In the face of these extraordinary times, some of the people I respect most in philanthropic circles are calling vociferously for increased giving. A joint statement from leaders of several philanthropic sector organizations put forth an impassioned and well informed plea for us to give more, and fast. “Unprecedented challenges require unprecedented responses,” the statement reads. “And a casting aside of traditional norms and approaches.” Others believe a spike in charitable giving is already upon us. “Amid the wide-ranging turmoil and devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic and racial and social justice protests, there is a tremendous outpouring of generosity,” Una Osili and Patrick M. Rooney reported in their recent editorial in USA Today.
I agree with my colleagues that we must act, and act promptly. The public health crisis, economic fear, reckoning on racial disparities, erosion of civility, and the apparent abandonment of truth, combine to make ours an era of tremendous uncertainty. If there was ever a time for “voluntary action for the public good,” this seems to be it.
However, as impulses to give rise and calls to give even more amplify, we need to renew our commitment to synthesizing our emotions and intellect.
For those in institutional philanthropy, there is understandable alarm at threats to the nonprofit organizational infrastructure in which we have invested so much. But a sober view forces the conclusion that stepping up to reinforce faltering organizations makes sense in some situations but not in others. For instance, there are times when mediocre past performance renders existing organizations or ecosystems ripe for reconsideration. As we rush to help, we need to remember what it is we are trying to accomplish. We must balance our compassion for nonprofit organizations and their employees with our commitment to those they serve.
I recently attended a conversation among private foundation CEO’s, convened by a well respected association. The topic of the discussion was “how to talk to your board about increasing giving in response to Covid-19.” The presumption that more is better was unchallenged. Fair enough. But I found myself a bit of an outlier by asking that we pair the topic with attention to “how to talk to your board about smarter giving in response to Covid-19.
Some will challenge me, asserting that crisis is no time to hide behind exaggerated claims of strategic philanthropy. This is also a fair challenge. There are definitely times philanthropic professionals and philanthropists delude themselves into thinking they can control outcomes. This can slow down decision making and increase burdens on nonprofit partners without moving the needle on impact.
But we can streamline decision making without abandoning processes and principles that do make a positive difference. We can be promptly responsive and strategically discerning at the same time.
Below, I offer five pillars for crisis philanthropy that we have used in our work at the Mayberg Foundation as we navigate this time. I am neither arrogant enough to declare these universal, nor unrealistic enough to claim consistent application. I share this framework for your consideration as you navigate your own approach to emergency funding. These emerged from early discussions as we contemplated our approach to Covid-19 and its attending social and political unrest:
Stay True to Principles Even as You Reevaluate Them
Even as we reevaluate strategy and priority, we have a duty of loyalty to the aims of our organizations’ founders and funders. Being in the midst of a crisis does not obviate our obligation to deploy the lion’s share of our financial and human resources toward the issues we have been trusted to address. Attending them differently in changing circumstances is just and ethical. Overriding them is not.
Shorten Your Arms a Bit
This is no time for pretensions of arm’s length objectivity. Funders are often positioned to offer practical support and guidance to the organizations they support. The current crisis has thrown grantees into various states of turmoil. There have been unexpected expenses, lost fee-for-service revenues, unsettling programmatic shifts and instability of donative revenue. Technical support and consulting are impact strategies we use regularly at Mayberg Foundation. Since Covid hit, we have increased our focus on this. During crisis, putting your money where your mouth is sometimes necessitates putting your hands and feet where your money is.
Relieve Suffering Locally
Whatever we believe about the primacy of uprooting causes of suffering and injustice, immediate human suffering deserves our attention too. Elevating levels of immediate and proximate economic and material needs obligate us to use our blessings to alleviate them where we can. Strategic philanthropy does not relieve us of our responsibility for one another.
Look for Opportunity
Crisis nearly always brings opportunity. Right from the outset, we have been impressed at how some partners manufactured ways to create possibilities amidst the turmoil. One grantee found a way to accelerate a long-standing plan to build out a critical new service offering. Another saw its core service turn irrelevant overnight, but quickly identified an unanticipated need it was uniquely suited to meet. Opportunities for adaptation and experimentation abound. As funders, we are uniquely placed to provide our partners with carefully targeted funds in service of this kind of thinking. This gives them the chance to step back — even if only slightly — from panic mode, enabling them to imagine and create new possibilities for impact.
Double Down on Learning
To paraphrase an observation made by Aristotle some 2000 years ago, giving away money is easy. Giving it away well is very difficult. Being the guardian of a pot of money does not turn our impulses into wisdom or our opinions into facts. Our sector is one of experimentation, improvisation and — above all — learning and adapting. With so much changing so quickly, this is a great time to recommit to doing better today than we did yesterday.