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#365 We’ve Been Here Before – Lessons from Past Challenges to the Philanthropy Field in the Time of COVID-19

March 18th, 2020

Richard Marker

“Everything that can be said has been said, but not everyone has said it.” This expression has been variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Abba Eban, and who knows who else.

As I have written and re-written this post over the last week, I have tried hard to avoid saying what so many of my colleagues in the philanthropy space have been saying. I do want to humbly express my admiration to our field for stepping up so quickly, thoughtfully, and, yes, even eloquently. The assertive actions and ambitious outreach I have observed demonstrates that our field is acting in assertive and proactive ways rarely seen in past crises.

Therefore, rather than reiterating those recommendations, these few comments are intended to underscore or articulate a few thoughts that seem understated by many. They are informed by what we have seen and learned from past crises – some caused by human behaviors and misbehavior, and some caused by acts of nature.

Among those lessons:

1. Our field has both short term and long-term capabilities.

a. If there has been one consistent message from this field, it is this: In the short term, our grantees face short falls, diminished contributions, and, depending on the grantee, increased demands for services. Since the US government and even many States have shown themselves to be pokey payers, many direct service agencies face the dilemma of long time wait for reimbursements. Contributions will be diminished and delayed. This is not the time for our grantmaking to be clever; it is the time for us to be flexible. To reiterate, I want to applaud our sector in affirming this point in so many ways.

b. Less stated but very important: We have also learned that we need to keep at least some of our powder dry. There are unanticipated demands, organizational re-alignments, and systemic dislocations that deserve attention – long after the crisis, whatever crisis, has passed from the headlines.

2. Our field needs to underscore our flexibility and agility in our spending policies.

We have just emerged from 11 years of a bull market. Any foundation or private funder would have had to be remarkably counter-trend to have earned only 5% each year over these years. In past economic downturns, some foundations adjusted their “base” corpus to a prior date or number so that there would greater ability to respond to genuine challenges faced by their grantees. This may be one of those time. For US based foundations, the recent change in the excise tax calculation makes this kind of spending adjustment much easier.

3. Our field needs to use all the arrows in our quiver.

a. If organizations are struggling with cash flow for reasons beyond their control, a revolving loan fund may prove useful. For US foundations, this would qualify as a PRI and can be a very effective support vehicle.

b. If the fields we are funding are suffering because of short-sighted public policy, advocacy can/must be a powerful tool to get the attention of policy makers. We know that the entire philanthropy capacity can never solve major systemic challenges alone, especially of the sort we are now facing, we can only accomplish what we are committed to with a concerted affirmation of the need for responsive and responsible public policy.

c. Our field has made great strides over the last few years in learning how to collaborate with each other, and with those who are directly responsible for implementation – sometimes called grantees or partners. The current reality – with both extreme economic dislocation and profound human vulnerability – calls for us to continue to model this welcome change in our behavior.

d. All of this is happening at a time when civil society has been at risk in the USA and elsewhere in the world. [The subject of a longer and more in-depth conversation, to be sure.] We must accept a mandate to become a stabilizing force at a very fragile moment in history.

This list is not intended to be complete nor to replace the extraordinary advice offered by so many, especially about how we work with grantees. It is simply an attempt to emphasize a very few of those recommendations that may not have been as widely articulated as some others.

The current challenges are not short term. Recessions, even those that are short lived, have always had severe implications for the most vulnerable. Add to that the recognition of how universal our human vulnerability is. Our work is only just beginning, and we will be called upon to rely on our depths of empathy and test the range of our sector’s capacity to continue to provide a source of support. We must.

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