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#376 Should Funders Change Our Strategy in Response to COVID-19?

May 10th, 2020

Richard Marker

This post is a continuation of a series of responses to COVID-19. It was first written mid-April, but wasn’t published until now. It continues some themes originally discussed in #365, published on 18 March, and #366, published on 22 March. Since I first wrote this, a number of colleagues have begun addressing philanthropy strategy from a variety of perspectives, some echoing what I wrote then and here, others who take quite alternative views. Hopefully, this will add to our field’s very robust discourse.

Before exploring this question further, let me associate myself with the broad range of foundations, philanthropy support organizations, and other funders who have committed ourselves to increasing payouts, smoothing processes, and being agile during this extraordinary time. It is the right thing to do at what is surely an unprecedented time – at least in scope. The pandemic has exposed the not so hidden but easily overlooked fragility of much of the volunteer sector, the deep-seated racial and class divides in American society, the price of government’s years of retreat from a commitment to the welfare and health of most Americans, and, en passant, the all too often inscrutable and byzantine ways in which our funding community works.

It has been right that we as a field have demonstrated an agility rarely seen before and played substantial roles in literally putting our money where our mouths are.

But that is not the same as throwing our strategies out the window. And it is here that I call for caution. A few key points:

1. History has taught us that we, as funders, need to keep some of our powder dry. After disasters, compassion giving is quite widespread. But disaster exhaustion follows close behind. It isn’t clear if COVID-19 will follow the pattern but there is certainly reason to feel it will. After all, people are stretched, foundations are reaching way beyond normal giving patterns, and the government is printing money. After this stage stabilizes, whatever that may mean, will funders feel that it is time to move on or catch up even as the long-term impact is still being felt?

2. Moreover, there is likely to be some sort of recession. Even if employment returns some of the millions to the workplace, most projections assume some permanent losses. And while the markets have shown more resilience than the general economy, a rapid upswing is unlikely and therefore there won’t be replacement funds for the beyond-typical spending of the moment.

3. No one can fully anticipate the full scope of residual or recovery needs. Will there be food shortages as some predict? Will there be a surge in needs for psychological care as some others predict? Will our education system discover that it is in disarray and needs sorely needed funds just to get back to its prior less-than-adequate place? Will the numbers of non-profit closures raise new and severe issues of basic services to the most at-risk communities? Will the forces of xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Sinophobia have become so emboldened that we have overt social disruptions? None of these scenarios is very farfetched, and each would require real attention from funders.

Therefore, it is imperative that funders, especially foundations, resist the urge to spend it all now. Even if this is the proverbial rainy day that we have been saving for, there will be clean up for a long while for which we need to be prepared.

Moreover, if we had done our strategy work well in the past, we should have strategies to guide us through these and any unplanned times. If we always did the same kind of funding to the same institutions, we wouldn’t need to devote too much time or energy or thought power to the “what-ifs” or to competing claims. [It is a legitimate if limiting funding approach.] For most of us, we need strategies because we must make choices among competing legitimate causes. And since one never knows when something unanticipated comes along, we need strategies that can inform our responses at those times as well. Therefore, every organizational strategy needs to leave room for flexibility of implementation. If a strategy doesn’t allow for an implementation that can respond to the unknowable, it is too stringent a strategy.

Now, there is a difference between pure compassion giving, i.e., simply responding to the emotion of the moment, and flexibility in one’s strategy which allows an adaptability consistent with established priorities, values, and an understanding of where one’s resources can be most effectively used. Agility is not the same as anarchy.

Foundations and independent funders have a unique and enviable combination of attributes that should inform an effective and appropriate strategy guiding our decisions: Because foundations and independent funders have no plebiscite, no election to prepare for, no funds to raise, we can exercise both the vantage of thoughtful perspective and the agility to apply them in careful and adaptive ways. No other institution can claim that level of autonomy and that combination.

Thus, I would argue that, even if a foundation chooses to spend more of its endowment, change its allocation process, and revise its own ground rules, or an independent funder chooses to alter our “normal” way of giving, that need not and should not mean that we must cast aside our carefully articulated and crafted strategy. This message has never been more important to underscore than now, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, when pressures are so great on all of us.

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