Bjorn Bakstad/shutterstock

Bjorn Bakstad/shutterstock

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of posts that look at the response of funders in different regions of the U.S. to the coronavirus pandemic.

Long before communities across the nation were on lockdown with shelter-in-place orders and businesses struggling to survive, the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was announced on January 21 in Washington state—a patient who had recently returned from Wuhan, China. By the end of February, Washington had reported the first COVID-19-related death in the U.S., an early prelude to a pandemic that has now claimed 55,000 lives across the U.S.

In responding to the first epicenter of COVID-19 in America, philanthropy in the Northwest had to act without a model to follow and in a time of unprecedented confusion and misinformation. The story of how the sector rose to that challenge has differed greatly across the region due to the widely varied rates of infection and political factors. The response in Washington (and to some extent, in Oregon) has been considerably different than in other parts of the Northwest, such as Idaho and Alaska. But philanthropy’s mobilization in this region underscores a point that’s played out elsewhere in past two months—that foundations and donors working together can move nimbly to make a difference when emergencies strike.

Inventing Philanthropy’s Pandemic Playbook

Since the pandemic began in March, funders across the U.S. have rushed to create collaborative emergency response funds—often in partnership with leading nonprofits, government and business. As we’ve reported, hundreds of such local funds now exist and have received commitments of more than $500 million.

But it was in Washington that this template was first established, when the COVID-19 Response Fund was announced on March 9. The effort was spearheaded by the Seattle Foundation and launched with $2.5 million in commitments from partners that included the United Way of King County, King County, City of Seattle, Alaska Airlines, Amazon, Microsoft, and the Starbucks Foundation. Like other funds that would roll out later, the fund was focused from the start on a combination of goals. “COVID-19 represents a battle on two fronts—a public health crisis and a threat to the economic stability of so many in our region,” said Seattle Foundation President and CEO Tony Mestres. “While we are all dealing with the effects of this outbreak, some of our neighbors face disproportionate challenges around time off work, the cost of care, and reliable access to information.”

By March 25, the COVID-19 Response Fund had received $14.3 million in support from 1,700 contributors that included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Joshua Green Foundation, Pivotal Ventures, Schultz Family Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Cowlitz Indian Tribe, and the Wells Fargo Foundation.

The fund awarded its first grants at the end of March 2020, distributing over $10 million in emergency assistance grants to 128 groups. So far, the fund has pulled in over $20 million from a list of donors that has continued to grow.

Elsewhere in the Northwest, community foundations are also actively pooling donations and distributing them to local nonprofits that are struggling to stay afloat. Notable relief efforts have come from the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, Blue Mountain Community Foundation, and Whidbey Community Foundation. Additional Washington-specific funds have been created by the Community Foundation of Snohomish, Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, ArtsFund, Whatcom Community Foundation and Orcas Island Community Foundation. Local chapters of the United Way and Boys & Girls Clubs have launched Washington-focused funds, as well. Meanwhile, Philanthropy Northwest is coordinating the efforts of the WA Food Fund alongside other foundations to help Washingtonians get enough to eat during the COVID-19 crisis.  

In Oregon, the big collaborative response effort is being led by the Oregon Community Foundation, which has collected over $13 million in donations and awarded $10.9 million in grants to 440 nonprofits so far. The Women’s Foundation of Oregon is also hosting a rapid response fund and serving as a model for what women’s philanthropy and giving circles can do during this time of need. Idaho-specific efforts are hosted by the Idaho Community Foundation, Innovia Foundation and Home Partnership Foundation: Idaho. The primary relief effort in Wyoming is led by the Wyoming Community Foundation, while Alaska has the Mat-Su Health Foundation, Alaska Community Foundation, Juneau Community Foundation and Bethel Community Services Foundation to take the lead.

The local grantmakers’ association in the region, Philanthropy Northwest, has been a critical hub of activity in the COVID-19 response, providing resources for donors to get involved in local communities. It has been hosting weekly funders’ calls that bring grantmakers together to share best practices and discuss how to support grantees and vulnerable community members. The association hosts a list of response funds in the Northwest available here.

Health Legacy Funders in the Northwest

Health legacy foundations have been a growing part of the philanthropic sector for many years now, but due to the health-related nature of this crisis, these types of funders are taking on bigger roles than ever before. One example is the Northwest Health Foundation, which has taken a number of actions and made immediate changes in how it operates as a grantmaker.

The Northwest Health Foundation has now converted all open project grants and sponsorships to general operating support and accelerated its grant payments to get checks out quicker than originally planned. This health funder is also contributing its non-committed grant resources (about 10 percent of its grantmaking budget) to rapid response funds at partner foundations or to increase open grant amounts for its own grantees. Coordinated efforts include responses with Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington, the MRG Foundation, Women’s Foundation of Oregon and the Oregon Community Foundation.

Meanwhile, the Mat-Su Health Foundation is an Alaskan health legacy funder that is offering unrestricted COVID-19 response grants of up to $50,000. The Confluence Health Foundation in North Central Washington also has a response fund that is accepting donations to address the needs of the region.

Private Foundation Contributions

As we’ve seen in other parts of the country, the bulk of private foundation donations are coming in the form of support for community foundations’ collaborative funds. A long list of private funders has become involved with collaborative efforts and turned to local community foundations to handle their distributions, including the Meyer Memorial Fund, Bezos Family Foundation, the Ford Family Foundation, Joshua Green Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Stolte Family Foundation, the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust and Satya and Rao Remala Foundation.

The Portland, Oregon-based MRG Foundation is a social justice grantmaker that stands out because it created its own community response fund with 30 percent of its own operating reserves. MRG is collecting donations to provide flexible resources to Oregon groups without asking for applications or reports. There’s an unprecedented amount of trust being given to nonprofits these days as old guidelines are thrown out for the sake of speed and efficiency. Not limited strictly to health, these funds are being granted to organizations that work with the homeless, with limited English language skills, gig economy workers and communities of color.

Corporate Support in the Northwest

There are many businesses headquartered in the Northwest, especially in the Seattle area, that have been chipping in for COVID-19 relief efforts. Again, many of these contributions are being made through community foundation funds, such as the Seattle Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

Businesses with local interests that have been giving to relief efforts close to home include Alaska Airlines, Puget Sound Energy, Amazon, BNSF Railway, Costco, Microsoft, Target, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. With so many of its employees based in Washington state, Microsoft and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates have been heavily involved in relief efforts both locally and in China from the very earliest days of the pandemic. (See our coverage of the tech industry’s response to COVID-19.)

Cambia Health Solutions and its corporate foundation have been active in the relief and response efforts in Portland, Oregon, giving recent grants to the Oregon Food Bank and the needs of healthcare providers on the front lines. This company and others are matching employee donations to achieve an even greater local impact in the region. Local professional sports teams, including the Seattle Seahawks, are also making relief effort donations.

Individual Donors’ Support for COVID-19

Connie and Steve Ballmer donated $25 million to fight COVID-19, while their philanthropic vehicle, the Ballmer Group, committed $10 million to UW Medicine to accelerate testing. The Ballmers have been focusing much of their attention on the Seattle area, with grants going to the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County and Bellevue and All In Seattle. Also with a Microsoft connection, Brad Smith and Kathy Surace-Smith have contributed to local efforts in the Seattle area, as well.

Meanwhile, individuals with donor-advised funds across the region have contributed for COVID-19 relief. The Oregon Community Foundation alone lists more than two dozen DAFs that have contributed to its emergency fund. Many other donors without DAFs have also stepped up for COVID-19 response efforts by making online donations to community foundation response funds.

Individual donors are also getting involved in creative ways right now. For example, celebrity couple Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis partnered with a Washington wine company to raise money for COVID-19 relief. With the creation of an Oregon pinot noir, 100 percent of the profits are going to COVID-19-realated charities and grassroots efforts.

Philanthropy’s Role in Public Policy and Advocacy

In addition to providing resources and helping funders connect with each other, Philanthropy Northwest has worked for greater foundation involvement in the public policy and advocacy aspects of COVID-19. This is less common in parts of the country that are still scrambling to put together their relief funds and have not yet reached this stage of the response.

Philanthropy groups in the Northwest are monitoring Congressional bills related to federal funds for outbreak responses, testing availability, protecting healthcare workers and providing for families’ basic needs. Part of this interest also ties into the 2020 census, which is now shrouded by uncertainty like so many other aspects of life during the pandemic. To address this specific concern, the Washington Census Equity Fund is bringing together more than 30 philanthropic partners and has issued an open call to other funders who are interested in getting involved to address COVID-19 impacts on the census.

Keep up with all of Inside Philanthropy’s COVID-19 coverage here, as well as ongoing news about local funding in our Northwest blog.

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