PHOTO: JDPHOTOGRAPH/SHUTTERSTOCK

PHOTO: JDPHOTOGRAPH/SHUTTERSTOCK

As Americans buckle down for at least another month of social distancing and sheltering in place, more than 200 U.S. community foundations have mobilized more than $315 million for COVID-19 responses so far, according to the Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative, with confirmed grants of $40 million. Numerous other local funders with regional focuses have raised or committed millions more. By the time you read this article, those numbers will likely have risen.

There are approximately 800 funders in the U.S. defined as “community foundations,” though many other funders focus in full or part on a specific geographic location. Their initial strategies have shared a similar theme: keep frontline nonprofits operating to protect the most vulnerable members of the community. Seniors, communities of color, disabled people, and others who depend on services by nonprofits are among the populations of frequent concern.

Because of their hyper-local experience, leadership at these community and local foundations already have the knowledge and experience to respond quickly and effectively to fast-moving emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have also partnered in novel ways with other statewide philanthropies to boost resources and reach.

For example, the Baltimore Community Foundation collaborated with Catholic Charities, Johns Hopkins Medical Institute and the Esperanza Center Health Services Clinic to assess and triage health concerns among uninsured immigrants in the Baltimore area.

The BCF is also collaborating with larger area philanthropies, including the United Way and others, to create a clearinghouse website for nonprofits seeking questions and support. “Instead of having them go everywhere looking for funding, they will have a one-stop shop, with a simple application process,” said Shanaysha Sauls, president and CEO of BCF. The website is expected to go live soon.

Saving Their Powder for Future Needs

But community funders need to look beyond the immediate emergency. “We’re also saving our powder for mid-term as well as long-term challenges,” said Sauls.

Like many community funders, the Greater Washington Community Foundation’s (GWCF) initial COVID-19 responses focused on out-of-school children and youth, low-income hourly and gig workers, people in shelters and homeless, and the health needs of direct service providers, said organization President and CEO Tonia Wellons. The GWCF hosts a weekly call with its partners and nonprofits to share ideas and orchestrate joint responses as the situation on the ground changes. Among its coronavirus responses, the organization worked with area restaurant and property management companies to create new funds to assist displaced workers and provide financial assistance.

But GWCF is also scrutinizing all their procedures in light of the pandemic, considering even such questions as whether it still makes sense to use paper checks. (P.S. It doesn’t: “That’s a thing of the past,” said Wellons.)

“We’re thinking about our priorities in terms of phases,” said Wellons. She recalled the recession of 2008, which some nonprofits didn’t survive, while some new and innovative solutions emerged. “We’re thinking of the nonprofits that are too important to fail,” she said. Beyond those questions, the GWCF is considering changes to policy and agenda for long-term systems. “The impact of this pandemic is going to be with us for a long time.”

Off the Beaten Path

As in other aspects of philanthropy, vulnerable members of rural communities are in danger of running short of the support they need during the emergency. The Missouri Foundation for Health (MFH) has committed $15 million for health and prevention needs for residents, but that’s reportedly the largest commitment targeting rural communities. While social distancing may theoretically slow the spread of the new disease in a community, even sparsely populated rural areas are hardly safe: The MHF cited statistics showing a 28 percent rise in COVID-19 cases in rural communities in a single day recently.

Other new coronavirus responses include the Communities Foundation of Texas, whose new Get Shift Done for North Texas Initiative is raising money to provide wages to displaced hourly workers in the region’s hospitality industry who are volunteering to prepare and deliver meals through local nonprofits.

A big question for local funders is how local, state and federal government services will evolve over the coming months of this unprecedented crisis, including for the small businesses that employ so many Americans. “We’re trying to be creative about ways that philanthropy can fill in the gaps,” said Sauls of BCF.

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