In late January, when Lori Klein began her new position as vice president at the Center for Designed Philanthropy—a division of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles—she had no idea that the whole world was about to change.
Seven weeks later, COVID-19 arrived in the United States and Klein and her team found themselves working from their homes and re-examining their funding priorities. “It’s been a wild ride,” admits Klein. “But in the best sense. It’s been incredibly challenging and fulfilling at the same time.”
Established in 2011, the Center for Designed Philanthropy “helps donors shape meaningful, personalized philanthropic strategies, build consensus among families, and develop creative solutions to magnify the impact of their giving,” according to its website. The center also vets potential grantees and distributes community funds through its institutional grant programs.
Pre-COVID-19, a major focus for the center’s institutional grantmaking was for “cutting edge” or innovative Jewish community programming. But during the pandemic, Klein felt the need to rethink plans to fund new organizations.
Listening and acting
To determine the best course of action, she and her team embarked on “a listening and learning tour. We started by having hundreds of conversations with nonprofit professionals and funders, both in L.A. and in Israel, and we really learned a tremendous amount,” Klein says.
The team discovered that grantees were concerned with both day-to-day operations and long-term sustainability. Their constituents were contending with basic needs such as food, shelter and access to healthcare.
Based on what she learned in discussions with grantees, Klein determined that her team needed to change course dramatically. “We made a significant decision to shift all of our funding for our institutional grants and gave nearly $8.3 million to COVID-19 relief,” says Klein.
The foundation’s COVID-19 Response Grants were allocated in two phases.
The first phase, distributed in July 2020, provided $2.5 million in grants to 23 organizations in the Jewish and secular Los Angeles communities to address immediate needs.
In December 2020, the foundation gave $3 million in sustainability grants to 19 organizations—$1.5 million to 16 organizations in the Jewish community; $1 million to the L.A. Jewish Federation to increase financial aid for Jewish day schools and summer camps—and $500,000 to two Israeli organizations for critical pandemic-related needs.
In Feb. 2021, the foundation approved additional distributions totaling $2.8 million. Fifteen organizations in Israel will receive $1.5 million in sustainability grants; and $1.3 million will go to five organizations in L.A. to cover “unanticipated needs relating to the pandemic in several areas including the elderly, healthcare and financial insecurity,” says Klein.
Changing grantmaking and creating a hub
The center also increased flexibility to grantees by “accelerating grant payments, easing up on reporting, allowing organizations to repurpose funds, extending grants, simplifying the grant application process and providing immediate relief.”
In addition, the foundation created a hub on its website where donors can find resources on how best to provide financial support to those suffering due to the pandemic. “Hundreds of people visited the site and our donors have given millions of dollars in pandemic relief from their charitable funds at the foundation,” says Klein, who has been gratified by the generosity of foundation donors.
“Part of what we do is to help our donors with strategic grantmaking and to help them guide their philanthropy. And we had a lot of requests,” says Klein. “Our donors were saying, ‘how can we support COVID?’ ‘What can we do in response to this?’ So we helped facilitate that, as well.”
Despite the hardships arising from the pandemic, Klein says she’s been inspired by how grantees have pivoted to provide the programs and assistance that community members have needed. “I’m in awe of what these organizations have been able to do. In addition to being responsive to clients, constituents and congregants, they’ve been able to reach new folks who maybe had other barriers [such as transportation] that kept them from accessing services in the past.”
Klein has also been impressed by the collaborations between community organizations during the pandemic. “There’s been a lot of creativity and just a willingness to share and kind of come together. And I think that relationships have been enhanced because it’s been less territorial,” she notes.
While the foundation supports a great many Jewish causes—60 to 70% of its institutional funding goes to Jewish organizations—it also provides grants to secular organizations in the L.A. community. In typical years, there is a general community grant process in which the foundation board chooses one issue of concern to the entire community and provides funding for worthy organizations that provide services in that area. Last summer, as millions of Americans protested police brutality after the May murder of George Floyd, and simultaneously observed the racial disparities that resulted in disproportionate COVID impacts on communities of color, the foundation made the unprecedented decision to use general community grants money to fund nonprofits that support anti-racist policies.
“For the first time, we made grants to seven black-led organizations that were aligned with our values,” says Klein, who expects the foundation will continue to support those organizations in 2021. Likewise, Klein says their efforts to provide COVID-19 relief will continue through this year.
“I think we all thought we’re going to [direct our grant-making to COVID-19] this year and then get to go back to normal in 2021,” says Klein. “Unfortunately, life is not back to normal. It probably will never be normal again. And we’ll have to take the lessons we’ve learned and figure out how to adapt going forward. We recently made the decision to continue to respond to the current climate, both in terms of COVID and in terms of racial inequity.”
While plans for the foundation’s 2021 grantmaking are still in progress, Klein says that instead of funding “cutting edge” Jewish community programs, the foundation will be “supporting cutting-edge programs that address COVID-19. It’s a way to continue to be responsive and also support our mission.”