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Advice to Funders in the Covid-19 Era

March 18, 2020

For people born after November 23, 1963, 9/11 was an emotional and psychological shock unlike any we had experienced. The financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed were a shock of a different kind: slower, murkier, more abstract — until, that is, people we knew and loved started to lose their jobs. In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote a number of posts for PhilanTopic (here, here, and here) aimed at helping my social sector colleagues navigate the difficult funding environment in which we suddenly found ourselves.

The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis of a different sort — both a biological threat as well as a threat to our economic security, stunning in its scope and the rapidity with which it has unfolded. In other words, existential.

Given the seriousness of the threat and the urgent need for a rapid, coordinated response, I offer these suggestions, with humility and deep respect, to my colleagues in the funder community. 

  1. Be flexible with your grant support.
  2. Endeavor to fast track your grants.
  3. Use community-based vendors whenever possible.
  4. Facilitate online meetups for grantees where they can air their concerns and share best practices and resources.
  5. Do not assume that your current grants are sufficient to cover the extraordinary demand, costs, and burdens that many nonprofits will be faced with over the coming months.
  6. Allow grantees to alter the budget terms of grants they have already received so as to maximize their flexibility.
  7. Be prepared to make long-term commitments and be in it for the long haul.
  8. Understand that while the virus is first and foremost a public health emergency, its impact will extend to a host of other  areas.
  9. Do your utmost to support local, culturally competent organizations, which are often the first point of access for at-risk individuals and groups.
  10. Remember the bigger picture and be generous with grantees with respect to your reporting requirements.

Michael Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York, board  chair of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa-USAand a long-time contributor to PhilanTopic. To read more from Michael, click here.

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A cogent and important message to the sector. This is a moment of urgent action and critical learning. Focusing both on immediate shifts in grantmaking processes and building the infrastructure to sustain commitment to the longevity of the work... These dimensions reflect the shape of grantmaker/grantee partnerships needed for today and the future.

Michael's suggestions lay out everything necessary for an effective philanthropic sector during the coronavirus crisis. He's speaking not only as an informed citizen and senior professional in the field, but as one of the leaders in philanthropy during the AIDS crisis. The message of flexibile, long-term, broad-based support, and especially a posture of responsive grantmaking, will best serve the entire community now, as it did at the height of that terrible epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. As then, grants for community initiatives and invaluable meet-ups (however they take place) for activists and caregivers to share ideas, are among Michael's priorities: they should be underlined.

Michael's suggestions reminded me of a conversation I once had with a grantee whose leadership I have come to admire and respect over the years. She worked daily in life threatening situations with immigrants whose lives were further complicated because of their sexual identities, economic status, and several other factors that are at the root of how we define who has voice, agency, and visibility and who does not. She reminded me ever so gently one day that donors and grantees live on two planets that travel in different orbits.

Sometimes it takes a crisis of this proportion for donors to recognize their brief moment to be extraordinary by taking to heed some of the "little" things that Michael has mentioned above. When I added up all of what Michael has offered, the word humility came to mind. Thank you....

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