Photo: Michael Vi/shutterstock
Photo: Michael Vi/shutterstock

With the pandemic still in full swing at the dawn of 2021, foundations all around the country have been making COVID relief a top priority. Grant funds for urgent needs have historically been most prevalent after natural disasters, so it has been interesting to watch how foundations are approaching responsive philanthropy during the current crisis. Many in the sector see the pandemic as an urgent reminder of how crucial unrestricted funding can be for nonprofits facing difficult times.

A good example of a funder with this mindset is the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, a private, place-based philanthropy that serves organizations in Phoenix, Arizona. Its founder and namesake was the wife and widow of Motorola founder Paul Galvin.

Here’s a closer look at how this foundation has been doing things differently as the Southwest copes with the pandemic.

An increase in overall giving

While some funders scale back their giving and even put grant cycles on hold, the Piper Charitable Trust has been ramping things up in the face of COVID-19. According to the foundation’s chief communication officer, Karen Leland, the trust has dipped into its endowment to support local nonprofits, a relatively rare act for foundations designed to last in perpetuity.

“Since January 2020, the Trust has awarded $27.7 million in grants to our nonprofit community with more to come – this is significant as the Trust’s usual annual grantmaking is between $20-$22 million,” Leland said.

A shift to unrestricted funds

Nonprofit organizations have been calling for more general operating support for a while now, but sometimes it takes something drastic—like a pandemic—to shift behavior across the philanthropic field. The Piper Charitable Trust has been going “all in” on unrestricted funding to help nonprofits sustain themselves and serve vulnerable people in a challenging climate.

“We’ve seen incredible innovation by our nonprofits here during this COVID year, and the unrestricted funds have proven to be so beneficial for them,” Leland said.

A balance between basic needs and the arts

During the pandemic era, the Piper Charitable Trust has chosen to split its attention between basic needs grants to human services organizations and investments in local arts and culture organizations. In the trust’s October/November 2020 grantmaking round, it awarded $7.3 million in grants, divided between $3.3 million for arts and culture and $3.9 million for human services.

Support from the trust gave one arts and culture grantee, TheaterWorks, room to breathe and get creative about how it would operate in the face of so many live performance cancellations. Utilizing the funds, the theater group was able to carry on with its mission via a reconfigured performance that included safe social distancing for the audience and actors. The Piper Charitable Trust sees a lot of value in the arts, even when human services needs are so great, as a way of uplifting communities and giving people something joyful to look toward.

A focus on the pandemic’s effect on children

The trust’s current approach also emphasizes work around COVID-19’s effects on children and youth. In its October/November grants, it funded toward the goal of aiding children and families already struggling with socioeconomic challenges, on top of COVID. New children-focused grantees include Prevent Child Abuse Arizona, Phoenix Girls Chorus and Homeless Youth Connection.

Since the beginning of 2020, the Piper Charitable Trust awarded $27,740,432 in total grantmaking. A full $24,373,750 of those funds has gone toward COVID-19 crisis support. This foundation has been awarding grants for two decades and has invested a total of over $493 million in local programs and nonprofits.

You can read more about recent Piper Charitable Trust grantees in this press release.