Responding Well: How Philanthropy is Reacting with Resilience

You can’t seem to say or write anything these days without first situating yourself in these surreal—or “uncertain”, “unprecedented”, “uncharted”—times. It’s difficult to start a conversation without slipping into recently minted cliches (check out this supercut of COVID-19 commercials for a good laugh). 

A couple of colleagues and I have taken to using COVID-19 phrases— like the citizens of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale—as greetings or salutations. Instead of “Under His Eye” or “May the Lord Open”, we quip, “Now more than ever”, “In these unprecedented times”, “Silver linings”, or “New normal.”  We’ve started calling it pandemic bingo, and I find this bit of dark humour—nodding to a dystopian landscape which feels more fact than fiction these days—to be an oddly comforting survival mechanism.

How we—individually and institutionally—respond in a crisis of this magnitude is playing out all around us in real time. We are grieving on a global scale, and there is no universal playbook for processing this kind of trauma. Whether it’s a streak of dark-humour, a renewed commitment to community-building, a laser-focus on the immediate work in front of us, or looking for ways to be resilient in the months and years to come—we are all learning how to respond to a long, drawn out emergency of global proportions. 

Of course, in response to this crisis, there are examples of Philanthropy’s self-cheering and profiteering as a recent Nonprofit Quarterly article framed. But my conversations with foundation leaders over the past two weeks have largely revealed so much of the resilience that we all covet.

When I spoke with Michael Mosby, Director, Business Process Redesign at Tides, his Zoom backdrop was the smoky mountains of Tennessee where he was meant to be on vacation. Instead, he’d spent the last few weeks, like many, spending countless hours and endless energy on crisis response. 

Tides has a robust crisis management plan that they were able to lean on heavily—they spun up their Incident Response Team quickly and moved through the checklists and protocols to ensure their team’s safety and then, in very short order, ensure their grantees were well taken care of. Michael confirmed that, of course, they had to amend the plan. There was no page on global pandemic after all: “There were some things we had to amend but for the most part it’s been a godsend so we weren’t making up a bunch of stuff on the fly.”

Having a base plan to riff off of, and the ability to anticipate their grantee needs, meant that Tides was able to pivot to get grants out in two days, down from a week (an already very rapid granting cycle compared to many foundations). Michael, as a key member on the Incident Response Team also mentioned how critical their digital infrastructure was to their pivots. They had done some critical work in transitioning to a new GMS and, as part of that work, thought through a lot of process redesign. The pandemic kicked that work into action, and they were fast-tracking the process-improvements that were previously in their queue.

Jonathan Goldberg has been at the Surdna Foundation for twenty-three years. He has helped steward his teams through 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis of 2008-09. This deep experience helping an organization through previous crises has helped him see patterns in response and enables him to take the longview despite the understandable desire to act fast and act now.

Like Michael Mosby of Tides, Jonathan was grateful to be able to pivot quickly. In just three or four days, due to a robust digital infrastructure, they were able to make key adjustments to their grants process that streamlined things and reduced friction for their grantees. Jonathan admitted, “Some of these [changes] may live on beyond the crisis. It’s causing us to understand what is necessary, what is not necessary, and how to be more streamlined. We may be a less bureaucratic funder moving forward, with an understanding that we will [still need enough information] to be able to learn.”

Jonathan’s experience helping the foundation through other crises enables him to hold the longview. While Surdna has moved quickly (they signed COF’s pledge and are contributors to vital collaborations like the Families + Workers fund) he is also mindful of the needs that will surface once the quick money ebbs. That’s been Surdna’s sweet spot—the long game.  That can be a hard position to hold in a crisis where timelines are so unpredictable, and there is so much urgent need.

Leon Wilson of the Cleveland Foundation, a former military officer, is no stranger to living on adrenalin in moments of acute challenge. He thrives in “go mode.” He saw his tech team turn a 106-yr-old foundation—that has much of its identity and process deeply connected to their physical space—make three major changes in the span of just a few days. He set up 85 staff in home offices, coached and trained those team members into some degree of comfort with working from home, and launched the Cleveland Foundation’s rapid response granting in four key areas: food, shelter, PPE, and access to information.

Leon shared that yes, the Cleveland Foundation does have a Business Continuity Plan and a Crisis Plan, but, pressure tested in the crucible of global pandemic, there may be a few things that will need to be revised in their after-action review.

As Chief of Digital Innovation & Chief Information Officer at Cleveland Foundation, Leon was able to steward the foundation through these key pivots partially due to the exceptional culture and values-building work he’d done prior: “When I came on board I instilled certain values in my department: about acting now, going beyond what’s asked, reaching out to others, and not just being your traditional IT department. It really clicked in when it was needed.”

One cross-cutting theme, evident in Tides, Surdna, and the Cleveland Foundation’s response was that having the cloud-based technology, coupled with the right people and processes, made the enormous shifts of the past few weeks so much more possible and effective. 

Michael Mosby offered that had his team NOT done the process work they’d done last year, it would have been very challenging to mobilize as quickly. Jonathan Goldberg shared that the infrastructure in the technology itself, plus the team of experts he had around him, enabled them to respond to the acute grantee needs in record time. Even for Cleveland Foundation, an organization that culturally had more to learn in order to pivot to work from home, was more than able to join the band of exceptional community foundations responding to the enormous need in the face of the havoc COVID-19 is wreaking across multiple fronts.

Factors Fuelling a Great Response
  • Having rehearsed helps: having a plan you can iterate on saves time.
  • Experience with similar crises—even if you deem COVID-19 unparalleled or unprecedented—is still enormously helpful.
  • Having an exceptional team that is steeped in values and will rise to the occasion.
  • Clear, durable strategy and vision that can serve as a compass.
  • Being clear about what rules you have the power to change—and eliminating or streamlining things that don’t serve you in this moment.
  • Infrastructure (the people, processes and tools) that allow you to be agile.

In Brene Brown’s first episode of her podcast Unlocking Us, released right in the early days of the pandemic in America, she hosts grief expert David Kessler. At one point Kessler talks about why some couples survive the extreme grief of losing a child and some don’t. He points out that it is not the grief itself that breaks couples apart, but rather each person’s judgement of how the other is grieving. 

I repeat this wisdom: it’s not grief that breaks us apart, but the judgement of how the other is grieving.

Philanthropy’s way to grieve in a crisis is often to act—perhaps not as fast or in big enough ways as some would like. There is a lot of clamour now, especially in philanthropy, about who is responding well, what is the right way to respond, the better way, the best way.   

While I am not naive enough to think all responses are equal and that some players won’t retrench, I will say that in my circles—whether it’s the exceptional team at Grantbook, or the exceptional foundations we have the privilege to work alongside—most individuals and organizations are coming together in the spirit of “What can we do now to make this better?” Many are dropping the egos and the logos (thanks to Bruce Macdonald of Imagine Canada for that phrase) and are not judging the other’s way of responding. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll learn, we may even use this crisis to bust us out of the flimsy rules or excuses we clung to before...we’ll see. It’s early days. Until then...

Now more than ever. In these unprecedented times. Silver linings. Stay safe in this new normal.


Nikki Barrett's headshot

Nikki Barrett

Managing Director

Strategy & Partnerships

Nikki comes to GrantBook after a decade of bringing game-changing ideas to audiences across North America, first in the world of publishing and then as Vice President of the LAVIN agency, a global speakers bureau. She has worked with thought leaders such as Naomi Klein, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, and Jessica Jackley (Co-Founder of Kiva.org). 

Nikki is inspired by social innovators harnessing technology to do more good. As Managing Director, Nikki sets the vision and strategy for Grantbook, always asking, what does the world need from philanthropy and what does philanthropy need from Grantbook?