Volunteers working at a food bank in Los Angeles. Ringo Chiu/shutterstock
Volunteers working at a food bank in Los Angeles. Ringo Chiu/shutterstock

Philanthropy writ large stepped up big when COVID-19 hit. Within months, more than 1,000 funders made a flurry of 22,000 grants to roughly 15,000 organizations, totaling nearly $17 billion.

The decisions they made under unprecedented pressure sometimes hewed to funders’ established causes and missions, but also followed new paths. How, exactly, were those judgments reached?

Here’s a look at how three types of donors—a family foundation, an individual donor and a corporate foundation—landed on the same funding strategy. And how the Leon Lowenstein Foundation, Philip Grovit, and the Arby’s Foundation chose the same grantee, providing food security for America’s most vulnerable children through No Kid Hungry.

Going hungry in America

Pre-pandemic, childhood hunger had long been a problem in the U.S. On an everyday basis, 12% of Americans, or 38 million people, live at or below the poverty level and are considered food insecure. An estimated 18 million of them are children.

As parents were put out of work and schools closed, government safeguards starting cracking.

Despite two rounds of emergency aid, the biggest government failsafe—the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which was already helping 40 million Americans buy groceries—struggled to keep pace. Masses of the newly unemployed, vulnerable stay-at-home populations like seniors, and the increased needs of families sheltering in place all strained the system. Low-income Americans and people of color were hardest hit.

The next line of defense was challenged when the 30 million kids receiving free or low-cost meals each day through the country’s second largest food and nutrition intervention, the National School Lunch Program, began transitioning to at-home learning. Soon, sidelined parents were surprised to find themselves lining-up at food pantries, or simply going without.

As fault lines formed in our ability to meet basic needs, hunger and food insecurity quickly drew wide support from funders: an estimated $1.2 billion to date, behind only health interventions.

These three donors all reached the same conclusion: the situation for children was dire, and that’s how they would help.

A family foundation

The Leon Lowenstein Foundation was founded almost six decades ago by the man who bore its name. Lowenstein was chair and CEO of the M. Lowenstein Corporation, an international Fortune 500 textile company that capitalized on its flair for fabrics with business expansions through the mills of the South, and century-old textile giants like Wamsutta.

Lowenstein served as president of the foundation from its inception through 1976, when he passed the torch to his two nephews, John Bendheim and the late Robert Bendheim. Robert Bendheim served as president until 2007, when his two children, and John’s four, assumed leadership. Today, a third generation also sits around the boardroom table. Five of six directors are family members. Robert’s son, Andrew, serves as chair.

The foundation is based in New York City, but funds nationally. Ordinarily, it focuses on three funding areas: education, health and the environment, advancing its mission to provide transformational solutions to the world’s most daunting problems.

Executive Director Stewart Hudson, one of the foundation’s two full-time staff members, shared insights on how the Lowenstein Foundation landed on kids, food and No Kid Hungry.

Hudson’s board quickly sprang to action when the crisis hit, calling a special meeting in mid-March. First, the group acknowledged the need to mount a significant response. Next, they recognized the value of being nimble, and weighed the pros and cons of immediacy versus “keeping some powder dry” by “setting aside some dollars to last the year.”

Lowenstein’s board knew that the crisis was more than a single foundation could address on its own, but it adopted the mindset of “doing something, rather than nothing.” They discussed being open to thinking outside the box, and soon realized that the unprecedented nature of the situation meant giving due diligence a backseat to urgency.

Then, Hudson says, they led with their hearts—and kids came up first. That decided, they reviewed a few basic courses of action, things like health, education and mental wellness. But as schools were closing around them, conversations kept returning to the challenges of feeding the students who were being sent home. A consensus was reached to put food on their tables.

Funding food security was new for the foundation. So next up was deciding on partners and scope. Hudson says it was a question of “Who do you trust? Do you go with several smaller, place-based organizations, or take a leap of faith with a national organization, and let them prioritize?”

The board decided their support didn’t need to be limited to where they reside, mostly on the East and West Coasts. Nor would they “bind their hands” chasing hot spots. Funding would come with no restrictions, driven by need.

As so often is the case, identifying a partner came down to relationships. Hudson and a number of Lowenstein directors knew people who were active at Share Our Strength, which operates the No Kid Hungry campaign.

From there, research and cursory due diligence led to a decision in favor of No Kid Hungry, through two grants.

The first commitment of $250,000 was in the organization’s hands by April. Hudson characterizes the size as “about average for them.” The second decision came as the country was headed into the fall, after internal discussions about other potential areas of support like frontline workers, underserved communities and mobile health. Some schools were in session but others were closing, and the board recognized that that the need was “growing instead of being met.” No Kid Hungry received an additional $150,000 by early October.

Asked about decision-making under the gun, Hudson says that in a crisis, “Urgency beats strategy.” The foundation feels that the partnership has allowed them respond rapidly, while “trusting the right organization.” Going forward, Lowenstein is trying to balance being nimble with keeping up with unfolding events, and has adopted a “wait and see” approach.

Positioned to respond

Share Our Strength (SOS) is a national organization that was co-founded in 1984 by siblings Billy and Debbie Shore in the basement of a row house on Capitol Hill. With annual revenues now topping $75 million, the organization works with corporations, foundations, individual donors and the government to end childhood hunger in the U.S.

Both founding family members are still actively involved. Billy Shore serves as executive chair, while his sister Debbie oversees long-term planning and strategy.

In its early days, SOS operated mostly as a fundraising operation that made grants to other nonprofits working in food and nutrition. Today, it operates the No Kid Hungry campaign, which has provided more than a billion meals to kids since its launch in 2010; a Cooking Matters initiative that’s taught more than 450,000 families how to shop and cook in healthier ways; and a for-profit Community Wealth Partners program that has helped more than 500 nonprofits and foundations build capacity and meet goals. It also engages in hunger research, policy and advocacy.

Working both inside and outside school environments, No Kid Hungry’s programming made it well-positioned to pivot to an effective COVID-19 response. Its school breakfast program provides the first meal of the day for 3 million kids who were going without. It runs a free summer meals program when schools are closed. And it supplies afterschool meals that three of five low-income parents struggle to afford.

Since the pandemic, No Kid Hungry developed a map to help kids and families find free meals, and has provided more than $46 million in emergency relief to nearly 1,500 schools and community groups in all 50 states. They’re also busy on Capitol Hill, advocating for things like increased SNAP benefits and Pandemic EBT, to boost the supplemental grocery benefit for families whose kids are learning at home.

An individual donor

Philip Grovit knew all about No Kid Hungry when the pandemic hit.

Grovit has spent 20 years at the global investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, where he’s currently managing director and chief operating officer of its corporate private equity business. He also teaches at NYU’s Stern School of Business, as an adjunct professor of finance.

Grovit first learned about the campaign by working alongside his son on a volunteer project with NBA Cares. Impressed, he reached out to Billy Shore to know more. Hunger, he learned, was about more than a meal. It also impacted a child’s health, social outcomes, and ability to concentrate and learn. Struck by the “magnitude of childhood hunger in America, and No Kid Hungry’s practical approach to alleviating the crisis,” Grovit took on a leadership role.

In 2018, he joined the organization’s Leadership Council. During the course of his involvement, Grovit participated in a number of impact trips that allowed him to “witness firsthand the hunger issues prevalent in the most affected communities in our country,” and the scale of the “the hunger problem facing the youth of our nation.” While the problems he’s seen are staggering, Grovit’s found a degree of hope by witnessing No Kid Hungry’s resolve to “remove any obstacles that get in the way of a child and a healthy meal.”

As the pandemic rages on, Grovit anticipates that “hunger need will increase significantly over the next six months.” Despite vaccines and therapeutics that “offer a light at the end of the tunnel,” he expects the humanitarian crisis to accelerate this winter, making the organization’s work even more urgent, “We have unfortunately gone from one in seven children in America facing food insecurity prior to the pandemic to one in four today.” Unless trends quickly reverse, Grovit thinks their implications will carry on long after the pandemic has subsided.

Grovit was also attracted to No Kid Hungry by the network effect of its funding model: for every dollar raised, up to 10 meals are provided to children. He similarly calls upon his own network to amplify support for the organization. Donors who shoulder leadership positions typically build on their own donations by tapping their networks on the nonprofit’s behalf. While the most recent annual report puts the Grovit family’s support in the $5000-$10,000 range, passionate fundraising can garner many times that—especially this year.

Grovit estimates that the collective contributions from himself and the network of colleagues and individuals he’s encouraged to donate have increased by a whopping 400% over last year.

When it comes to his family’s philanthropy, No Kid Hungry acts as a sort of anchor for their giving. When someone in his network contributes to the group when he asks, they always ask him to reciprocate with gifts to the causes they support. “So in some ways, all of our nonprofit work originates and points back to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.”

A corporate donor steps it up

From the start, corporations and their foundations were a major force in the battle against COVID-19, accounting for more than $9 billion in giving, roughly half of the total $16.7 billion from all sources. They often made food security a centerpiece of their giving strategies, whether or not hunger issues aligned with their business or historical giving.

In the Financial Services sector alone, more than half of the companies reporting grants made food security a priority, including Bank of America, BlackRock, Citi Foundation, Morgan Stanley, HSBC and JPMorgan Chase.

Corporations whose core businesses center on food also came through. Agricultural giant Cargill helped alleviate hunger in the Twin Cities by increasing meals for Minnesotans by 4,000 a day through the MN Central Kitchen. ConAgra Brands, whose product donations to Feeding America last year translated to 16 million meals, boosted donations between March 16 and 19 by 2.1 million. The PepsiCo Foundation made nutrition for U.S. school children who were in line for free or low-cost lunch a centerpiece of its total $15.8 million relief efforts in North America. And the Walmart Foundation committed $10 million to nine organizations that support food banks, senior meal programs and school nutrition.

This year marks a decade of partnership between the Arby’s Foundation and No Kid Hungry. During that time, they’ve contributed more than $27 million to the organization to fund local meals programs in schools, and support its national advocacy and policy work.

The foundation is the independent charitable arm of Arby’s, America’s third-largest fast food company in terms of revenue. Since its inception in 1986, the foundation has invested more than $100 million in causes that help kids “build, expand and pursue their dreams” by investing in childhood hunger, youth leadership and career readiness.

The foundation is a division of the Inspire Brands Foundation, the 501(c)(3) of Arby’s parent company. Other charitable groups under its umbrella include the Wild Wings Foundation, Sonic’s Community Giving Program, and Jimmy John’s community giving. Grantees are nominated by members of the Inspire Brands community, which includes supplier partners like Coke, Ecolab and Sanderson Farms. It does not accept unsolicited funding proposals.

Stuart Brown, executive director of the Arby’s Foundation says that when making social investments, it values “the importance of investing in leadership as much as cause.” Though with No Kid Hungry, he says Arby’s been fortunate to have it both ways.

Despite the dire impact the pandemic’s had on its industry, the Arby’s Foundation not only stayed the course on its commitment to No Kid Hungry, it increased its support by nearly 50% over last year.

While recognizing the disheartening statistics about food insecurity during the pandemic, Arby’s also reports seeing resiliency in its communities, and is hopeful that an increased awareness of the issues of childhood hunger may cause more people to become involved in the future.

Chris Fuller, chief communications officer for Inspire Brands, says they think the grantee is inspiring. “We believe that ending childhood hunger is ground zero for a child’s future success” and that “no one is doing more” to end it “in a sustainable way.”

Increasing needs, increasing funding 

Since March, donors like the Arby’s Foundation, the Leon Lowenstein Foundation and Phil Grovit have allowed No Kid Hungry to rise to an enormous challenge. Fourth quarter individual donor revenue increased by 980%, and 2021 individual donor revenue is up 120% though November, compared to the same period the prior year. NKH expects to grant a total of $60 million by year’s end.

Their concerted efforts are a call to both donors and the government. According to the U.S. census, one in nine Americans were going hungry by mid-summer. Since then, Congress has failed to deliver even the bare minimum of additional support, a modest increase in SNAP benefits.

In the long-term, the United States will never fully recover from the pandemic without food security for all its citizens. In the short-term, expect longer lines and hungry kids in the months to come.