Responding in Timescales: How Philanthropy Can React Now, Soon, Then, and Later

What roles will emerge for philanthropy when the adrenaline subsides?

As COVID-19 grips the entire world in change and incredible disruption, many players in the philanthropic sector are spinning-up immediate response and relief efforts to mitigate the shock that communities and institutions are feeling. From community foundations pivoting quickly to spin up response funds, to private and corporate foundations mobilizing funding for global aid and relief efforts—philanthropy is moving fast to help society absorb the waves of health, economic, and social shocks.

The social sector has learned many lessons in responding to disasters in the past:

  • We learned from the earthquakes in Haiti that government, NGOs, and funders need to work more closely together. 
  • We also learned from Haiti that responding to the immediate effects of the earthquake—surgical equipment, relief food and water—was just the first wave of issues. Dealing with cholera and failing health and economic systems in the months and years after are persistent and long-term issues.
  • We learned from the Japanese Tsunami response that though offering resources (financial and human) immediately is important, systems cannot always easily absorb this aid to use it efficiently and effectively.

What this boils down to is that timing matters.

For philanthropy and grantmaking to respond effectively, we must then quickly consider what is coming next after the initial shock of COVID-19. As a sector, we must implement a system thinking mindset to react, monitor, learn and forecast to the best of our abilities.

At Grantbook, our Managing Director Nikki Barrett, always asks: What does the world need from philanthropy? And what does philanthropy need from Grantbook?

What we’re hearing—and what we’ve learned—is that what the world needs from philanthropy is a plan. And every plan has a timeframe. 

And what we know is that with every disaster there emerges distinct stages: immediate shock, secondary impacts, structural changes, and a new equilibrium. And so, through the new world lens of COVID-19, we’re exploring: What does the world need from philanthropy now? soon? then? later? 

Some emerging questions are:

  • Does your organization have the resources and capacity to respond now? Acting now is important if you can. If you haven’t yet, that’s okay—you may be needed for medium to long-term efforts and solutions.
  • If you act quickly now, will it limit your ability to support soon (in the medium and longer term)?
  • Even if you’re planning to support then or later—start thinking about the data you’ll need to build medium to long-term support strategies now.

What is critical in answering these calls is reflecting deeply and critically on the skills and capacities of your organization, and understanding the emerging needs in your areas of influence—whether it is a local community or global. We suggest reflecting on the following timescale framework in addition to other resources you may have.

Documenting what the world will need from philanthropy now, soon, then, and later.

We also recorded a podcast discussion about the changes that COVID-19 is bringing to our world, how philanthropy typically responds to emergencies, and what we must remember from other disaster relief scenarios. James Law and Aisling Nolan reflect on what the world may look like beyond these next few months, and the role philanthropy may have in helping us transition and stabilize in the new future.

What does the world need from philanthropy now:

The world, our societies, and our communities are trying to absorb massive and immediate shocks to health care system stresses, jobs being lost, and increased exposure to risk for the most vulnerable.

As of 27 March 2020, here is how most of the US COVID-19 funding as been allocated:

A chart that illustrates the distribution of COVID-19 related grants in the US, as of March 27, 2020. Source: Candid's COVID-19 Funding Distribution Data

As anticipated, most of the response is focused on immediate intervention and triage. However, as timelines move onward, different challenges will begin to emerge.

How philanthropy can respond: Fund quickly and reduce chaos

  • Reduce operational and digital friction around giving funds—reduce processes, approvals and forms to collect what is required for compliance—think lean!
  • Stay connected to those on the ground, hold frequent and non-disruptive town halls, calls, or check-ins to see how community needs are changing
  • Unrestrict funding for new and existing grantees—allow current grantees to pivot on their strategies and activities easily
  • Extend current grants by allocating additional funds without asking grantees to reapply
  • Push back requirements, and pro-rate funding to cover extended periods of time if possible

What the world will need from philanthropy soon:

As society slows down and processes are deferred, we may see pent-up needs in many areas as secondary impacts hit our communities. From non-essential medical procedures building-up (and then becoming essential), to growing loneliness/mental health challenges from extended social isolation, to lowered access to goods and services like child care—more systemic issues will start to emerge.

How philanthropy can respond: Build intelligence and invest in new ideas

  • Continue to collect and aggregate lean data from communities and stakeholders to identify emerging needs
  • Spin-up secondary funds and programs and pop-up services in collaboration with partners to address emerging gaps
  • If risk-tolerant, invest in experimental and emerging ideas that are trying new things to address novel challenges in a unique environment

What the world will need now from philanthropy then:

As what is novel becomes habit, economies and societies will start to move into an emerging equilibrium as structural changes emerge. Certain industries may not come back and some inequalities may continue to be exacerbated.

How philanthropy can respond: Practice foresight and scale solutions

  • The sector will need more communal data sharing and reporting of trends in a collective way to see where the new steadier state is heading—not every grantmaker/organization needs to aggregate all data, but some organizations will need to take the lead resourcing a network of knowledge
  • Other grantmakers can play a role in communicating the emerging trends in the knowledge network with their Grantees/partners to help pivot and create programs
  • Scale and invest further in novel ideas that have traction
  • Update emergency plans and conduct lessons learned based on how your organization and philanthropy more extensively reacted to this event 

What the world will need now from philanthropy later:

As a majority of society moves to sink into a new equilibrium, those who have not adapted will continue to be left behind. Furthermore, the new equilibrium will also have inequalities that need to be addressed by philanthropy. As these problems start to take priority, thoughts around emergency response will start to fade. 

How philanthropy can respond: Help stabilize the future and remain agile

  • The sector will need to continue to invest in transition programs that provide psychological safety and support to those left behind
  • Philanthropy will need to counter the inevitably that people will fall through the gaps in governmental and societal support, and consider what positive reinforcement programs it can enact
  • Supplement and collaborate on government programs where gaps emerge

These are some examples of different scenarios that we see potentially emerging from now to later due to the global events around the outbreak of COVID-19. In the next few weeks we will be updating this foresight framework and developing resources and suggestions on how philanthropy can retool their culture, operations and digital infrastructure to support this emerging vision.

We're offering pro bono coaching and advisory calls to support foundations with their tactical and strategic needs—from the urgent needs arising now, through the long term planning. Reach out to book a call with our team of experts.

Grantbook COVID-19 Response Team

Grantbook’s COVID-19 Response Team is a group of Grantbookers who are collecting insights and resources from the whole Grantbook team, the philanthropic sector, and other peers, associations, and collectives within the social sector. We are working to curate and create supportive resources to help grantmakers everywhere respond rapidly to changing needs, and fulfil their missions in these difficult times.