playing out across nonprofit fundraising writ large. To be sure, there are significant technical roadblocks, especially for smaller nonprofits that lack the expertise and resources available to large arts organizations and universities like Amherst. “We have to be cognizant that not everyone is on the same training playing field,” Zobel said. But “funders like us can help solve that with technical assistance and capacity building and training.”

Nor is this idea of expanding the donor base relegated to dollars and cents. “When we talk about diversifying our donors, we tend to think of it primarily through a financial lens, but we don’t often take the next step,” she said. “We also need to think of it as creating equity of voice. The more diverse our donor base, the more voices and perspectives from all walks of life we have, the stronger we’ll be.”

As for the GWCF, while COVID-19 response remains the foundation’s top priority, Wellons noted that the three main crises affecting the country at the moment—the coronavirus, the economic downturn and calls for racial justice and police accountability—all disproportionately affect communities of color. “We will, over a period of time, lean in on an agenda as it relates to policing, and the broader range of inequities that underscore each of the crises we are in,” she told me.

Wellons recently laid out this vision in greater detail in a Washington Post opinion piece co-authored with Ursula Wright, managing director for FSG, titled “How to Reconstruct an Equitable Future for the D.C. Region.” I encourage you to read the whole thing.

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