As the COVID-19 emergency has unfolded, Inside Philanthropy has kept in touch with local funders and community foundations, reporting their efforts to maintain nonprofit operations and services that are crucial to many vulnerable populations. Most community foundations established new COVID-19 response funds supported by businesses, individuals and larger regional and national foundations. Others expanded existing disaster response funds. And while the rate of giving has slowed somewhat, support has continued to come in, and to go out as grants to local nonprofits.

Community foundation-led relief efforts have mobilized more than $536 million so far, according to the Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative (CFPAI), which has been collecting data from 325 community foundations across the U.S. Of the money raised, says the CFPAI, approximately $175 million has already gone out in grants—much of it to nonprofits addressing basic needs such as food and shelter. Other major funding has gone to help schools purchase and distribute computers to students who would otherwise be left behind in the nationwide shift to home-based distance learning.

Overwhelming Needs

Community foundations were hit with a tsunami of funding requests as soon as the COVID-19 response funds were announced. Brian Collier, executive vice president at the Foundation for the Carolinas (FFTC), said the press of grant applications hasn’t abated. For many of the nonprofits seeking help, the grants would be the difference between surviving and shuttering. “I worked during the recession of 2008,” he said. “This is nothing like that—this is 10 times the impact.”

At the Oregon Community Foundation (OCF), for example, the number of grant applications rose exponentially as the pandemic’s impacts spread through society. “We’ve had more than a thousand requests through our online portal in three weeks—that’s normally what we get in a year,” said Max Williams, president and CEO of OCF.

Throughout the country, there are still new response funds being established. This week, the Foundation for the Carolinas, through its subsidiary E4E Relief, announced a new $50 million “Brave of Heart Fund” to support families of healthcare workers who lose their lives to COVID-19 while caring for others. The fund was launched with initial contributions of $25 million each from the New York Life Foundation and the Cigna Foundation, but the companies aim to grow the fund to more than $100 million through additional individual and corporate donations.

In terms of the number of COVID-19 cases, New York and the tri-state area is weathering the worst of the pandemic, and the response funds have been similarly large. The NYC Covid-19 Response & Impact Fund at the New York Community Trust, for example, has provided $44 million in grants and interest-free loans to 276 New York City-based social services and arts and cultural nonprofits. Nearby, the Community Foundation of New Jersey has generated more than $20 million to help those impacted and granted nearly $2.9 million in recent weeks.

Nonprofit Jobs on the Line

Beyond the services they provide, there’s another important consideration for the continued health of nonprofits, in Oregon and elsewhere, that’s important as the country wades into a deepening recession: the sector’s role not just as a provider of services, but as an employer—quite a significant employer in some communities. Loss of those jobs would throw even more people into the kind of economic distress that government and philanthropy have been struggling to serve since the pandemic emergency started.

“We can’t lose these institutions in the long run,” said Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of FFTC. “If a ballet company, for example, can’t keep its dancers employed, that person may end up in line for a shelter or other service with other vulnerable people.”

But as funders look to the future, grantmaking may slow somewhat to ensure that there’s money for nonprofit operations throughout the year. “We’re all beginning now to pause a bit and think, what are the next six months going to be like, what’s it going to look like 18 months from now?” said Williams of OCF. It’s not yet clear how strategies and funding will proceed in a post-COVID world. But it will almost certainly look quite different, perhaps involving more policy and advocacy.

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