VK Studio/shutterstock
VK Studio/shutterstock

To say that we live in unprecedented times seems at once like a dramatic exaggeration and a gross understatement. Developments are moving at lightning speed, yet time seems to be standing still. And thus we find ourselves at the intersection of many contradictions and realities. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our faith in public institutions and services, our sense of personal and financial security, and resilience of many communities. While the crisis continues to lay bare problematic systems and layers of social injustice, it also shines a spotlight on the value and courage of philanthropy.

This contrasts with the critique of private philanthropy that has gained momentum in recent years. As anti-elitist sentiments and backlash against the inequalities of the capitalist system have escalated and faith in mainstream institutions has declined, critics have questioned philanthropy’s power, and paint it as a contributor to the problem rather than a source of solutions. Philanthropy is criticized for being the preserve of the ultra-wealthy and for giving private individuals or organizations an outsized influence in defining what constitutes a public good and the best ways to deliver it. These arguments question philanthropy’s social compact, which is an explicit or implicit agreement with key stakeholders about the value it creates in society. Social compact also encompasses the concepts of public trust and legitimacy, as well as how philanthropy approaches the transparency and accountability that underpin its legitimacy.

While this criticism persists, today’s crisis shows evidence to the contrary. Philanthropy is stepping up and stepping forward to fulfill its social compact by driving a thoughtful and effective response to the pandemic and its societal fallout. Philanthropy is mobilizing and stepping up to answer global distress signals and the urgent call to action. Philanthropy is also stepping forward to drive immediate and compassionate interventions, and fast-track scientific solutions. At the onset of this crisis, philanthropy as a sector reacted decisively and swiftly, and has proven itself to be responsible, flexible, agile and adaptive in a number of ways.

Modeling Responsible Public Health Citizenship and Compassion

As COVID-19 began to sweep across the United States and Europe, philanthropic institutions quickly focused on safeguarding the health and safety of their employees, partners and constituents. Organizations such as the Skoll Foundation, European Foundation Center, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and countless nonprofits that rely on events for their fundraising canceled these lifeline gatherings as a civic responsibility in order to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus. Regardless of the levels of preparedness and resilience, philanthropies were among the first to close buildings and offices, and switch entire staffs to telecommuting in order to serve our collective public health interests and play their role in containing the virus. Despite this chaos, many philanthropic leaders were also among the first to deliver compassionate messages and words of comfort to their staffs and communities.

Advancing Scientific Research and Fast-Tracking Therapeutic Solutions

A number of philanthropies have directed significant funding to advancing scientific research related to COVID-19, including testing, developing therapeutic solutions and supporting scientists and medical staff. On March 10, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the London-based Wellcome Trust and the Mastercard Impact Fund, committed $125 million to the launch of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator in order to “speed up the response to COVID-19 by identifying, assessing, developing and scaling up treatments.” Meanwhile, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is working to expand the testing capacity for COVID-19 in the Bay Area to 1,000 tests per day. Private donors also contributed more than $12 million to support the pandemic response efforts of doctors and scientists of the University of California San Francisco.

In Italy, where COVID-19 continues to take a grim toll, Acri, an association of foundations of banking origin, allocated more than €35 million to be immediately available for hospitals and healthcare companies to acquire intensive care unit and monitoring systems, resuscitation beds and other medical necessities.

Enabling and Driving Forward the Sector

As the global pandemic’s catastrophic impact on the nonprofit community has become apparent, philanthropic institutions committed to support and build the resilience of those carrying out crucial work on the frontlines. In early March, London Funders, the membership network for funders of London’s civil society, circulated for signature a statement pledging open communication and significant flexibility in allowing grantees to shift activities and outputs, alter reporting deadlines and reallocate earmarked funds. To date, more than 200 funders operating in the United Kingdom have signed this statement.

Across the Atlantic, prompted by conversations around trust-based philanthropy, dozens of U.S.-based foundations signed a pledge to provide much greater flexibility to their grantees in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes loosening or eliminating the restrictions on current grants, making new unrestricted grants, supporting community-based emergency efforts and policy advocacy, and communicating proactively. As of mid-March, the signatory list stands at almost 150 organizations and growing. Meanwhile, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation already stepped up to provide an additional year of funding to its grantees to reduce funding pressures, the Lumina Foundation decided to accelerate payments for already-approved grants, and the Eisner Foundation offered to convert project funding to general operating support.

In New York, more than a dozen foundations—including Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund—launched the $75 million NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund. The fund will support New York city-based nonprofit organizations providing social services, as well as arts and cultural organizations affected by the pandemic.

In Italy, the Executive Committee of Acri launched a €5 million fund to support third-sector organizations suffering from the adverse financial consequences of the pandemic. To further assist nonprofits in obtaining funding and facilitate potential collaboration, ASSIFERO, the national membership association of Italian grantmaking foundations and private institutional philanthropy, launched a portal that will gather and make public information on philanthropic initiatives and funding directed toward the COVID-19 response, as well as map third-sector needs.

Protecting Our Most Vulnerable

While no one will be spared from the negative impact of the global pandemic, already vulnerable communities will be affected more acutely and severely. In response, philanthropies stepped up their support for organizations serving the most marginalized and vulnerable populations. Nellie Mae Education Foundation launched a Racism is a Virus Too rapid response fund to address the hate crimes and bias against Asian American communities in connection with COVID-19. The fund will support community-based organizations that serve Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities. As part of its early response, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has allocated $250,000 to Brilliant Corners, which is collaborating with the Los Angeles Department of Health to provide support for the county’s COVID-19 prevention efforts among unhoused populations. The Hilton Foundation has also allocated $100,000 to the International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees and displaced people in more than 40 countries, to support continuity of services and increase capacity to respond to COVID-19 globally.

Edgar Villanueva, vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education and author of “Decolonizing Wealth,” has launched the Native American Community Response Fund (COVID-19) to fund Native American nonprofits that serve the vulnerable in their communities, including low-income elderly and those facing food and housing insecurity. Similarly, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) launched the CDP COVID-19 Response Fund to support nonprofit organizations serving the most vulnerable populations, including gig economy and hourly wage workers, people with disabilities, immigrants, older adults, and other communities that will experience disproportionate negative effects of the pandemic. Similarly, the Rockefeller Foundation committed $20 million to support the needs of U.S. workers, families and communities facing loss of wages, as well as increased food and housing insecurity. The fund will also support the creation of a better tracking and management system for COVID-19. Private foundations in Germany similarly created a fund for cultural organizations, artists and freelancers to mitigate their loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are but a few illustrations of philanthropy’s response to a devastating global pandemic. Would it be better if the governments around the globe had the resources to effectively tackle this crisis? Would it be better if fair and robust policies eliminated the longstanding injustices and dire social conditions facing vulnerable communities? Undoubtedly. But crises do not wait for optimal conditions, and neither does philanthropy.

We should question how philanthropy benefits society and should challenge philanthropy to do better. We must also acknowledge that if philanthropy doesn’t change certain practices, such as payout limits, rigid requirements and limited transparency, it will provide fertile ground for new criticisms and attacks. However, it is circumstances such as these that test and prove philanthropy’s mettle and its societal value. As the actions noted above show, so far, philanthropy has proven itself to be responsive, human-centered and essential in this crisis. Even as the volatile markets negatively impact foundation endowments, philanthropy’s commitment, responsiveness and care for humanity doesn’t wane.

Without a crystal ball, it is impossible to predict the long-term individual, community and societal consequences of a crisis that has not yet peaked. It is a scary time, but hopeful, because philanthropy has proven itself a sturdy thread when the fabric of society is stretched thin. The urgency is now, and the beauty and value of philanthropy is how quickly it can respond and serve the public interest. In doing so, it is not only fulfilling its own social compact, but also compensating for the gaps in the state’s ability to fulfill its social compact with society. In the words of the currently trending Twitter hashtag that perfectly captures the dedication and commitment of philanthropy to our increasingly interdependent global community, #PhilanthropyDoesNotStop.

Olga Tarasov is a Director at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

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