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Funders Respond to Coronavirus (COVID-19)

March 06, 2020

On the last day of 2019, China advised the World Health Organization that some people in the city of Wuhan (Hubei province) were infected with an unknown strain of viral pneumonia.  Those infected were traced back to the city's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. On January 7, Chinese officials announced that they had identified a new virus belonging to the coronavirus family, which was dubbed novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Since then, the renamed coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has killed more than 3,000 people, infected over 100,000 in at least 60 countries, and is present on every continent except Antarctica.

Candid has been closely tracking the global private philanthropic response to COVID-19 through news stories and other publicly available resources. Although the response to the virus has followed a familiar pattern, both in terms of funders and recipients, its scope has dwarfed funding for recent natural disasters in the United States and elsewhere. Since September 2017, Candid has identified pledges and donations for eight major hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires totaling more than $898 million; philanthropic funding announced in the last five weeks for COVID-19 alone has reached $980 million. [Ed. note: as of March 4, the figure had exceeded $1 billion.]

Fig.1.1 funding-for-recent-disasters

Obviously, epidemics and pandemics are not natural disasters, so if we want to compare funding for the COVID-19 response to a similar event, we have to go back to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In that situation, Candid identified pledges and donations totaling more than $363 million over a period of six months, which is only a third of the COVID-19 response to date.

Although COVID-19 is a transnational epidemic on its way to becoming a global pandemic, almost all private funding we've been able to identify from publicly available sources — 76 percent of the pledges and 93 percent of the dollar value — has come from China and the United States. If you count Hong Kong and Macao, both "special administrative regions (SAR)" of China, the two countries account for 84 percent of the pledges and 97 percent of the dollar value.


In the United States, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation early on announced a commitment of up to $100 million to "strengthen detection, isolation and treatment efforts; protect at-risk populations; and develop vaccines, treatments and diagnostics." The foundation's commitment accounts for 55 percent of all contributions to date from private philanthropic sources in the U.S. and is consistent with U.S. private funding in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, when contributions from Gates and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation accounted for more than 57 percent of the contributions from private philanthropy in the U.S. The only other U.S. funder in the top 20 is Chicago-based Citadel LLC, one of the world's largest hedge funds. The single most generous donor so far has been Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings, which has pledged $216.3 million, both directly and through its foundation, totaling 22 percent of private contributions globally. (Although the company's name might strike some English speakers as ironic, given the size of its contribution, it actually means "galloping fast information" in Chinese.)


As is usually true of the response to natural disasters, companies have responded first and disproportionately, accounting for 86 percent of all COVID-19 pledges and 81 percent of the total dollar value of the private response. When grants from both companies and their foundations are counted, those figures increase to 95 percent of the pledges and 86 percent of the dollar value.

Fig.1.4 funders-by-type

Other observations:

  • Most COVID-19 pledges and donations were announced over a period of two weeks. Between January 23, when the first pledge was announced, and February 5, funders committed 74 grants totaling $638 million, accounting for 42 percent of pledges and 65 percent of the total dollar amount.
  • Unspecified recipients in impacted areas of China received 57 percent of pledges accounting 75 percent of the total dollar value of all contributions; multiple named recipients received 8 percent of pledges and 13 percent of the dollar value; and among single-named recipients the Red Cross accounted for 15 percent of pledges and 6 percent of the dollar value.
  • A number of Chinese technology companies are offering to build "hot diagnosis maps," "pneumonia prevention channels," and infrastructure for video meetings and online education courses. One of the largest such commitments came from Squirrel AI Learning, an adaptive learning education company specializing in K-12 afterschool tutoring, which announced that it would provide $72.1 million worth of online K-12 education courses across China free of charge.

Will private philanthropy continue to fund the front-line response to COVID-19, or will it largely step aside, as it did during the 2014 Ebola crisis, in favor of mega-funding from a few well-endowed family foundations and large-scale actions taken by nation-states and transnational organizations? It's hard to say. A lot depends on how well governments and multilateral institutions perform. You can be sure of one thing, however: Candid will be watching.

Headshot_Andrew_GraboisIn the meantime, we're in the process of adding COVID-19 pledges on our free, publicly accessible Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy funding map, which was created in partnership with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

Andrew Grabois is corporate philanthropy manager at Candid. This post originally appeared on the Candid blog.

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